2007 - 2021

Unionism and the English Language

600full-george-orwellBut if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.

George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

Bad language is becoming a recurring theme in the referendum debate. Yet  it is not so much the predictable vitriol and smearing that we need to worry about. Nor is it about how we define ‘Scottishness’. Rather, it’s the fact that so much of today’s political lexicon is almost entirely devoid of meaning.

Many of today’s politicians end up like Hugh Abbot from the Thick of It: who on preparing to launch a token policy at a school is torn over whether to use the term ‘families’ or ‘people’ and ends up opting for ‘families of people’. Of course what Iannucci’s TV-series demonstrates so eloquently is the trap that British politics is caught in: any words that mean anything risk alienating someone (potentially in a marginal seat). Strong statements on anything other than the most basic issues are increasingly difficult to come by.

We live in an era where satire has become so real that reality has become a caricature of itself. Even terms as solid as ‘family’ and ‘people’ are lost in a morass of focus-group determined consumer politics.

Call it post-modernism, call it the end of history, call it spin, or whatever term you like. Just remember that, as Orwell so brilliantly predicted, when language ceases to mean anything, the human loses out to power at every turn.

A dysfunctional family

Modern political language is, as Orwell pointed out, ‘largely the defence of the indefensible’: political reality is often too brutal to take form on a page or in speech, so in its place we get euphemism and innuendo.

An honest defence of the union is something that is only rarely glimpsed, because at its crux, as Blair McDougall recently admitted, is a belief that governments in the south will ‘act against’ Scotland. It’s a dark and unpleasant picture of the way that the politicians on this island operate, and is closely linked to the notional idea that a new found ‘foreignness’ would close off Scotland to rUK on a number of levels.

It’s therefore especially interesting to look at Better Together’s appropriation of emotive terms in their literature. Words like ‘family’, ‘break-up’, ‘patriotism’ ‘unity’ and ‘strength’ abound. Definitions do not: for they’re not meant to say anything tangible about the UK as we know it, but rather to imply that Yes is an anti-family, aggressive, reactionary and weak position. It paints independence as a family break up writ large: with all of the affecting pulls and baggage that implies.

This fast and loose approach with emotive, familial, terms, used to say very little, contrasts with societies with better capacities for social cohesion. The Swedish Folkhemmet concept springs to mind: a political consensus crafted by Per Albin Hansson on the premise that the nation is a family: closely linked to the idea that the state should focus on providing a post-class based society that is a ‘people’s home’.

Perhaps the most telling facet of British politics today is that there is no uncontested term to build consensus around. This is dangerous. Words that should promote consensus such as ‘welfare’ ‘hard work’ ‘justice’ ‘society’ and ‘democracy’ often do the opposite. Chronic misuse means they have become fault lines to the point where, even when used figuratively, they are deeply contested.

The implosion of language that Orwell referred to stems from division: the lack of any common meaning or agreed parameters between all who might participate in a debate.

This is what the UK, categorically, fails to offer. A proper campaign to save and reform the union would have built a concrete, cross-party concept of what a new British political consensus could be. The problem is, such a concept, though briefly enacted in 1945, has never been possible in Britain. The structures that make Britain divisive and render social cohesion impossible at a national level remain in place. That’s why Better Together’s language is extremely vague when related to domestic policy while on defence and foreign affairs it is blatantly jingoistic.

Emotional appeal

In the absence of a rational programme for the UK’s future Better Together exists to oppose an enemy that owes a great deal to its own imagination. This kind of approach carries with it a set of very tangible risks that could scar our public discourse for good. In its desperate bid to present Yes as the divisive, regressive force it is obviously not, it has consistently failed to empathise with its opponents on any level. The fact that they rarely even acknowledge the existence of the official cross-party Yes campaign is very telling in this regard. Though it may well be the No campaign’s undoing, it places the debate in dark and unedifying terrain. The group’s recent soliciting of potentially un-sourced reports of the SNP attempting to ‘silence its critics’ based on one phone call, shows that, in effect the UK will defend its current status with an AstroTurfing smear campaign worthy of the Tea Party.

Though Better Together’s website may state: ‘there’s a better choice for our future’ their complaint is directed towards the very idea of having to make a choice in the first place. Put simply, they’re not interested in having a rational conversation: it is in their interests to make this conflict as messy, emotive and as divisive as possible. This deliberately demands remarkable levels of patience from all pro-independence activists.

