By Sarah Hamlin, PhD resarcher and Policy Scotland, University of Glasgow
Today is the first anniversary of the 2014 Referendum on Scottish Independence. A day of voting, badges, foam fingers, t-shirts, stickers and an astonishing amount of casual chat between ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ volunteers at polling stations, closing with hours of vote counting, exhausting and exhaustive media coverage and a tense and sleepless night for many. Eventually, in the early hours of Friday morning, it became increasingly clear that the campaign for the Union had won the day.
Anniversaries, whatever they mark, are always times for reflection. We look back on how we’ve progressed, what we wish for the past and for the future. In marking anniversaries we tell ourselves stories that frame our experiences. The same event, from a war to a wedding, might be recollected very differently on the anniversary of its commencement by different participants. As time goes on and the outcomes of that event become easier to identify, our narratives change. What was called a victory one year may be described as a catastrophe ten years later. It remains to be seen whether this date will become an anniversary in future, and how it is marked today will, in itself, be a powerful statement. So when we mark an anniversary, we need to be concious of the impact the words we use to describe exactly what it is we are remembering can have on how these events are perceived at different moments in time.
Just as today the difference between terming someone a ‘migrant’ and a ‘refugee’ speaks to wider divisions and preconceptions that colour debate, the seemingly simple rhetorical decision to describe someone as a ‘nationalist’ or a ‘unionist’ instead of ‘pro-independence’ or ‘pro-Union’ can significantly alter the impression an audience receives of what that person might be saying, despite apparently meaning exactly the same thing . News media and other commentators wield significant power purely through these kinds of editorial decisions. Then, just as now, the BBC found itself being both lambasted and furiously defended over such terms.
But has this changed with a year’s distance between us and that strange moment of division and unity in Scotland? Away from the intense motivations on one side or another of the campaign, has rhetoric cooled towards the impartial? Has the introduction of the new Scotland-wide pro-independence newspaper, The National, made any difference to the imbalance that prompted its advent?
It is clear to see the entirely different conclusions that can be reached from the same evidence by comparing today’s headlines from different newspapers. Furthermore, the stating of these conclusions can in themselves be part of a campaign to turn them from biased conjecture to something that eventually becomes true.
A headline from earlier this week in the Telegraph reads: ‘Rejoice: It’s the anniversary of our splendid victory over independence’. Meanwhile, headlines from the pro-independence paper, The National, read ‘Scotland’s new spirit of hope is the legacy of an extraordinary campaign’ and ‘Project Fear: Story of how the Better Together campaign nearly fell apart’. The Telegraph’s use of ‘our’ is a telling rhetorical device to imply and maintain a unified British community that dodged a ‘separatist ‘ bullet. While the National’s use of ‘hope’ and ‘better together’ recall the spirit of this time last year, allowing for nostalgia for when a unified Yes campaign was at its height.
Did the campaign for maintaining Great Britain see a ‘splendid victory’ or were they a shambolic failure which lost thousands of votes and altered British politics beyond recognition? Neither, of course, is completely true, but which narrative ultimately becomes the one we are telling at the 10th, 50th, 100th September 18th from 2014 will in no small part be decided by the extent of this kind of rhetoric.
Separatist, unionist, nationalist, loyalist, nats… these terms are never selected for simple aesthetics, neither are simpler words like ‘astonishing’, ‘claims’, supposed’, or ‘inevitable’.
Language is never neutral.