It is less than a year until the Scottish Government’s proposed date for a second independence referendum and the UK’s highest court is considering whether Holyrood has the power to organise the vote itself.
Amid a series of papers mapping out the SNP’s plans for Scotland after a separation from the rest of the UK and the debate over the country’s future heating up once again, there is also division about the use of a particular word – Scexit.
A portmanteau of the words “Scotland” and “exit”, it means the country’s removal from the United Kingdom following a referendum – akin to Brexit.
Its use among opponents of Scottish independence has led to criticism that it is politically charged in itself.
“You can tell someone’s position by some of the language they use, that’s why we have to be very careful with language,” said Professor James Mitchell, an expert in public policy at Edinburgh University.
“What’s in a name? The answer is quite a lot.”
In 2017, announcing her intention to hold a second independence referendum, Nicola Sturgeon opted for the hashtag #ScotRef.
The preferred hashtag has changed since then, with #indyref2 becoming more widely used.
Professor Mitchell suggested Scexit has become linked with negative connotations following the Brexit referendum.
With a majority of Scottish voters favouring to remain in the European Union, Brexit and its perceived impact are often seen in negative terms.
Professor Mitchell compares Scexit to the use of the word “separatism” during campaigning prior to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.
Separatism was favoured by opponents of the independence movement and avoided by its supporters – framing their perspective in the language they chose to employ.
With much of the pro-independence movement positioning itself as “independence within Europe”, Professor Mitchell said it can be understood why supporters would seek to avoid any association with Brexit.
“Independence is the mobilising term, even though under that term there are lots of different perspectives,” he said.
“The SNP, since the late 80s, preferred to talk about ‘independence in the EU’.
“Brexit didn’t have the same connotations as Scexit does now. The pro-remain campaign could have attacked Brexit on separatism, arguing that is what it is.
“So in a sense, the battle of language was won by Brexit supporters, who avoided the negativity associated with separatism.”
Whereas Brexit remained a neutral term employed by both sides during the 2016 referendum, Scexit has come to be associated with the baggage of the UK leaving the EU by some.
Herald journalist Neil Mackay said the term “is a red flag that you’re dealing with a culture warrior rather than someone with a brain who wants to debate intelligently about Scotland’s future”.
Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland Alistair Carmichael disagreed. He responded: “Perhaps – there is of course a danger in letting extremists of any sort determine what terms are allowed.
“I have not seen Scexit as an overly ‘nationalist’ term, and indeed given it is a critical comparison I am surprised that right wing nationalists would want to use it.
“Not being a fan of nationalism of any sort and having used the term occasionally I’m interested in this argument,” he said.
“Surely the point with Scexit is in highlighting the link and similarity to Brexit – perhaps an implicit challenge to nationalist framing around the term independence.”
Several Conservative politicans have used the term, including MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife Murdo Fraser, Lothian MSP Miles Briggs and MSP for the Highlands and Islands Jamie Halcro Johnston.
But it has been used in both academic writing and in the international press.
An article attributed to Professor Mitchell is titled Scexit from Brexit – not a title he gave it – with it appearing elsewhere under the heading What does Brexit mean for Scottish politics?
A number of articles in the Indian press also use the term, as does a piece in German publication Der Spiegel’s international section – After Brexit could come Scexit.
In the British press it has appeared in the Independent and regularly in the Spectator and the Scottish Daily Express.
When writing for an audience that may be less familiar with the topic a simplified shorthand expression can be useful, Professor Mitchell said.
“People will be more familiar Brexit,” he added.
“We are where we are now, and we are here in Scotland, where people are pro-EU, and we are seeing the perceived negative impact of Brexit.”
A number of alternative terms have been suggested, Scoot, for example, a combination of Scotland and the Scottish variant of “out”, but it has yet to be seen if any will catch on or if the debate will remain confined to Twitter.
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