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Why Scottish nationalism has the anatomy of a conspiracy theory


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I HAVE BEEN trying to put my finger on precisely what, generically, the Scottish separatist cause is. As I understand it, the original nationalists in the SNP from 1934 simply wanted to set up a separate Scottish state.

The discovery of North Sea oil in the 1970s, however, led to the development and persistence of claims about a separate Scotland being rich as a result of its new resources – richer than it is in the UK. Yet the oil was discovered in UK waters, so it was not unreasonable that its proceeds should be used for the benefit of the whole UK. Unless you were a Scottish nationalist, that was. This morphed into claims about ‘England stealing Scotland’s oil’, generating a victim culture in some parts of Scottish society.

If only we had had the revenues from all the North Sea oil, lament nationalists, we would have been living in a land of milk and honey. Instead, we live in an imperfect world with pockets of dire poverty and the rest of us not as rich as we should be – as we deserve to be, is the sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit complaint. The reason for this is English duplicity and the exploitation of Scottish resources by the English. So runs the nationalist narrative.

The oil riches did not last for long. By the end of the twentieth century, they had dwindled, although there was a partial resurgence for about a decade in the early twenty-first century before a major slump after 2013. While oil revenues did, for a short time in the 1980s, bring in substantial revenues, which meant that Scots contributed more to the UK Exchequer than they received in return, this has not always been the case since the 1980s. This is the fundamental factual point that is contested by the SNP and other separatists – even now, when the evidence against them is overwhelming.

Even now, some separatists claim that 5 million Scots support around 60 million people in the rest of the UK and raise their standard of living. In mid-March 2022 on twitter:

Pro-union person: ‘Scotland doesn’t subsidise England’.

Separatist No. 1: ‘oh yes it does,,, its why London is so desperately clinging onto scotland …’ [sic].

Separatist No. 2: ‘If Scotland has Indy their Financial hub in London will crash. As they need us, we don’t need them…. Why do you think they [England] fight so hard to keep a hold of us, yet blatantly hate us, cos we’ve got & had what they never had great trading, they envied us, we’ve created most of the known World, got the best Whiskey, best and freshest rivers in the World, etc’ [sic].

Sadly, this kind of semi-literate garbage is par for the separatist course and straight from the fake news conspiracy theory playbook.

This is as non-numerate a boast as one could imagine. In December 2019, David Smith, the Times’economics editor, told us that ‘Scotland’s superior deficit performance came to an end 30 years ago and for the past decade the picture has been one of significant deterioration relative to the rest of the UK’. His conclusion was ‘the economics of Scottish independence are clear. It is about 40 years too late’. Further, since 2019 the Treasury’s distribution of furlough and other support funds, and HM Government’s ordering, purchase and distribution of a succession of vaccines, only underscores the point that Scotland is better off in the UK. Separatists who are indynial claim that a separate Scotland could have provided that support on its own. In financial terms, this is the height of delusion.

On the basis of this denial of the economic and financial facts by separatists, the claims that they have made and fairy stories they have told on the basis of their denial, I have come to the conclusion that Scottish separatism is one massive conspiracy theory.

First, there is the paranoia associated with conspiracy theories, a paranoia that identifies a group as the enemy intent on damaging and even destroying Scotland. This sets up a typical conspiracy theory ‘them and us’ confrontation. That is to say, Scottish separatism is based on a belief in a conspiracy by powerful groups to repress, suppress, exploit, expropriate and generally disadvantage for malign purposes the people and wealth of Scotland. The allegedly powerful group that has done the exploiting etc. is to be found in London, Westminster, the UK, England – especially among ‘Tories’ – with these terms used interchangeably for the alleged villains. These are the ‘enemies outside’.

For centuries, certainly since 1707 or even earlier, ‘elites’ in these places have sought to do Scotland down and have succeeded in doing so. Scots have not enjoyed the wealth they should have had. Their resources have been plundered by London, Westminster, the UK, England, Tories who have told serial lies about this. Their lackeys in Scotland – those who campaign to retain Scotland within the UK – are ‘traitors’, ‘quislings’, ‘not true Scots’, because they collude with the designated enemies of Scotland to prevent Scots from reaching their full potential. These are the ‘enemies within’. If only Scotland could be ‘free’ – released from the tutelage of the UK – Scots would prosper, be wealthy and enjoy a well-deserved prominent place on the world stage and in the counsels of international organisations such as the EU and the UN. Oh, and the ‘traitors’, ‘quislings’, ‘not true Scots’ could ‘go back to England’, even if we have lived for decades in Scotland.

