This probably isn’t really the time or the place to tell you about my feelings, but it’s an emotional time just now isn’t it, and what we think of as opinions are never totally separate from feelings, not really, so it makes sense to tell you how a lot of people, me included, have been feeling at times: a little anxious, disconcerted, unsettled, sad.
The reasons are pretty obvious. The virus. The US election. The economy. Jobs. Money. Brexit. Rules. The ubiquity of leaders. Johnson. Trump. Sturgeon. The infrequency of human contact. Feelings feeding opinions feeding feelings. It also doesn’t help that, in a world we navigate by reading each other’s facial expressions, our faces are covered. It removes us, distances us, and leads, inevitably, to more emotions, and more destructive ones too: frustration, suspicion, anger.
The result has been a kind of furious division, in which every act has been politicised or become a source of anger: wearing a mask or not wearing a mask, going on holiday to England or not going on holiday to England, thinking Nicola Sturgeon is brilliant or not thinking Nicola Sturgeon is brilliant. The emotions have led to furious, entrenched opinions and it’s understandable really. It’s what we do. It’s human. Are my opinions making you angry? That’s fine.
The emotions that many Scots are feeling about it all are particularly interesting. I sometimes wonder, for instance, if the last few months have been a bit easier for people who support independence because at least they have the comfort of knowing the crisis is translating into support for their cause. Unionists on the other hand – and I don’t expect you to feel sympathy here – are dealing with all the same anxieties but with another one piled on top: anxiety about the future of the UK. (If this opinion is also making you feel angry, that’s still fine).
But in Scotland, one emotion in particular is proving especially influential: hatred. A new poll by JL Partners, the firm led by Theresa May’s former pollster James Johnson, has given independence a 56 per cent to 44% lead, but what’s really interesting is the reason for the lead: loathing for the PM. JL Partners found that the PM was the single most important factor for undecided voters on the issue of independence and one finding from the focus groups was particularly striking: Boris Johnson isn’t just being criticised by Scots in the way David Cameron and Theresa May were, he’s loathed.
Some of you will say “fair enough, I hate Boris Johnson too”. But a dislike or loathing for the PM is a pretty poor reason for supporting independence. On the different but related subject of monarchy, you often hear people say they’re not sure about royalty but do like the Queen and she’s doing a good job. But a decision on whether we should have an unelected, hereditary head of state should surely have nothing to do with whether you’re fond of the Queen or not.
The same applies to the Prime Minister. A lot of people, me included, think Boris Johnson is doing a terrible job (although not significantly worse than Nicola Sturgeon), and it’s not helped by the fact Johnson is a poor communicator. But the question of whether Scotland should be independent is best seen separately from who is, or isn’t, PM at the moment. The question is constitutional – should Scotland be part of a union of other nations? – but it’s being driven by the personal: I can’t stick that guy Boris Johnson.
Scottish nationalists will say in response that it’s actually about getting the government Scotland wants – we don’t want the Tories and yet we have the Tories constantly foisted on us. But that kind of argument infuriates me (it’s my turn to get angry now). Democracy, constitutions, and political systems are compromises: if you’re in a union for logical economic reasons, you won’t always get your own way – sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t. And the argument that Scots do not get the governments they vote for cuts both ways: most Scots do not vote for Sturgeon and yet they get Sturgeon.
The longer-term problem is that, if emotion starts to dominate the debate on independence, we really are in trouble. It’s always been there of course: some Scots feel an emotional connection to the idea of a separate Scotland and other Scots feel an emotional connection to Britain, and that will have played a large part in their decision to go for Yes or No. Other uglier emotions, such as hatred of the English, also play their part, although the SNP has always denied it.
But a debate fuelled by hatred of an English Tory PM is particularly unedifying. Six years ago, one of the factors uppermost in the minds of many Scottish voters was the economy and the consequences of independence and while some would say that was emotional too – the emotion being anxiety, fed by “Project Fear” – it was clear in the end that the persistent, logical questions about the economy, and currency, and tax and debt, did their bit. It swung it for No.
However, with some swing voters, we may be entering a different phase now. The economic questions are still there, and are still unanswered, but if emotion holds sway, as it did with Brexit, it doesn’t matter. Many voters will either dismiss economic concerns entirely or tell themselves it’s a price worth paying to regain sovereignty. It’s what the Brexiteers said, pretty much, on the way to leaving the EU and it was driven by emotion and in a similar way it’s happening again in Scotland. The Brexiteers hated Europe. The nationalists hate English Tories. And hate can help you win.
The only hope is that logic and reason will trump emotion, but the fear must be that all the Scottish nationalists need to do now is ride the emotion, in the way Brexiteers did, and not worry about the unanswered questions on the economy. It may not happen that way – the economy is still an important factor in voters’ minds and will be again in a second referendum. But feelings are raw and the health crisis is making them rawer. We’re worried, and angry, and upset, and fearful. Probably not be the best time to make the biggest decision this country has ever faced.
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