Alastair Stewart: Scottish independence demands a villain as politics turns into militant smearing

Nothing is so challenging as to “see oursels as ithers see us! It wad frae mony a blunder free us, An' foolish notion”.
Nationalism, or patriotism, has as many heads as the mythical Hydra, seen being slain by Heracles in this picture from circa 1750 (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)Nationalism, or patriotism, has as many heads as the mythical Hydra, seen being slain by Heracles in this picture from circa 1750 (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Nationalism, or patriotism, has as many heads as the mythical Hydra, seen being slain by Heracles in this picture from circa 1750 (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Between 2014 and 2019 I lived in the south of Spain. If I had those years again, I'd pick experiencing the Scottish independence and Brexit votes away from home every time.

Nothing quite brings out Scottishness than listening to drunk Englishmen proclaim our “wee country” is “having ideas beyond its station”. Even the most devout of unionists choke on their café con leche with their back up at the mention of “sweaty Jocks”.

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Paradoxically, nothing quite brings out a unifying assemblage of Britishness than Spaniards decrying Brexit as folly from a country with, ahem, “ideas above its station”. It brings out the inner Flashman: “By Gad, damn their impudence and have another one for Lizzy. Chin chin.”

Nationalism, patriotism, chauvinism – it has more heads than the Hydra and is twice as hard to kill – thrives with an opposition. It seldom ever prospers without a bad guy, a foil or an oppressive force (real or imagined). Human history is replete with adversaries that bring together implacable foes in a common cause. Winston Churchill needed a Hitler to unite Britain, the United States and the former USSR.

We see it every day at home; we just don't clock it as much. From our sports to our politics – it all works on the same principle of negativity. Seldom do like-minded people congeal to achieve a common cause without having something to go against. It is the oldest political trick in the book, and it's astonishing that so few call it out for what it is.

Or, more accurately, describe it for it is. 'Divisive' politics is a bad cliche. Gordon Brown took it as self-evident when he warned of 50 years of conflict between Scotland and England.

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Neighbouring democratic countries only fight and compete for extended periods when their national consciousness creates the idea of an enemy. Sometimes it’s justified. At other times, it's propaganda designed to enrage. Those flames are fanned in our politics, and that is a real obstacle to cooperation.

In fairness to the Americans, they created their entire political system around checks and balances – one institution against another, constantly aware that it would be the end result, anyway. “Group mentality” is the bedrock of conflict.

Devolution was pursued in the naive belief that fracturing a unitary state would not lead to immovable divisions along party and national lines. There are no checks or balances, merely limits that are regularly pushed by both Westminster and Holyrood. And we yet lack a process akin to the Constitutional Court of Spain. Whenever the Scottish and UK governments “go to court”, this is taken as a political crime rather than a procedure towards a more perfect union.

Alan Moore's comic Watchmen made this point brilliantly. It took a faked space octopus killing millions to bring the USSR and USA back from the brink of Cold War annihilation. Only with some obscene, absurdist “Other” could humanity come in from the cold and unite.

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For a country as supposedly outward-looking as Scotland, our politics is intensely inward-looking and fractured. Our foreign policy is one giant Potemkin village. How we want to be seen does not make it so. We no longer have the best health service, the best education system and certainly not the best political system in the world. But the myth survives because we're “fighting” Westminster.

And living abroad provides that perspective. Rather than checks and balances, we have mudslinging of the highest ilk. The fractured Other is not inevitable, but created by party politics which can frame the Other as being a threat.

What was once “politics” is now militant smearing. Boris Johnson's Tories are determined to be the last party standing. Their approach is destined to untie the United Kingdom, isolate us internationally and do whatever it takes to keep his party in power.

Consider the reaction against our own citizens during Brexit. Those Britons living abroad who dared to raise concerns about Brexit were treated as the symptom of the EU problem. “Expats” was a slur. The total weight of the argument turned on its head: if you don't live here, you have no right to have a say. The “us and them” argument took hold.

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The Scottish referendum was no better. Scots abroad were denied a voice (despite the Yes campaign regularly showboating celebrities who had made their home overseas) because the powers-that-be were unwilling to include Scots living in other parts of the United Kingdom.

Identity politics comes in many forms these days but the common form of argument is vilification. There's a curious acceptance that the independence debate will be around as a fact of life until it is achieved.

Scotland is stuck in the Groundhog Day of “independence is the way” and “Brexit has doomed us”. There never seems to be any movement forward. Repeated “othering” throughout the history of international relations is one reason behind the endless cycle of war and occasional peace.

Independence will answer nothing, as sure as Brexit has answered zip – there is always another bogeyman, another conflict, another villain who needs to be fought.

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If we removed the Other from our debates, would the arguments for independence, Brexit and everything else hold water? Or do they only thrive when people have a villain to throw stones at?

Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and public affairs consultant. You can read more from Alastair at: and follow him on Twitter @Agjstewart

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