The Genie, the Elephant and the Running Hog: The question that dared not speak its name

Independence has always been the great elephant in the room, right from the first day of the Union. From the riots in the streets of Edinburgh forcing the signatories into a furtive cellar off the High Street, to the (almost) one hundred petitions from towns across Scotland, it was an unpopular decision by an aristocracy over a financial barrel, and vexed many writers at the time. But it was not a choice that was open for the people to make. The question was never supposed to be asked of them – either then or since – and thus has routinely been trivialised in order to dismiss it.

But Alex Salmond worked the Houdini trick that got the question out of this hogtied state (just an alternative to the genie and the bottle metaphor so beloved of commentators discussing the unleashed political awareness throughout Scotland) – and that hog only has to run this one time, for people to realise that an independent Scotland is a real, vibrant and serious option in the 21st century political landscape. You can hate Salmond as much as you want, but he has wrested that question into the open when it was never supposed to ever get out there, against the wishes of assembled powerful vested political interests – who can now be seen desperately throwing money at the ‘No’ campaign in the dying weeks – and he has to be accorded some considerable respect for managing that. And now that it has been finally released, I would argue that it is an idea that isn’t going away anywhere ever again.

The idea was that independence for Scotland could always be ridiculed as trivial nonsense, a fantasy fuelled by sentiment and overblown romanticism, nationalism – and yet when push came to shove, to many people’s surprise, those features have proved to be far more of a component of the British nationalist vote No campaign, than that of ‘Yes’. But as long as that message of belittling the idea of independence went unchallenged – whether by the mass media or anyone else – then the political party that was the principal advocate of it (the SNP) could be held in check and similarly ridiculed. That is another reason why the media will so often report the Yes campaign as exclusively belonging to the SNP, rather than acknowledging the wide array of public interests and bodies lined up behind it.

The reason why I think it is not going away after this, is that, having entered into the public arena, the idea of independence actually becomes subject to detailed widespread scrutiny for the first time. This scrutiny – no matter how hostile – transforms it from the pastiche that has been so easily dismissed and ridiculed in the past, to something three dimensional, something with depth, sophistication – and possibilities. And once it has been taken seriously for that first time as a legitimate option – because opposing it in public legitimises it as a choice – then it can never be ignored or fatuously dismissed again. The arguments are remembered, and any blatant untruths told for or against during the campaign are subject to later exposure. It has now become a permanent fixture of the political landscape now – and will remain there until it is resolved: as soon as the question is asked for the first time, as it now has been, that is the moment that it forces its way on to the political stage and has to be seriously explored, and then it becomes legitimate for all time, until there is a ‘Yes’ that finally delivers independence.

Yes, sure, parliamentary means will inevitably be deployed by Westminster to stop the question ever being asked again – a ‘tweak’ to devolved powers, perhaps, as was done by the House of Lords last December – and disillusionment with political process will follow a ‘No’ vote, as will outrage when the promised ‘more powers’ fail to materialize in quite the way that some ‘No’ voters might be expecting – but people now KNOW that the idea of independence has wide and broad support amongst the population, to the extent that it could easily happen. People are also probably – as with 1979 – realize that they have been lied to as a political expedient by their Westminster elected representatives. And that means that independence as a viable political option will be bedded solidly into our political future.

Nothing kills independence ‘stone dead’ after this, George.


“Devolution will kill Nationalism stone dead.” (George Robertson)

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