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The Framing of the Scottish Independence Debate: A Tale of Two Referenda


Two independence campaigns are now running in the UK: one on Scottish independence; the other which has become more public in the last week, on the UK’s possible exit from the European Union. Strangely they operate in near complete isolation of each other, with the Euro referendum being talked about as if we still lived in the high days of untrammelled Westminster parliamentary sovereignty.

In the last week, the front page of the Scottish edition of The Times reported a fall in support for Scottish independence of 3% as, ‘’Yes’ vote hits trouble as support crumbles’ (May 9th 2013). The same week it began its campaign for the UK to embark on EU withdrawal, lining up a chorus line of Tory grandees to declare their support for exit; successive front pages declared, ‘Lawson: It’s time to quit EU’ (May 7th 2013) and ‘Voters tell Cameron to cut Europe down to size’ (May 8th 2013); and were followed by Michael Portillo coming out of support of withdrawal, ‘We don’t share Europe’s vision. So I want out’ (May 9th 2013). The front page of the Scottish edition on the day of the Lawson announcement also included a headline stating, ‘Independent Scotland may struggle to keep lights on’ (May 7th 2013).

Idioma de Europa

One has the language of ‘separatism’, ‘separation’ and is filled with risk and negativity; the other the language of ‘a new relationship’, ‘renegotiation’ and greater choice and flexibility; the first about Scottish independence, the second British withdrawal from the EU. When I asked Angus Macleod, editor of The Times Scottish edition why he used pejorative language on Scotland in one of the pieces cited above he answered, ‘Independence is in the intro and elsewhere. Separation is used for variety. It’s called journalism’ (twitter, May 9th 2013).

How to Shape and Define A Debate

The long term framing of the cause of Scottish independence is aided by the absence of a single newspaper supporting independence; a very different picture from that on UK withdrawal from the EU. Despite the decline of mainstream newspaper sales and doubts about how they influence voter decisions, there can be little doubt that over a long period they shape and frame the political environment – as Europe has proven and the Scottish debate is showing.

Day in day out the press profile negative stories about Scottish independence; the Scottish and UK Governments are portrayed very differently even when undertaking similar actions; while anti-independence coverage in international media is used to vindicate and validate anti-independence angles.

Ever since the SNP won office in May 2011 there has been a slow drip of anti-independence stories in the ‘quality’ and ‘tabloid’ press. A few examples from last year include: ‘Independent Scotland a ‘terror risk’’ (Scotland on Sunday, April 29th 2012), ‘Scotland would become like Greece after independence says academic’ (The Times Scotland Edition April 23rd 2012), ‘MPs Press Scots Separatists for Answers’ (Reuters, February 15th 2012). And that is before we get to the Daily Record.

The Herald gave a good example of how parts of the media portray the Scots and UK Governments very differently. Kate Devlin wrote on the UK Treasury led programme on independence, ‘The Treasury is spearheading the co-ordinated push’ (January 3rd 2013), while Paul Hutcheon in the same paper described similar moves by the Scottish Government, ‘The SNP Government has been under severe pressure’ (November 5th 2012). The UK Government was described as ‘spearheading’, ‘co-ordinated’ and ‘flexible’; the Scottish Government with the terms, ‘pressure’, ‘criticised’ and ‘scrutinised’; the first seen as in charge and acting in good faith, the latter having its sincerity and, in Hutcheon’s words, its ‘separatist dream’ challenged.

The press and wider media regularly swallow uncritically the UK Government’s PR operation. This could be seen earlier this year when the UK Government’s document on Scottish independence was published, with BBC News declaring, ‘Scottish independence: Scotland would be ‘separate state’’ (February 11th 2013) and The Herald, ‘Legal experts in warning over Scots independence’ (February 11th 2013). Recently Alice Thomson in The Times declared of any independence negotiations that, ‘Westminster would veto sharing foreign embassies, art collections and the Armed Forces’ (April 24th 2013).

