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The Independence Referendum Has Brought Out the Worst of the SNP

15/09/2014 17:22 BST | Updated 15/11/2014 10:59 GMT

Had you asked me four years ago, I would not have had a particularly strong opinion on the SNP. They were popular among the Scots after all, having won an overall majority in a system designed to stop that from happening. They seemed to be managing the most autonomous region in the UK fairly well. That and they were giving Scottish Labour a run for their money, which for a sometime supporter of a party that really doesn't have a dog in the fight in the country is at least somewhat amusing. I anticipated that the impending debate about Scotland's constitutional future would be passionate, of course, but not nasty.

I was very wrong.

As the referendum campaign has gone on, it has become increasingly clear that Salmond has backed himself into a corner over the economy. Presumably he has been holding on to the idea of currency union since 2010, when it seemed that what worked for the 18 countries of the Eurozone could work for just two. Since them we have seen just how toxic a currency union is without political union, and the simple fact is that Westminster is not bluffing when it says offering Scotland a currency union is just not even a remote prospect. We also have questions over what the Scottish relationship with the rest of the EU would look like. Salmond has maintained a Panglossian view that Scotland would be fast-tracked to full EU membership, and would be able to benefit from certain exemptions that Britain has from treaty obligations such as the absence of any formal commitment to join the Euro. This has clearly not been borne out by reality, with senior EU bureaucrats stating that Scotland might have to go through a lengthy application process, and would also need to negotiate any treaty exemption with every single member state. These are all things he had time to prepare for. He should have been working out from day one what the economic repercussions of independence might be and he should have anticipated potential criticisms well in advance and acted accordingly. He and the rest of the SNP did not do so, and it shows.

There are two honest strategies that can be used against Better Together's argument that Scottish independence would impose an unbearable financial burden. The first is to deny that this is the case and produce evidence to contradict this claim. The second is to accept that there would be significant costs, but argue that there is a value to being independent that outweighs all economic considerations. The latter tactic is difficult if not impossible except under an extremely nationalist climate, as the majority of voters generally have more concerns about practical matters such as the functioning of the economy than about metaphysical narratives about nationhood. UKIP for example was a fringe party when arguing for independence from the EU on principle, and has only become more significant in the wake of ongoing crises where voters believe, rightly or wrongly, that EU membership has a negative effect on their standard of living.

The YES campaign did attempt to argue for the economic benefits of independence, but has recently seen this line of argument unravel. With major retailers and financial institutions coming out to say that prices would rise and headquarters would move (and with them tax revenue) in an independent Scotland, it is all but obvious that divorcing two of the most tightly entwined economies in the modern world will have a hugely damaging impact. The SNP's (and by extension the YES campaign's) response has been to invoke conspiracism, and this is where the very worst parts of the SNP psyche have been exposed. Alex Salmond's response of "scaremongering" to anyone who points out the cost of separation is not just like a small child sticking its fingers in its ears shouting "LALALA I CAN'T HEAR YOU" as many people were wont to believe in the early stages of the campaign. Instead, it is a dog whistle tactic- an attempt to appeal to the many Scots who rightfully distrust the current government. The narrative that Salmond wants to push is that the businesses that are warning of the consequences of leaving the union are doing so as part of a conspiracy by shadowy Westminster-backed forces- many of them English and, worse, Tory.

This has even more sinister overtones when you look at how the SNP is framing voting YES as the only option for patriotic Scots. It is no secret that the cries of "Traitor!" are directed almost exclusively at one side of the debate. To be a Unionist is not just to not be a true patriot- it is to be a "quisling" in the words of some nationalists. Those who reject independence cannot simply be expressing their honest opinion about what is best for Scotland as if they were they would be nationalists. They must therefore be a fifth column in league with those same shadowy English forces that I mentioned earlier. To paint your political opponents as misguided is one thing, but to paint them as traitors is far more dangerous, and could indeed be highly perilous to Scotland's fledgling system of consensus politics. It is very difficult for a party to broker a parliamentary deal with people who they have spent months painting as the enemy within.

What has been an even more worrying development is Jim Sillars's threat of a "day of reckoning" in the event of a YES win for any business that dared to support the Union. This is in addition to numerous reports of businesses being scared to speak out against independence for fear of reprisals from an SNP dominated Holyrood. This should ring huge alarm bells about what an SNP governed Scotland would look like. The threat on the part of Sillars to nationalise BP for speaking out against independence is obvious in its intent- since BP would be an arm of the state, its chair could quite easily be sacked for speaking out against the SNP. Even without action as drastic as nationalisation it is too easy to imagine, amidst the resurgence of a particular virulent form of nationalism, that Holyrood might make doing business much more difficult for anyone who goes against the will of the Scottish people- that will, of course, being synonymous with SNP policy, as all good Scots are Nationalists.

There are common poisonous traits found in nationalist movements across the globe, the worst of these being a xenophobic fear of shady foreign conspiracies and a tendency to attack critics of the government as not true patriots at best and traitors at worst. What people often do not recognise is that these exact same traits are also to be found lurking underneath the rhetoric of the SNP. Whatever the result of the referendum, it is likely to lead to a country that is deeply fractured, perhaps indefinitely. By and large this is a direct result of the campaigning tactics that Salmond has fostered, if not encouraged. He and the rest of the Yes campaign might not have destroyed Scotland in order to save it, but they might very well have irreversibly divided it.