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Scotland held a vote on independence on 18 September 2014, with 55 percent of the voters rejecting leaving the United Kingdom. Yet, the issue was thrust back into the spotlight in 2016, when the UK voted to withdraw from the EU, with repeated calls for a second Scottish plebiscite growing louder ever since. As in 2014, the generally accepted (albeit not universal) position has been that Westminster’s approval is needed to put a referendum on Scottish independence beyond legal doubt. The two British Prime Ministers (PMs) who held office during this time (2016–2021), Theresa May and Boris Johnson, consistently reiterated their opposition to another referendum and ruled out granting any such consent. In doing so, they employed various discourse strategies that drew upon anti-independence discourses mobilised in the 2014 referendum campaign but also departed from them in a significant manner. One such key point of departure was the strategic mobilisation of the “now-is-not-the-time” argumentative scheme.

This scheme strategically filled a specific political function: to justify inaction and postpone a fresh vote sine die. In other words, it functioned to carry the message that it is only right now (or, to quote, “at this time”, “right now” and “just at this point” for May, and at “this moment”, “right now”, “now”, “at this of all times” and in “the current context” for Johnson) that the moment is not suitable to rerun the vote. Both PMs deliberately talked at a high level of abstractness, thereby adding to the evasiveness of their “now-is-not-the-time” message. Neither specified the meaning of “the now moment” and when it would come to pass. I argue that mobilisation of this delay discourse provided the anti-independence camp with a new powerful rhetorical resource and marked a stark difference to the 2014 campaign, when the timing of the referendum was not questioned.

Having adopted the general orientation of the Discourse Historical Approach to discourse analysis, and working with a dataset of May’s and Johnson’s public utterances on the second Scottish referendum, the analysis revealed five predominant narratives deployed by both PMs within their “now-is-not-the-time” discourse, namely the 1) narrative of the referendum as a momentary distraction; 2) narrative of the currently unwanted referendum; 3) narrative of the responsibility for past choices, 4) narrative of recklessness and 5) narrative of the repeated divisions. While narratives 1-3 were not present in the 2014 referendum campaign, narratives 4 and 5 were more embedded in the earlier discourse.

Seen through a comparative lens, there were many striking structural similarities in the British prime ministerial constructions of the “now-is-not-the-time” discourse. Both PMs consistently constructed their arguments on a binary logic of divisiveness versus togetherness, chaos versus stability, sensibility versus responsibility, and other dichotomies. Principally, both viewed the second referendum as a currently loss-imposing action, and therefore used negative, fear-based arguments to make their case. In doing so, both employed the strategy of othering, with the functional means of othering marked by an “us–them” person deixis. In particular, they centred on constructing negative images of the Scottish National Party and referendum supporters, systematically portraying them as a distant, antagonistic outgroup, antithetical to the notion of stability and unity and constructed in opposition to the people’s interests. Simultaneously, to attract sympathy, both PMs systematically engaged in acts of positive self-presentation, contrasting themselves sharply to referendum supporters, who were depicted as reckless and irresponsible. Through their characterisation, both PMs constructed themselves and their governments as the protectors of the people against the threat of the second referendum.

At the same time, there were also numerous different positions expressed vis-à-vis the second Scottish referendum within the PM’s “now-is-not-the-time” discourse. While in Johnson’s case the focus was on the SNP’s carelessness and thoughtlessness, May emphasised the party’s remoteness and selfishness. Compared to May, Johnson delegitimised the SNP’s choice of timing by more frequently using strong evaluative adjectives, with his language tending to be generally harsher and more dramatic. Having said that, the differences between the two cases were rather minor, with the two PMs having managed to create a largely consistent (and thus powerful) argumentative scheme.

I contend that the “now-is-not-the-time” discourse closely reproduced the multi-level complexities, both internal and external, of the complicated Scottish independence question and illustrated the PMs’ attempts to neutralise this contested and highly divisive issue. Exploitation of this communicative pattern was convenient for the PMs, as it helped them deal with a delicate, acute dilemma and allowed multiple perspectives to co-exist. At the same time, however, mobilisation of the referendum delay discourse came at a price. It is this particular discourse that – among other things – contributed to the oft-voiced critique of both PMs’ (and their governments’) approaches to the issue of Scottish independence. Such communicative behaviour vis-à-vis the second vote is tricky as it may easily become a source of perplexity, cause misinterpretation of the PMs’ intentions, and be framed as evidence of prime ministerial/governmental negligence, ineptness and irresponsibility.

Note

The above draws on the author’s published work in British Politics: Not now! Construction of the “now-is-not-the-time” discourse of Theresa May and Boris Johnson vis-à-vis the second Scottish independence referendum: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1057/s41293-022-00214-x

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