The fact that Scotland has reached such a dramatic historical juncture through entirely non-violent means, is rarely celebrated. After all, the obvious implication of such a smooth, consensus based process, is that we’d probably be quite good at self-government. People get violent and aggressive when terms that should have concrete meanings are thrown into flux. Last week’s edition of Any Questions from Bearsden was an illustrative example. Nicola Sturgeon answered a question about A and E targets, and pointed out that Scotland has rejected privatisation within the NHS. Ruth Davidson’s response, in a debate in which she had already branded the SNP liars and reflected on her pride in having worn a uniform, described Sturgeon as ‘doing down England’. The only rational interpretation of this view would be that criticising the policy pursued by the government of a nation somehow means that you harbour negative sentiments towards the people of that nation. We really are getting into surreal and dangerous territory here.

For example I detest the Irish Government’s stance on abortion and think it unjustifiable that in these isles women still die because of medieval religious dogma. This does not make me anti-Irish. I think that the Russian government is profoundly misguided on a whole number of levels, but I don’t have an opinion, or any interest, in ‘doing down’ the Russian people. Yet, increasingly emboldened by their own ‘patriotic’ rhetoric, unionists like Davidson are veering into inflammatory territory in which rational debate becomes lost in an ever-thickening fog of war.

If you don’t respect your opponent, if you reduce an entire movement to ‘Alex Salmond’s obsession with independence’ you don’t just risk losing the argument, you risk destroying the terrain in which the argument is able to take place.


The appropriation of interdependence is based on the belief Scotland would be cast out into the cold by the UK and the EU for exercising self-determination. In reality the very nature of our highly interdependent world makes such a stance very difficult to maintain. The very skewed claim, though rarely explicitly stated, rests on the inherent ability of any conservative movement to lay claim to anything that is good about a present status quo and cast itself as the defender of this against the ‘uncertainty’ of change.

Better Together’s statement on their ‘positive case’ starts by asserting ‘We love Scotland’ something that, though they may find it pleasing to state, is of no relevance. Here we see a debate that has come full circle: the flag waving phase of Scottish nationalism is long gone. A broad coalition of civic groups and progressive parties has taken its place. Appeals to identity are now almost exclusively the preserve of the no campaign, a group of disparate political parties anxious to preserve separate platforms and uncomfortable when sharing them. Though they are incapable of realising it; this gives the Yes campaign ample political space to mobilise activists on a ‘nothing to fear but fear itself’ ethos of empowerment and collective action.

Orwell’s essay is instructive in another regard: “politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.” As we see in its use of language Better Together is trapped by the mess of the incoherent politics that is has to contain.

What we end up with is a strange, nationalistic unionism that churns out obscene statements of patriotism like: ‘As Scots we believe there’s nowhere better’. Yes that’s right: being Scottish becomes contingent not on simply calling the place home, but also thinking that it is superior to all others. It’s a narrow, parochial ‘my country right or wrong’ message premised on a vast miscalculation about the origins of the Yes movement.

Another key prop is militarism, that will no-doubt reach fever pitch around next year’s massive Armed Forces Day celebrations in Stirling. Again the emphasis is not on Britain’s parity with its partners and allies, it’s about being ‘better’ than everyone else: ‘The British Armed Forces that protect us are the best in the world.’ Presumably aircraft carriers without any aircraft and a resource-draining Trident with a questionable safety record are key planks of this world beating military machine.

Once again the salient point is emotive not rational. It is not asking people to think, question, reflect on the past or project into the future.

Perhaps the best example of this was Ed Miliband’s xenophobic remarks on Scottish independence at the Labour Conference. Referring to Cathy, a woman who had recently recovered from a heart problem and received treatment in England, he said of NHS staff:

‘They care about her because she is Scottish and British, a citizen of our United Kingdom. Friends, Cathy is with us today, back as a delegate. Where is she? Cathy’s here. Friends, I don’t want Cathy to become a foreigner. Let’s win the battle for the United Kingdom.’

So much for solidarity: so much for interdependence. The worst thing that Cathy could be, in the eyes of the Labour Party, is ‘foreign’. This is nationalism at its worst: you’re either one of us, or we, literally, cease to care.

On the other hand, even commentators in The Spectator are pointing to the lack of an impassioned, positive, case for the union. As the article points out the current No campaign, even if it succeeds, is setting up the case for an emboldened independence movement further down the line.

