Should anything distract from the referendum campaign?

We need a much better standard of debate about the issues
12 months from today, people living in Scotland will go to the polls to answer one simple question – “should Scotland be an independent country?” One can only hope that the next 12 months will start to see much more detailed, reasoned and effective debate about this country’s future. Frankly, until now what we’ve had has been what can only be described as a “phoney war”. Very little in the arguments put forward by either side in this debate could genuinely be said to be anything more than opinion, guesswork and conjecture.

Would Scotland have to adopt the Euro?
Would Scotland have to adopt the Euro?

All the big questions still have to be answered. Would Scotland for example automatically be a member of the European Union? Would the EU allow an independent Scotland to keep the pound? Would an independent Scotland have to adopt the Schengen Agreement – and if so what would that mean for the border between Scotland and England? Even if Scotland were allowed to keep the pound, would it be able to borrow at the same rates as the current British government? What would Scotland share of the U.K.’s National Debt amount to?

These are only a tiny fraction of the still unanswered questions to which voters will need answers before this time next year. It is unlikely that today’s debate in the Scottish Parliament will add very much to the sum of knowledge. With all due respect to the various parties, all we are likely to get is more of the same political posturing. We need the two sides to be much clearer in setting out their stalls and be able to present a much more coherent argument for and against independence.

Alistair Darling chairs the 'No' Campaign
Alistair Darling chairs the ‘No’ Campaign

Speaking recently to business people who have strong reservations about the split with England, it was quickly clear that their main frustration was aimed at what they described as the ineptitude and incompetence of the “No” campaign. Alistair Darling, its chairman, may be a seasoned politician but the business people felt that he appeared to be leading a group of disparate organisations which were between them incapable of producing a simple, clear vision of a future United Kingdom. They feared that the campaign was in danger of losing by default because its public relations in particular seemed non-existent.

By contrast, the “Yes” campaign does at least have a vision of what Scotland could be like as an independent nation. They were able to draw on international comparisons such as the peaceful breakup of Czechoslovakia into two separate countries. They constantly refer to the influence that small nations can have on the EU – the Presidency of the Council is currently held by Lithuania, for example. And the SNP has consistently over the years drawn inspiration from the success of the Nordic countries, Norway and Denmark in particular. The party sees no reason why Scotland could not emulate those nations.

Alex Salmond MSP "once-in-a-generation event"
Alex Salmond MSP
“once-in-a-generation event”

However, we are reaching the point where flesh needs to put on the bones. The first stage in understanding what in fact we will be voting on in 12 months’ time will come with the publication of a White Paper setting out the Scottish Government’s position. Only then will the supporters of independence be able to separate the reality from the dream; only then will the supporters of union be able to identify the perceived benefits of staying together.

First Minister Alex Salmond has said that the referendum would be “the biggest opportunity Scotland has ever had”. In a speech last night, he went on to point out that referendums like this are “a once-in-a-generation event, which means that the vote on September 18 next year will be the opportunity of a lifetime for many people in Scotland as we get a chance to choose a country’s future.” He insisted that the referendum was not about anyone politician or party. “It’s about completing Scotland’s home will journey just been underway for more than a century.”

What we now have in front of us is the choice of what form that home rule will take. This “phoney war” has been going on for too long. There has been some speculation that Mr Salmond chose the date in 2014 for several social and political reasons. He will for instance be hoping for a positive outcome from the Commonwealth Games and the other major events which are taking place in Scotland next year. He will also be hoping that the other political parties will start fighting each other in the run-up to the U.K.’s general election in 2015 and thus be more interested in fighting each other and fighting for the cause of unity. The danger is that the winner may turn out to be apathy and the last thing Scotland wants or needs is to reach a decision on a minority vote. Our decision needs to be clear-cut and definite.

  • Abulhaq

    The Scots are an irritatingly conservative lot. The Union has turned many into passive receptors of the comforting myth that we, as a nation, actually have a voice in how the UK is administered. Scots names appear in the media giving the impression that is the case. However, these are Scots operating within a system that is stamped overwhelmingly with an English worldview. Its HQ is after all in the English capital. Our nation is culturally in the sphere of influence of England. The outside world is filtered through its particular prism. There is plenty of mileage to be made out of “la différence” and the positive consequences of restoring our fractured self-worth. This is a psychological and cultural issue as much as one of facts and figures. Listening to the weary recitation of how “we can’t because we’re not” from Scots suggests this timorous, rather provincial, approach to the prospect of restoring democratic sovereignty needs work.

  • Dandelion

    The desire for independence is simply not strong enough. We are comfortable and we are relatively rich, even after a global financial crisis. Saying ‘oh we could be like Norway’ ignores the fact that we already ARE quite similar to Norway when looking at the global distribution of wealth (and also that Norway is something of an outlier economically).
    So without a convincing economic case, the SNP must rely on the problems caused by political imbalance – that we end up governed by Tories. Which is unfortunate – but – of course – a universal problem that is really just an aspect of being in a larger democratic area – and Scotland is relatively lucky in that in our case this imbalance is mostly mitigated by devolution.
    So – frankly – I think the current independence campaign simply hasn’t come up with strong enough reasons for independence. A die-hard core of people who support independence on ideological grounds (independence at any cost) are simply not going to cut it when trying to convince a more skeptical public who are less fussed about whether or not their ‘destiny’ is determined by Holyrood or Westminster.