International coverage which is anti-independence becomes news to report back home. The New York Times in an editorial pronounced, ‘Scottish voters may want to think twice about going it alone’ (March 27th 2013). This allowed the Daily Telegraph to declare, ‘New York Times warns Scots to ‘think twice’ about independence’ (March 28th 2013).

Even respected US academic and specialist journals such as Foreign Affairs cover independence in a partisan way. An article by Prof. Charles King of Georgetown University stated, ‘it would be a shame if the Scottish model [became] a handbook for transferring muscular regionalism into territorial separatism’ (1).

Misreporting and Misrepresenting Scotland

Then there is the Andrew Neil/Fraser Nelson view of Scotland – which has legitimacy down south, is seen as authorative and informed about Scotland, and has blowback up north in certain circles. Neil has frequently pronounced his view of Scotland as a land of subsidy junkies, welfare and public sector dependency, and anti-enterprise; a mindset of prejudice and small mindedness which is an ill-informed caricature but which people like himself and Nelson repeat without being challenged. This is Neil, not as a commentator, but as the anchor of the BBC Sunday Politics show, ‘This is the land of the big state. One think tank recently suggested the state was more important than in any country in the world, bar Cuba, North Korea or Iraq’ (April 3rd 2011).

A related issue is the general ignorance of all things Scottish by the Westminster village and even parts of the Scottish media. A good example of this was the reaction to the Scottish Government’s decision to release al-Megrahi in August 2009. This led to numerous calls from Westminster politicians, academics and commentators for the UK Government to stop this happening – invoking what they thought was parliamentary sovereignty to supersede Scottish law. Of course such a view is constitutional illiteracy; English and Scottish law are equal, but that didn’t stop the likes of Prof. John Curtice of Strathclyde University validating such inaccurate views and declaring, ‘that because Holyrood was not sovereign but accountable to Westminster, the British Government could have rushed through legislation to prevent Megrahi’s release’ (Sunday Times, August 1st 2010). It just happens to be completely and utterly wrong.

Another example comes from last year when I participated in The Spectator debate on Scottish independence, and found myself beforehand speaking to the former editor of The Sun Kelvin Mackenzie, who was backing Scottish independence in the debate, under the logic that it aided English independence. Before we went into the debating hall, I said to Mackenzie that there was a good chance the Scots would not vote for independence, and thus bring about the sequence of events he desired. He looked at me for a second with an air of incredulity and then said, ‘Really, is that right’. The point I took from this was that he was about to stand in front of 400 people and pontificate on a subject he had no real knowledge or insight on – and indeed had close to a near complete ignorance of. Such is much of the world of right wing populist punditry; and they think Scotland is fair game.

The coverage of Scotland and Scottish independence is very different from that of UK withdrawal from the EU. The first has gone from being seen as eccentric and marginal to being perceived as a potential threat to the territorial integrity of the political union that is the UK by the British political establishment; the second has gone from being seen as the preserve of fringe and maverick opinion to representing the mainstream of English politics.

There are a number of lessons from this – not just about media, but politics, media and politics and long-term strategy. Here are a few of them: which could form a checklist of how to win an independence referendum:

1. Slowly permeate and capture the senior positions of a mainstream political party; make sure it isn’t perceived as ‘nationalist’ but in its positioning about defending ‘the national interest’.

2. Win over key media outlets, voices and owners; make sure there are sizeable media platforms prepared to act as advocates for your case.

3. Gradually over time change the terms of debate – so that what once seen as impossible and marginal – becomes mainstream.

4. Pose your strategy as one of reasonableness and gradualism and not about independence at any costs. Instead it is centred on the moderate and mild proposition of renegotiation of an ever-encroaching, stifling union.

5. Time a campaign of significant public figures converting and coming ‘over’ to your side – giving the impression of momentum and greater respect.

6. Make sure in all your coverage – positive, neutral and negative – that people talk of ‘independence’ and never ‘separatism’ and ‘separation’.

