How do nationalists avoid facts? By telling fairy stories instead

How do nationalists avoid facts? By telling fairy stories instead

by Jill Stephenson
article from Wednesday 30, September, 2020

THE SNP HAS GIVEN up trying to provide a reasoned case for leaving the UK. It tried to construct one in 2014, but it turned out that its case, presented in the 649-page tome, Scotland’s Future, was based on sand. The grandiose hopes of having a currency union with the remaining UK, of setting up a new state in eighteen months and at a cost of a mere £250 million, of joining the EU in that same eighteen month period, of having mum do their washing and the parents lending the family car on demand – all turned out to be illusory. 

Such as it was, the SNP case was based on a reckless prediction of a very healthy income stream from North Sea oil – according to Alex Salmond, in the region of £6.9-£7.8 billions in 2016-17. This was confirmed by Andrew Wilson, author of the SNP’s Growth Commission Report of 2018, who acknowledged in 2017: “we did have oil baked into the numbers and it was indeed a basis”. The collapse in the price of oil in 2015, so that oil brought in pretty much zero revenue in 2015-17 and rather little after that, scuppered any SNP case based on indigenous wealth, even if some dogged separatists still believe in it. 

The latest gambit is to say: ‘Once we have our own currency, we will have the ability to create money and spend it on things that are needed. The state literally creates money. It does not need our money’. Thus saith Osama Bhutta, who hopes to become an SNP MSP and is a cousin of justice secretary, Humza Yousaf. He is a follower of a financially illiterate tendency called Modern Monetary Theory. Try asking Weimar Germans, Soviet Russians, Zimbabweans or Venezuelans how that worked out. Readers of ThinkScotland will be able to spot that scam at 100 paces. 

With the cornerstone of the ‘independence’ case shattered, how were new converts to be attracted to the cause? Marketing Professor Iain Black of the University of Stirling has come up with a wheeze based on a rather insulting view of potential nationalist supporters. Most people, he says, find facts difficult to understand and absorb. What they like and understand easily are stories. Rational thought and analytical thinking are ‘hard, take lots of energy, and often lead to confusion’. Instead, he says, nationalists must use ‘more stories, less facts’ and ‘feel good’ messages. 

It is staggering to find a university professor advocating less factual and analytical content and more fairy tales, but presumably that is what marketing is all about – and SNP marketing in particular. It gives a clear insight into his view of actual and potential separatist supporters. He says that campaigns which trigger an emotional response are more likely to be successful ‘because it takes less effort and the outcome often feels good as neurotransmitters such as dopamine are released’. There is nothing particularly original about the idea of appealing to the emotions. Gustav le Bon, in his The Psychology of Crowds (1896) expatiated on this, and his findings were absorbed and acted upon by one of the most successful marketing shysters, Adolf Hitler. 

Emphasis on stories and the emotions appeals, naturally, to the kind of people who dress up in tartan, paint themselves with woad and wave flags from bridges. Their allegiance is emotional. The SNP has already used the belt and braces approach by feeding them the fake news that passes for ‘facts’ in nationalist circles, the reams of alleged grievances and lies about how Scotland is not ‘free’ and is constantly robbed and disrespected by the English. If one disputes SNP ‘facts’, the most frequent response one receives from nationalists is an emotional one – whether of the ‘I believe’, ‘I hope’, ‘I have faith’ variety or the ‘why do you hate Scotland’, ‘you are not a true Scot’ type. Enquiring Channel 4 journalist Ciaran Jenkins found this out recently when a Neanderthal Scottish nationalist told him to ‘go home’. His response, rightly, was ‘Scotland is my home’. 

There is a prototype for the ‘faith’ kind of thing that has taken hold in nationalist circles. In 1934, a Hitler Youth leader in the Rhineland explained his allegiance to the Nazi Party: ‘National Socialism is a religion’. Chris McEleny, an SNP councillor in Inverclyde, is of a similar religious-style view and even had his view confirmed in court in 2018. Judge Frances Eccles, presiding over his case against the Ministry of Defence, pronounced that support for Scottish independence is a philosophical belief akin to a religion. No wonder some people have taken to calling the SNP a ‘cult’. 

Professor Black’s aim is to change the minds of those who are opposed to Scexit. He tells us that there is strong evidence that says statistics and ‘facts’ are not the best form of information to use when we want people to change their mind. Changing minds is hard for many reasons, so let’s make sure we use the type of evidence most likely to be successful. 