The truth is, Better Together do no love the union, they’re frightened of it. This is the big fear that underpins all of Project Fear. Ironically it’s premised on the idea that the UK and Scottish governments would lack any shared interest or desire to work together if the latter was also sovereign. Who’d want to stay in a partnership on that basis?

All national cultures within the British Isles can claim to be literary. The exceptionally adaptable, decentralised tool that is the English language may well be the most important ingredient in a polyglot stew that goes way beyond our own shores. The independence debate shows us that we need a politics in Scotland that is worthy of such a rich heritage. Who knows, perhaps it might even give meaning to words like ‘democracy’ ‘welfare’ ‘family’ and ‘justice’ once again.


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  1. Nelson says:

    The worst thing about the referendum is the obsessive negative gloating about whatever the other side is, as per the article, above.

    1. The article is arguing for a grown up rational debate. This leads me to think you may have missed this quote from above:

      “If you don’t respect your opponent, if you reduce an entire movement to ‘Alex Salmond’s obsession with independence’ you don’t just risk losing the argument, you risk destroying the terrain in which the argument is able to take place.”

      Unlike my opponents'”gloating” at least I have enough respect for them to quote directly from their campaign material and provide examples. What’s more numerous unionist commentators agree about the lack of a positive, tangible vision of the union’s future.

      1. nnels says:

        Sorry – to my your article comes across as another obsessive rant against the BT campaign, which I find as tedious as the obsessive rants against the Yes campaign. I shouldn’t have bothered to read it, as, personally, I prefer to vote in favour of something, than vote against something. However, I made that mistake.

        If you don’t respect your opponent, you don’t respect your opponent. At least I understand why arguing for no change isn’t going to set the heather on fire – I would have thought that to be a no-brainer.

    2. nordbreton says:

      It appears that several Nationalist websites have recently acquired trolls who leap in to get the first comment in to undermine the impact of the article. It could of course be worse; Derek Bateman has been assigned Grahamski. However Nelly here (who has commented in similar vein on the last three Bella articles) is, nonetheless, a fine specimen, with a similar approach to language, e.g.:

      1. Write an unfounded insult to provoke a reaction: “obsessive rant”, “gloating”, “tedious”
      2. Claim that both sides are as bad as one another (they’re not, compare the above to this, which appeared on the same day: http://archive.is/gzu4a)
      3. Accuse yes of being “negative”
      4. Claim (however laughably) to be positive: “vote in favour of something”
      5. Insert couthiness to show you’re a “Proud Scot”: “set the heather alight”
      6. Assert that independence is a risky vote for change and/or a No vote is a vote for no change. As has been amply demonstrated (bedroom tax, Post Office), a No vote is in fact a vote to be outvoted on the changes that do occur.
      7. Pretend to be neutral and un-“botherered”
      8. Say something truly mindless: “If you don’t respect your opponent, you don’t respect your opponent.” (This may not be persuasive, but it could eventually win you the Herald’s debater of the year award.)
      9. Claim that the unionist view is clearly right and suggest that the nationalist view is eccentric: “no brainer”
      10. Use truculent trash talking style “Sorry”, “no brainer”, “at least I”

      I think Nelly is Bella’s resident Bitter Together troll. Sorry.

      1. graemepurves says:

        Aye! ‘A no brainer!

  2. Tom Carney says:

    Ironically I think now many English hope the SNP and Salmond win the Scottish referendum by a landslide, the Scots are never content and always want to complain.

    1. Tartanfever says:

      ‘the Scots are never content and always want to complain.’ –

      which is of course, a very good thing. ‘Complaining’ or making demands on your Government is a vital part of the democratic process. Just to remind you, Yes voters don’t have an issue with English people, we have an issue with a Westminster government.

      ‘Ironically I think now many English’ –

      It would be much more convincing if you knew, or at least, had some relevant data to help your claim. And why would it be ironic ?

      1. Douglas says:

        It would be “ironic”, TartanFever, cause it’s a well kent fact that wee Scots are too stupit to run our ain country and the divinely-elected people of England, that bastion of civilization, the country that invented the concentration camp among other things, have been daen us a favour by running the country for us all these years….positively bending over backwards to enlighten us with their superior skills in such subtle crafts as A) arse licking to anybody with more money than you b) inventing historical gobbledygook and calling it a constitution to confuse the populace c) foreign wars of intervention d) a rancid class system designed to promote in-bred stupidity and privilege over endeavour and self-betterment.