I am talking about the European withdrawal campaign; but equally it has lessons for Scottish independence.


1. Charles King, ‘The Scottish Play: Edinburgh’s Quest for Independence and the Future of Separatism’, Foreign Affairs, September/October 2012, p. 124.

Comments (4)

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  1. Les. says:

    Would an independent, sovereign Scotland have a pro Scottish state broadcaster and pro Scottish press? Who would own and fund Scottish newspapers in such a set-up? Maybe they need to appear now rather than later, or their opportunity to prosper will be lost.

  2. Ken MacColl says:

    I read The Times on a regular basis and I must agree with Gerry Hassan that their coverage of Scottish politics in their “Scottish” edition is beyond parody. Watching late night newspaper previews on UK TV gives an inkling of what is considered to be their journalistic priorities for the front pages of their London editions but frequently that page is altered or subbed to give an anti Scottish government slant in the Tartan Times. Seldom if ever does a day pass without a negative story or at least a negative headline appearing over the name of Angus MacLeod, Mike Wade or Lindsay McIntosh. MacLeod may genuinely believe that that what appears in his domain is “journalism” but such a claim defies analysis. I am not so naïve as to think that The Times will do other than solidly punt a British Establishment line but the presentation of news, as opposed to opinion, is woefully unbalanced. Sad to see a newspaper of repute becoming a pale imitation of The Daily Mail.

    Andrew Neil, with Magnus Linklater, former editors who contributed greatly to the decline of The Scotsman, before heading down south bring to my mind the apology ascribed to James Boswell when he was first introduced to Samuel Johnson, “I do indeed come from Scotland but I cannot help it…”

  3. James Coleman says:

    For a change I thought you talked some sense in your article above instead of your usual long winded dialectical claptrap. Are you at last going to come down off the fence? Surely rubbish like the following should convince you?

    “When I asked Angus Macleod, editor of The Times Scottish edition why he used pejorative language on Scotland in one of the pieces cited above he answered, ‘Independence is in the intro and elsewhere. Separation is used for variety. It’s called journalism’

    No wonder there is a serious lack of journalistic integrity in Scotland when an editor of what purports to be a serious newspaper can write rubbish like that. Thank God The Times readership is minimal and irrelevant in Scotland. And it’s laughable that people like Mcleod don’t seem to realise that.

    And then there is Andrew Neill and Fraser Nelson, forelock touchers and cringers par excellence, if they had any forelocks left to touch. The first has been creeping to the English since he left Scotland many years ago, and the second with a Weegie accent strained into who knows what vowel sounds to try and emulate, without success, his masters. Now it’s just a funny Weegie accent. Why do they do it? Have they no pride?

  4. florian albert says:

    Gerry Hassan’s articles vary so much that you wonder if the same person has written them. On Saturday past, in the Scotsman, he wrote of Scotland as a country where ‘most of our public services are in the pocket of professional interest groups who talk a faux progressive agenda.’ Fraser Nelson would have been more restrained in making the same point – and thrown in a lot of statistics. By Wednesday, he is denouncing Fraser Nelson and a host of others who use their platform to make political points – just as he does. His checklist of ‘how to win an independence referendum’ lists six points that might be cut to a single one; appoint Alistair Campbell as PR guru. (Interestingly he writes about winning ‘a’ referendum, rather than the one in 2014.)
    By concentrating on PR, he fails to see the key dynamic of the referendum campaign thus far. The ‘No’ campaign is concentrating relentlessly on highlighting the difficulties and costs involved in ending a 300 year old union. When a huge percentage of voters are not passionately committed to either camp, this is proving extremely effective. There is little sign that Alex Salmond, Dennis Canavan or Gerry Hassan will be successful in persuading the majority of voters that it a ‘Yes’ vote is in their interest. In Scottish football, complaining that the other lot is determined to win guarantees that you are subject to ridicule. Politics, wont prove much different.

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