Bannockburn, the great Scots referendum myth

Depiction of the Battle of Bannockburn
Bannockburn: All fun and games until someone loses the plot.

Every so often the media converges on what I’ve come to think of as a ‘lazy lie’. The distinction is with a deliberate lie, which is a thankfully rare thing, despite what many people assume. Newspapers may skewer facts to fit a particular political line or to engender a snappy headline, but conscious untruths are the exception. Lazy lies happen when a speculative notion appears in print somewhere and proves so irresistible that everybody else snaps it up without question. It’s attractive because it slots so beautifully into a preconceived narrative, and so is simply assumed to be true.

A good example of a lazy lie is the now widespread contention that the SNP wants to stage the referendum on Scottish independence on the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn. Bannockburn (in case you’re reading this in one of the many places in the world where it had no effect) was the pivotal victory of the Scots over the English during the wars of independence, as a result of which Scotland existed as a separate kingdom for nearly 400 years. The conventional wisdom says that holding the referendum on the septuacentenary of the battle, on June 23 or 24, is attractive to Alex Salmond because it would ‘stir up nationalist sentiment’.

Like all lazy lies, it makes perfect sense as long as you don’t think about it too much. It fits a particular view of the SNP’s political purpose that permeates the London-based media, which fondly believes independence is about the desire of five million embittered, hairy–kneed men and women to climb to the top of the nearest mountain, drop their kilts and yell ‘Freedom!’ at the top of their lungs. It ties in with the ‘grudge and grievance’ agenda that the SNP are supposed to have pursued since taking office in 2007.

Back in the real world, however, the SNP have a referendum to win. They have the opportunity to do so because they won a majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament in 2011, defying an electoral system that was engineered to prevent such an outcome. Raising romantic memories of battles gone by can win you a few votes in Banff, but it knocks stone dead your chances in other parts of the country such as Glasgow, with its endemic devotion to Labour Party patronage.

The SNP has spent the 12 years since devolution building coalitions of support around the country, infiltrating areas, social classes and minority groups that were often suspicious of the nationalist cause. It has staked its credibility on its claim to competence: the ability to run a progressive modern nation. The next step of the challenge is to persuade the Scottish people that it can run a progressive modern nation as an independent state. And that will not be done by appeals to the distant past. Scots grow up with Flower of Scotland, which includes the second verse: ‘Those days are past now/ and in the past they must remain.’ The referendum is about the future, and Salmond knows it.

There are many reasons why the referendum will not take place on the anniversary of Bannockburn. For a start, as Kevin Williamson points out, June 2014 coincides with the World Cup football tournament. More seriously, the SNP knows that to crank up support for independence to the 50% mark, it needs to build new coalitions of support. Associating the referendum with Bannockburn goes right against this strategy: it’s unlikely, for example, to sway the one in nine voters who define themselves as English.

Thankfully, ethnic division has no part in the debate, yet it’s a curious article of faith in parts of the media that independence somehow depends on whether people ‘feel Scottish’. I’m not sure what that means, but in reality the issue is more about whether people want to make their homes in an independent Scotland. Many of those aforementioned English voters are only too glad to be away from their native country and its penny-pinching, insular, Europhobic governing party. Like everybody else, they will have to be convinced that Scotland can function as a 21st-century nation, not a 14th-century one. So let’s banish the lazy lies about Bannockburn, grow up and get the debate on.

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