        Truly, what is “ironic”, is that once we’re shot of Westminster, all of the bright people living in England who are not enslaved to money will be packing their bags and heading this way.

    2. Alan Goldwater says:

      Support for Scottish independence is running at around 25% on both sides of the border, so it’s clear that most English would vote in favour of the Union with Scotland if they had the chance.

    3. Jim McNeill says:

      I work in Yorkshire, and many of my English colleagues are quite plain in their opinion that we should “stop whingeing and get on with” Scottish independence. They are of course, quite correct. It is astounding that there are not a majority of Scots who agree with them. Yet.

    4. Perhaps you should take a firmer grasp of the concept of “irony”, Tom. Why shouldn’t fair-minded English people be supportive of Scottish independence?

      On holiday recently I met a Yorkshireman who told me he very much hoped that people in Scotland would vote “Yes” next year because he recognised that even in the unlikely event of a “No” votey in September the debate will simply continue until independence is finally achieved. That is why “No” campaigners are so gloomy and pessimistic. In their hear of hearts they know that in the end they are bound to lose.

  3. Jim says:

    Good piece

    A couple of additional thoughts:

    I dont think deep down people consider Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians etc to be “foreigners” (personally I dislike it when applied to any nationality of people). We also don’t consider the Irish to be “foreigners” and post independence the Scots and English won’t consider each other to be “foreigners.” It’s a weak Better Together argument that doesn’t hold water for most Scots.

    Secondly, next year’s Armed Forces Day, as we know, is solely aimed to prevent Scottish independence.

    We should therefore be pointing out that Scots soldiers have been used as cannon-fodder throughout history by the UK: “No great mischief should they fall” type thing. 18% of British soldiers killed in WW1 were Scottish, 14% in WW11.

    It is also the case that the aforementioned Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians and numerous other nationalities in the Commonwealth fought and died on the side of the UK in these wars. Will, therefore, next year’s Forces Day involve representation from the Royal Australian Navy and Royal Australian Airforce, the Royal New Zealand Navy and the Royal New Zealand Airforce and from the Royal Canadian Navy and Royal Canadian Airforce and all the rest?. All fighting on the same side and all independent from Westminster.


  4. RevStu says:

    “Perhaps the most telling facet of British politics today is that there is no uncontested term to build consensus around. This is dangerous. Words that should promote consensus such as ‘welfare’ ‘hard work’ ‘justice’ ‘society’ and ‘democracy’ often do the opposite.”

    And most crucially of all – “fairness”.

  5. Abulhaq says:

    /Women still die because of medieval dogma/…lets be PC re the Irish and the Russians but get stuck into that evil obscurantist organization the Catholic Church. The case you refer to was complex and very tragic but the storm whipped up by “interested” parties has had rather more to do with anti-Catholicism than humanitarian values. May I remind you that the Indian state permits abortion of female babies which makes the outcry from some in that quarter ring very hollow indeed. By the way the Catholic Church’s teaching on abortion is not mediaeval but modern, based on what we know concerning the development of the human foetus. Do some research and you will find that the position of the Church has altered significantly over the centuries. Please do not use the term mediaeval as a pejorative, you insult some of the greatest names in European thought.
    I have read your article twice and I have come to the conclusion that what you are saying is that were the ProUK campaign more articulate, inclusive and rational that option might be more attractive than independence. I do hope I have misunderstood. As to your comments on the English language as a “decentralized tool”, by which I think you may intend neutral, I could not disagree more. English is the medium of a worldwide socio-cultural imperialism. Minority language revival kicks that straight in the gut. Newspeak is only part of the problem. “Speak a minority language and you attack the capitalist system at its weakest point”, Jean-Paul Sartre.

    1. Jim McNeill says:

      Wow, thank you for that quote ““Speak a minority language and you attack the capitalist system at its weakest point”. This is very relevant and blatantly correct in the many stupid criticisms of Gaelic speaking on the web.
      I would also say that it is something that us Esperantists have known all along, but it’s a bit dangerous at times to come right out with it.

  6. Liked it. Does the politician’s lexicon mimic the journalist’s, or vice versa? Better Together has suffered at the hand of misfortune in representing a negative word, but the idea they could paint a positive picture of permanent austerity is frankly as ‘The Thick Of It’ as it could get – comedy gold.

