Vibrant nationalism fights shy unionism in Scotland

The Scots have faced dismal economic times, and it is much easier to champion a brave new future

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They are hiding. It is a strange political campaign when one side is obliged to admit that many of its supporters are too shy to admit their allegiance. That seems to be what is happening in Scotland before this week’s momentous vote on independence.

If the visibility of the two sides were a guide to the outcome, Alex Salmond’s Scottish National party would be heading for a landslide victory. The separatists, festooned with the Saltire, brimming with energy and enthusiasm, are everywhere. Strolling around Edinburgh at the weekend I met more American tourists than I did proud campaigners for the 307-year-old union with England.

One explanation comes in the question on the ballot paper. Framed as it was by Mr Salmond, it asks simply: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”. It invites a yes. The years since the financial crash have been as dismal for Scotland as they have been for most of the rest of Britain. How much easier it is to champion a brave new future than to argue that Scotland should be happy with its present lot.

In truth, the nationalist side is running two campaigns. The one most evident to the casual observer is the positive one: young people gathered around campaign stalls imagining a different future, disillusioned left-of-centre voters seeing in independence a route to a social democratic society, and Scots who view the referendum as their first chance to have a say. This is what Mr Salmond calls “civic nationalism”.

Alongside it sits the darker politics of grievance and identity, pitched, as by populists everywhere, at the disaffected and disempowered. It asserts that all of Scotland’s ills can be blamed on Westminster. This is the nationalism that promises, in the words of veteran SNP figure Jim Sillars, a “day of reckoning” for those who dare speak out against independence.

In this narrative, things will get better only when “Scotland is run by Scots”. As for the profound challenges and risks, it is all “scaremongering”, a conspiracy of English Tories, unionist lackeys and the British Broadcasting Corporation to do down a proud nation. The organising principle here is that if you say anything often enough and with sufficient confidence then, self-evidently, it must be true.

Mr Salmond marries these two strands of nationalism in a personality that can be at once charming and menacing. Of late we have seen a lot more of the intimidating than the solicitous.

The pro-unionist Better Together has not helped itself. Labour, at the head of the No campaign, has for too long taken its Scottish fiefdom for granted. Why was it left to the SNP to launch a hugely successful voter-registration campaign among the country’s urban poor?

There has been nothing wrong in pointing up the downside of separation, the more so when the nationalist side paints a picture of an independent Scotland of milk and honey, free not just of English oppression but of the basic rules of economics. What has been missing has been a backdrop of optimism: any explanation as to how the partnership with its island neighbours offers Scots a voice beyond narrow geographical boundaries.

Hence the silent Nos. At the time of writing, the unionist side says their numbers are sufficient to counter the excitement and enthusiasm of the Yes side. The opinion polls, close as they are, seem to point in the same direction. But no one really knows. And they won’t until the polling booths close on Thursday evening.

There is, of course, one shy unionist who does not have a vote, in spite of owning a rather grand residence in Scotland. When Queen Elizabeth this weekend urged Scots to “think carefully” about where to put their cross, she was staying, just, within the bounds of constitutional propriety. No one imagined, though, that she was urging a Yes vote.

philip.stephens@ft.com

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