Analysis: What does the US election tell us about Scottish independence?

The US election should serve as a cautionary warning to unionists in Scotland.

Does the US election tell us anything about Scottish independence? (Photos: PA/Getty Images)
Does the US election tell us anything about Scottish independence? (Photos: PA/Getty Images)

Donald Trump – who at the time of writing has falsely claimed victory, stating the election was a “fraud” without evidence, and threatened legal action without clarity of issue – is the poster-boy for populism.

Machismo, bullishness, and misogyny coarse through his veins and his personality, while his deeply divisive approach, has spoken, again, to millions of Americans.

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Whether he eventually wins the election or not, his success is often used as an example of how populism and a populist strategy can bring about real change – although whether Mr Trump’s administration has done anything but promote the president’s own business interests is up for debate.

Populism – that elites or the ‘establishment’ disregard and ignore concerns of ordinary people – is often put to the the SNP as a criticism of their ongoing battle for Scottish independence.

While the SNP regularly, as the Scottish Conservatives put it, employ ‘grievance politics’ strategy and appeal to the idea the UK Government is frustrating the “settled will of the Scottish people” in blocking indyref2, it would be unfair to argue the movement is purely populist.

Nicola Sturgeon is also not from the same school of Donald Trump or Boris Johnson.

Some aspects of so-called cybernats can degenerate into including her in populist tropes, but her use of empathetic, measured and cautious language means she is a more successful political communicator.

Scottish independence may emotionally appeal to voters on the basis of disenfranchisement and of a population being ignored, but it is not fundamentally based on those arguments and is as driven by policy differences.

In any case, Boris Johnson and Brexit defined and continue to define the hallmarks, most eloquently articulated by Nigel Farage, of populist English nationalism.

Mr Trump’s success in two separate elections makes one thing clear - populism does not diminish the political reality that populist language cuts through.

America has swung decisively into polarisation and populist politics which is thin on policy.

That should be a lesson for unionists, particularly Brexit-supporting unionists.

By feeding the fire of populism and legitimising it through Brexit, attempting to de-legitimise those same arguments in a Scottish context will likely fall on deaf ears.

Trump’s relative success, even if he loses the election, proves it.

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