    (That was deliberately not respecting the opponent, because the opponent does not respect society)

  7. James Morton says:

    Colin Kidd in “union & unionisms” summed up the benefits of Union as “becoming so banal that it eventually became like the wallpaper, were no one really questioned it. Now it is being questioned like it never has before and we can see that its defenders find themselves uniquely incapable of doing so.

    How does one defend something as ephemeral as the Union and the status quo. How can you defend it when its clear to anyone how far to the right England is drifting that it is making the SNP look positively left wing in its attitude. It doesn’t really speak much for a 300 yr old institution that no one can utter one positive thing about it. Instead we are treated to an increasingly surreal series of scares, threats and demands for answers. “what’s so good about being independent” they say without ever thinking about what is so good about the Union. If you challenge anyone in the NO camp, you are treated to an odd notion of Britishness as being a “benefit” to Scotland. Not in an economic sense, not in any political sense either, but in the sense of it being a national welfare system. Incredibly when pushed, they revert to dependency as a positive element. As one unionist said to me, “there is nothing to be ashamed of in being dependent someone better and richer than you”.

    In a recent exchange with a journalist, when I brought up this and the other recurring theme from the No camp of “I’m a proud Scot, but….” I was told that I was generalising from extremes. That I needed to learn who my opponents were. I was stunned by this, and asked were this more nuanced and balanced campaign was, as all my experiences to date had been seeing official material from BT and talking to NO voters. Of course I received no answer. On the subject of identity politics he was also quite adamant that there were many Scots, who felt themselves not to be British who did not support Independence. This could be very true given the more accurate polls on this subject. But its equally true on the subject of devolution that the majority do not support the status quo and want the powers an independent Scotland would provide. As Revstu said at his site some time back “They want independence, they just don’t want to call it that”

    I would agree with the author that unionists, don’t seem to much like the Union. They don’t seem to care all that much about the damage that the current government is doing to the connective tissues of Union. They like to invoke the idea of Folkhemmet, but have no idea as to how to implement it. The Tories think it can be outsourced to the Market, like Cameron’s “big society” or Ruth Davidson equally vacuous “Opportunity Vouchers”. Labour has decided to dig up Disraeli’s one nation Tory agenda and the media seem to have latched on to Farage and his UKIP party as being the wind of change. Scots right wing commentators have been driving themselves into a frothing fit trying to sell this one, because and I paraphrase David Torrance here, “they sort of resemble SNP, so why not?” That this party is deeply hostile to Scotland is never explored, but they are so desperate that Scotland is seen not to be different from England, that it too must vote for this party. When they don’t well, its all down to Scots being Anti-English. You couldn’t make it up.

    In little under a years time Scotland will asked how it can be best governed. Its nothing to do with Salmond or indeed the SNP its a question being put to the Scottish people. Is the union to continue or should it end. One side, of which I belong to feels that Scotland should dissolve the union and take affairs into its own hands again. The unionists have to be able to articulate a reason as to why they think the Union should continue and why Westminster is the best place to do it from. Fear tactics, direct threats and the surreal appeals to “Britishness” as a kind of state welfare it not the way to sell a Union of equals. My feeling is that even if the vote is no, and suspect an event like that will be a very narrow win. The desire to prevent anything happening like that again will push certain parties into triggering a constitutional crisis that saw devolution come into being in 1997. The article in the spectator is quite correct in this regard, yes or no, the Union loses.

  8. Douglas says:

    The disintegration of language and meaning has a long history, it started at the beginning of the 20th C and it took place all over the Western World..

    I don’t think it’s particular to the referendum debate, though you’re right about one thing Chris, we will not come out of this debate like we went into it, no matter the result.

    Scotland will be a changed country and in fact, already is.,

  9. “An honest defence of the union is something that is only rarely glimpsed, because at its crux, as Blair McDougall recently admitted, is a belief that governments in the south will ‘act against’ Scotland. It’s a dark and unpleasant picture of the way that the politicians on this island operate, and is closely linked to the notional idea that a new found ‘foreignness’ would close off Scotland to rUK on a number of levels””

    As they do whenever it suits them against any other country – and as other states’ govts do – and as would a Scottish govt working under the paradigm of national/state competitiveness – as is constantly promised by many of the Yes campaign and the present SNP govt?
    Shock! Horror!!– realisation that states compete under capitalism (again the invisible elephant!)

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