The Rhetoric of Scottish Independence

fullsizeoutput_b24As the ill wind of Brexit swirls all around, we find ourselves skirmishing again over the issue of Scottish independence. The Unionist ultras, at least, seem to be in a state of high anxiety, while those who were still holding out for the messianic advent of British federalism are looking more forlorn and friendless than ever. Back at HQ, Nicola Sturgeon surveys the terrain with what I can’t help but imagine is a coolly calculating eye. The way ahead, though, is anything but clear.

Surrounding her is a cacophony of voices offering advice, most of it unsolicited. There are probably as many different views on how a second campaign for Scottish independence should be run as there are surviving partisans of the last one. Everyone has learned the lessons of 2014 – the only problem is that there’s no general agreement on what those lessons should be.

Until Brexit, it perhaps seemed obvious. We lost IndyRef 1 because we were insufficiently convincing or persuasive on a number of specific issues about the shape and structure of an independent Scotland. In particular, we were hammered on the currency question, as the excruciating first debate between Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond showed, and tormented throughout on the issue of EU membership. These stark failings fed into a general picture of unreliability which had the 670 pages of the Scottish Government’s White Paper somehow dismissed as an egregiously shoogly prospectus.

So, the thought goes, we must not make the same mistake again. Our efforts should be concentrated on the development of watertight solutions to the problems and uncertainties which undermined us last time. Brexit may have transformed the EU issue, but the questions of currency, borders, trade, pensions, debt and so on remain to be solved. Get them sorted and perhaps Yes 2 will be invincible.

£350 million worth of bollocks

But Brexit also showed that this diagnosis and approach might not be the right one. The Leave campaign didn’t have any kind of prospectus, or even a basic plan; its claims were contradictory, or just £350 million worth of bollocks, and frequently exposed as such. And yet it won. Imagine a Yes campaign conducted in a similarly slippery fashion – it would have been crushed, wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t it?

Of course, there are plenty of unignorable differences. Leavers had the advantage of facing a hobbled opponent in an anaemic Remain campaign headed by a dough-faced chump showing all the familiar signs of the Dunning-Kruger effect. It also helped that the bully pulpiteers of the right wing press were disinclined to probe the case for Leave – well, at all. That the Europhobes were able to float their boat on a high tide of British stranger-dread was undoubtedly also a bit of a boon.

But are there still lessons there for Yes 2? Some think so: Iain Macwhirter has recently suggested that another 670 pages of detailed proposals would be otiose – best to go with something simple. Let’s just boil it down to the fundamental question of democratic accountability: the best and right people to make key decisions on how Scotland should be governed are those who live here. That’s it, and it’s enough.


It is a key argument, of course. But it rests on a premise which limits its persuasiveness. Those inclined to think of Scotland as a demos distinctive enough to merit a state of its own will no doubt find it compelling. But most of those people are surely already inclined to vote yes, and probably did so in 2014. Those who don’t think that Scotland’s distinctiveness needs to find political expression as sovereignty – who are not necessarily unhappy, in other words, with the fact that Scotland is at a key level only a small part of a larger polity – are simply not that fussed on this score. The sovereignty argument, in the abstract, is not going to persuade enough people to shift any kind of balance.

Diligent research and careful thinktankery

So it does, and will, come down to what difference a new Scottish sovereignty would make. As – I would say – it should. But then things become differently tricky. Here, undoubtedly, reports and plans and proposals for Scottish society post-independence, and roadmaps on how to get there, are going to be key elements in the case to be made. But let’s be clear. No amount of diligent research and careful thinktankery is going to be enough to resist the tide of warnings, admonitions and ominous predictions from a renewed Project Fear. So there’s very little point in trying to stake the credibility of Yes 2 chiefly on a manifesto of chosen proposals – a White Paper – for which some poor sod of a researcher has been forlornly urged to anticipate every possible objection. More wonkery alone will not win it.

And that’s because the contest we’ll be engaging in is a rhetorical one. ‘Rhetoric’ has had a bad rap in contemporary society – it’s associated with deceit and dissembling, counterposed to ‘fact’, and generally thought of as windy or empty. But all politics is rhetorical – it is, specifically and classically, ‘deliberative’ rhetoric, concerned with the making of decisions about our shared lives in the polis we inhabit.

And the rhetorical nature of politics isn’t only visible in the importance we continue to accord the formal utterances of prominent politicians. It’s there in the general shaping and framing of the debate, in the buzzwords (e.g. ‘UK Single Market’), social media exchanges and Facebook memes, and above all in the fact that the rationality of argument is always inextricably entangled with the force of our emotions. We are moved by causes as much as we are convinced by them. In fact, the mobilisation of facts, statistics and quantitative predictions in the course of political argument is itself a rhetorical gambit. To say that you have the facts on your side, or that your political judgements are based on nothing but clear-eyed calculations, is a rhetorical attempt to checkmate your opponent and close down the argument. We all do it, of course. But we are all acting in bad faith – or deluding ourselves – when we do so. What’s more, on its own it never works.

So there is no chance that Yes 2 will be able to shore up its facts and plans sufficiently to gain and hold a winning position. The opposition will always have its alternative facts and predictions to hand, with the imprimatur of some impressive-sounding thinktank or Whitehall department, and turned up to eleven by the usual media voices. What we need, then, is a set of stories about the directions in which we would seek to travel as an independent state that are both  practically and emotionally plausible. The practical plausibility will reassure those of us already persuaded and perhaps persuade a hinterland of waverers. But the emotional plausibility will not only reinforce and insulate the credibility of any particular predictions or proposals, it will also work in its own way on those unconvinced by any appeal to sovereignty per se and prone to place their trust in the predictions for the future that seem least alarming.

This time, it might just work

Despite all the infectious and unpredictable energy of the grassroots independence movement we weren’t necessarily all that good at this last time. Our emotional stories didn’t quite have the broad purchase we needed them to have. Still, there is plenty for us to draw on, and plenty of material for lessons we might learn. And this time, we have greater reason to think that it might just work.


Why? Because the opposition have been forced off some of their strongest rhetorical – that is, emotionally persuasive – terrain. In 2014, all the uncertainty was on our side. We were all hope, eyes yearning towards some as yet nebulous future, and they were all calculated fear. Which meant that for much of the time the emotionally off-putting language of risks and gambles clung only to us, highlighting all those apparent vulnerabilities in the White Paper. Post-Brexit, though, if we manage this right, we can ensure that the shoe is on the other foot. There are risks and dangers galore ahead for the UK, and we mustn’t let our Brexit-compliant opponents get away with portraying the union as the safe option.

What’s more, an emotional story over-reliant on hope isn’t all that plausible – especially with those who aren’t already inclined to think there is something seriously amiss with the status quo. These people constitute some, at least, of the No / Remain voters we need to win. You need some push to complement the pull. Scottish Labour’s role as the face of the No campaign made it much easier to tell stories of a politically multivalent Britain which was only taking a temporary break from its progressive journey. But a Britain about to be smashed up and reconfigured as a fundamentally Tory Brexitania is a very different proposition, and one against which it could be easier to get some broadly resonant emotional definition. Not least because the Tories, in their madness, have chosen to deprive the very people who put their trust in the union in 2014 of the security of a status quo. It is no longer the effervescence of radical hope versus the reassuring solidity of what there is. The terrain has changed, and the rhetorical battle is there to be won.

Published by James Loxley

Researcher, teacher and writer based in Edinburgh.

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