A few years ago, the lugubrious American comedian Steven Wright was appearing on a chat show. He was known to be a big sports fan and, inevitably, the subject of baseball came up. The presenter said to him: “I understand that you’re a big fan of the Boston Red Sox?” Wright, in his usual deadpan style, replied: “I have been attending their games for more than thirty years. I buy merchandise and collect memorabilia relating to the team and I have a season ticket. But I do not consider myself to be a fan.”
In highlighting the incongruity between his actions and what he pretended to believe those actions meant, Wright was making an obviously comedic point. Over the last few weeks, however, I’ve noticed more and more folk, either in conversation or through pronouncements on social networks, drawing a similar line between what they profess to believe and what they intend to do in the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence. There appears to have been a proliferation of posts and declarations in which people make one variation or other of the following statement: "I’m not a nationalist … but I’ll be voting yes.”
You’ll never, of course, hear anyone saying “I am a nationalist, but I’ll be voting no”, because that would be absurd. Not that absurdity itself would be out of place in a campaign in which both sides have made ludicrous claims and counter-claims, offering bribe and counter-bribe to an electorate they clearly don’t have a very high opinion of.
Only four years ago, the SNP polled 19.9% on a 63.8% turnout at the general election. Unless my arithmetic is off, that means that only around 12% of those eligible to vote could be bothered to state a preference for independence. Now, just a few years later, we are on the verge (depending on which polls you read) of breaking up the UK. The Yes campaign has been extremely effective and has worked diligently to establish clear ground between ‘good’ nationalism (the kind we have in Scotland, where everyone is socially progressive) and ‘nasty’ nationalism (the UKIP kind they have down south, where everyone is reactionary). But however Blair Jenkins and his team might spin it, there is an ugly side to Scottish nationalism. Most nationalists are decent folk, but there is a significant minority motivated principally by the politics of difference. That’s about as succinct and polite a way to describe it as I can manage. And I suspect that it is this factor which has caused some people to feel the need to put a positive spin on their voting intentions.
Steven Wright got laughs because of the obvious incongruity between the list of things he did and what those things actually meant, but if someone said something like that in normal conversation, we’d probably feel obliged to draw attention to the discrepancies between their actions and their idiosyncratic interpretation of those actions. We might even be tempted to point out that people don’t ordinarily get away with defining themselves by what they say, because -most of the time- we are defined by what we do.
I think there are some good arguments for independence, just as there are some good arguments for maintaining the union. I make no judgement on the position that anyone chooses to take. It seems to me, however, that if you campaign, and then vote for, Scottish secession from the United Kingdom, you are –by definition- a nationalist. Wouldn’t it be more honest just to accept the ‘warts and all’ reality of that political choice?