Second, conspiracy theories are based on prejudice. In the case of Scottish nationalism, this accords with a generalised resentment at a larger partner in the UK, England. I doubt that few of us brought up in Scotland were not exposed in our youth to a certain degree of anti-English feeling. Its legacy may extend no further than the pleasure that people like me take from Scotland beating England at rugby, or it may be something much more deep-seated. Certainly, there can be no doubt that Scottish nationalism is based on anglophobia. Resentment of England is the one thing that binds Scottish nationalists together, particularly now, when divisions have emerged between various nationalist factions, over the existential question of pushing forward with the campaign for Scexit – or not – over the timid and stagnant (non-radical) government conducted by Ms Sturgeon and over contentious issues such as the Gender Recognition Act. The hatred that now exists between the new Alba fringe party of Alex Salmond and the SNP, which he led for about a quarter of a century, may not be as deep as that felt by nationalists for all pro-union people, but it is nevertheless bitter.

Third, conspiracy theories tend to be based on a suspicion of experts, who are able to explode the mythology on which any given conspiracy theory is based. We saw this in the Brexit debate, when Michael Gove disparaged inconvenient experts. We see it in Scotland where people with stellar credentials in a field such as finance or economics are dismissed as ‘unionists’, or ‘yoons’, because they show nationalist claims to be false. We see it when nationalists dismiss the professional statisticians who compile the Scottish government’s financial statistical report, GERS. Separatists do not say in so many words that these statisticians – whose work exposes the lies that they believe – are incompetent or corrupt, but that is the conclusion to be drawn from their comments about these statistics not being reliable and indeed being deliberately skewed to Scotland’s disadvantage.

In addition, the resource of the internet has led to a diminution of respect for expertise and the people who have qualifications in specific fields. Lord Winston, for example, who knows more about human biology than most people, admits to receiving hate mail when he declares the fundamental fact that ‘you cannot change your sex’. The ubiquity of non-factual scientific, historical, economic and other fake news materials on the internet gives conspiracy theory supporters confidence that they can stand their ground with ‘proof’ when faced with factual evidence.

This is the main support of the conspiracy theory that is Scottish nationalism. The colonisation of internet websites by pedlars of the nationalist conspiracy theory – such as the misnamed Business for Scotland and its propaganda offshoots, such as ‘Believe in Scotland’ – has led to large numbers of Scots being directed to them and then reading and believing the fake news propaganda that they purvey. This has centred above all on the economic and financial ramifications of leaving the UK.

In 2014, the separatist cause came up against a brick wall when faced with questions about currency, central bank, deficit, lender of last resort. Since 2014, its online propagandists have developed lines of defence and attack to try to win over more Scots – the less numerate and more gullible – by telling tales about Scotland’s wealth, talent, resources, ability – which, allegedly, would make it invincible as a separate state.

In one field, defence, separatists simply deny that Scotland would need to defend itself – this is the ‘we’re speshul, who would want to attack us when everyone loves us?’ approach to statehood. This comes from people who know neither that the first duty of government is defence of the realm nor that it would suit Vladimir Putin very well to have a base in the North Atlantic.

Belief in a conspiracy theory involves confidence that one is standing on some moral high ground and that one’s adversaries are not.

Scots – by this interpretation are better people, more moral than the English, and in present day terms more ‘progressive’ and ‘social democratic’. The lie can be given to this belief by the way in which high rates of poverty and drug deaths persist in certain areas of Scotland. If Scots had been so moral, progressive and social democratic, would their government not have concentrated resources on the areas scarred by poverty and drug abuse, instead of appeasing the middle classes with a long council tax freeze and various ‘free’ benefits that were already ‘free’ to those in real need?

The claim of standing on the moral high ground crumbles when Scottish nationalists complain about the British empire and its exploitation of British colonies – of which, at least some separatists claim, Scotland has been and remains one.

A colony is something Scotland has never been. Indeed, Scots were in the forefront of colonial exploitation in the British empire, as the work of scholars such as Sir Tom Devine and John Mackenzie has shown. This is something that many believers in the conspiracy to do Scotland down have difficulty in accepting, because it means that their pure and untainted Scotland would have been complicit in a vast amount of human suffering. Their scepticism persists even in the face of recent official attempts to confront Scotland with its colonial past.

The point about a conspiracy theory is that it is a faith-based cult that propagates untruths that can be proved to be factually wrong. It doesn’t matter how much factual material is produced to counter the theory or how many experts contradict its beliefs, the devotees continue to believe the myths and their belief cannot be shaken.

A couple of years ago, the pro-UK think tank These Islands consulted focus groups of people tending towards supporting separatism on a variety of subjects connected with Scotland’s place in the UK and the prospect of Scotland leaving the UK. The These Islands’ conclusion was ‘that Scotland does not so much have an uninformed electorate as one that has been very skilfully fed misinformation’ – the misinformation of the conspiracy theory that England steals Scotland’s resources and that the rest of the UK doesn’t value Scotland.

Even when participants were confronted with factual matter that showed their belief in the conspiracy theory propaganda to be unfounded, they mostly held fast to it. How one could shake the faith – and faith, in a religious sense, is what it is – of those who subscribe to the conspiracy theory that is Scottish separatism is the major conundrum for those of us who would defend the United Kingdom.

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Image of man standing on the surface of the moon by Artsiom P with help from NASA via Adobe Stock




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