We need better labels than Separatist/Nationalist

Recently, Wings over Scotland published a blog, about the BBC changing a headline.

The story was about the detention of the leaders of the pro-independence movement in Catalonia. The BBC changed how they descried those arrested from ‘leaders’ to ‘separatists’.

Headline One.

Headline Two.

It is reasonable to argue that the second headline is actually more accurate.

The first headline is a bit broad. It doesn’t really give you a good idea as to what the detainees were leading or why they were detained. Although, you’d have to be pretty ill-informed not to know.

The second headline is more descriptive and is perfectly accurate in terms of meaning but I still can’t help feeling it is less fair than the first. The word ‘separatist’ has such negative connotations that using it does seem to prejudice the report in favour of the Spanish side of the debate. The word separatist has a military connotation and the word nationalist conjures up images of bigotry and hatred, which is far from fair on the average Catalonian.

Language is a powerful thing and we see similar shorthand terms being used by the mainstream media to describe supporters of Scottish Independence, and this must have an impact on the quality of the debate.

Supporters of independence here are regularly described as Separatists or Nationalists, whereas supporters of the union are rarely labelled at all. They are just the status quo and as such don’t need a label. As they stand against what is labelled Nationalism/Separatism, they are portrayed as champions of unity.

Yet it is far from as simple as that.

The word separatist doesn’t really do most independence supporters justice. We exist on a spectrum and those who fit that label most snuggly can be found at the extreme end of the scale. The goal of most independence supporters isn’t isolationism. Most of us want Scotland and the remaining UK to be close partners within a larger European Union. Most of us want Scotland to be contributing to and influential within other supranational organisations.

To go even further, many supporters of Scottish independence can envisage circumstances in which they would prefer to remain in the UK. The priority for most independence supporters is changing the relationship between Scotland, the UK and the world and shaking up the way we are governed to make it fairer. They see independence as the best way to do this but they recognise other options are plausible.

The perception of supporters of the Union as champions of unity is also a generalisation which oversimplifies things.

This has become especially obvious since the Brexit vote as the UK is currently saying sayonara to a close union with 27 other countries. The choice is now not between unity and separation, it’s between two versions of separation. However, even before Brexit this was a strained notion as the UK isn’t really a union in any meaningful sense.

Sure, it was formed when England and Scotland came together, and we have been together ever since. Yet what we formed was not a union but a unitary state. If the UK was a true union of equal states, then we probably wouldn’t be having this debate. The Supreme Court recently put to bed any notion of a true Union when it ruled that Scotland had no say on the article 50 process.

Loaded terms can also be used for supporters of the union, yet you will seldom hear them described as British nationalists or unionists in the mainstream media.

In fact, we talked about how supporters of the union do object strongly if the wrong words are used. That is probably a good thing as there are many reasons to vote against Scottish independence which these shorthand terms don’t properly convey.

As I said before, our opinions on the matter exist on a spectrum and, due to their connotations, words like unionist and separatist, only adequately describe the extremes.

Some phrases are better, like civic Nationalist or independence supporter, but as we see from media reporting of pro-union opinion you can often do it without using a loaded label at all.

The Tories, the Lib-Dems and Labour all ran their General Election campaigns on an anti-independence ticket but not once did the news describe the likes of Murdo Fraser as British nationalists.

It would be good to see the media extending that courtesy to both sides in the future.

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Bobby Hainey

Joint founder of Autonomyscotland. In my spare time I enjoy Road Cycling, Munro bagging and beer.

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