What he is talking about is not evidence at all. It is anecdotes, folk history, myths and legends. It is the construction of narratives ‘that the listener finds coherent, recognises the context and feels empathy towards the characters and their goals’. This is reminiscent of the way in which, before 1933, the members of the Nazi women’s organisation would seek out women in public places such as rail stations, and engage them in conversation about the exciting new movement whose cause they were promoting and how they had come to support it. Personal contact and testimony were regarded as an effective way of propagating the message. There can be little doubt that this is what SNP activists have long been doing, going into neighbourhoods and spreading the message of Scottish exceptionalism and SNP credibility that creates an emotional charge that attracts a certain type of Scot.

Sad to say, pressing the emotional buttons is only partly about love, loyalty and a positive view of Scotland’s potential. The biggest emotion on which the SNP plays is ‘inclusivity’: ‘us’, our country, our people, our destiny. It is well-known that where there is an ‘us’, there is also a ‘them’ – the excluded. All nationalist movements have a ‘them’ against whom they (favourably) compare and measure themselves, and whom they resent for alleged slights and offences. Being part of what sociologists used to call an ‘in-group’ means that there is a warm, emotional feeling of belonging – ‘to be part of a movement’, as a former Hitler Youth member put it, in retrospect. It also means that there is the other side of the coin, the ‘out-group’. 

For Scottish nationalists, the rest of the world, and especially the EU, count as part of the ‘in-group’ while the ‘out-group’ consists of the UK, England, London, Westminster and, above all, Tories. This now manifests itself in the designation by nationalists of those Scots who disagree with them about Scotland’s future as ‘Tories’. With no knowledge about the political affiliation of the person they are addressing, nationalists will, knowing only that that person opposes the SNP and its nationalist separatism, talk about ‘Tories like you’ or ‘your political party’, meaning the Conservative Party, or ‘your leader, Johnson’. This is partly intended as a perceived smear, one that resonates with large numbers of former Labour supporters who were imbued with hatred of ‘Tories’ at a time when the Labour party was dominant in Scotland.

The SNP has already followed Professor Black’s prescriptions. In 2014, the party, its front organisations, like the risible ‘Business for Scotland’, and a variety of dishonest bloggers spun stories about Scotland as victim and the UK as villain – with lies about the UK ‘ripping Scotland off’ and nonsense such as claims that Scots taxpayers are paying for the London sewer upgrade, which is in fact funded by Thames Water customers and private investors. These unscrupulous people have never stopped. They whinge about Brexit being a ‘material change’, preferring to forget that anyone who voted for Scexit in 2014 was also voting to leave the EU, as the EU Commission Vice-President confirmed to the Scottish Parliament in writing.

Part of the nationalist mythology is embedded in the tens of thousands who have nothing better to do at weekends than dress up in ‘Scottish’ costumes, paint their faces blue and stravaig around town centres waving flags. In one sense, it all seems pointless. Yet it is an integral part of the nationalist propaganda MO. It called to mind a saying of Richard Bessel, an expert on Hitler’s stormtoopers (SA). He opined that not only did the SA distribute propaganda, but that the SA was propaganda. That is, their very visible presence on the streets of later Weimar Germany was a tangible reminder of the existence of the ‘movement’ (the NSDAP) and of its grievances, its numerical strength and its ambitions. Similarly, the rash of opinion polls commissioned recently by Angus Robertson’s ‘Progress Scotland’ SNP front organisation is propaganda, to try to persuade unconvinced Scots that Scexit is somehow inevitable, and so they might as well lie back and enjoy it.

Political pundits tell us that, while the factual message worked for the pro-union side in 2014, this would not happen again. They are colluding with Iain Black and his ‘stories not facts’ modus operandi. If one thing is clear, it is that there cannot be another referendum, at least until the onion-like layers of myths and lies that have been compiled by SNP agents and propagated to those who are receptive to stories have been peeled away and shown to be the dishonest distortions that they are. There can be no referendum until the SNP leadership acknowledges that the myths and lies of which it has encouraged the spread are indeed myths and lies. 

No wonder an activist such as Professor Black wants campaigns to consist of stories rather than facts and analyses. The 60 per cent support for separatism for which he aims will remain a chimera as long as the hard facts of Scottish separatism – and the facts against it are hard in all senses – are hammered home. 

That is what the SNP fears: where would the money come from? Which currency would we use, and with what implications? Who would be our lender of last resort? What would happen to Scotland’s financial sector? How would Scots compensate for the loss of the £10-plus billions that we receive, over and above what we generate ourselves, from the UK Treasury, every year?

These are fundamental material questions that require to be answered. As the informed among us know, the SNP still has no answers to them. Which is the reason that Iain Black prefers fairy stories.

Jill Stephenson is Professor Emeritus of Modern German History at the University of Edinburgh. 

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