Should anything distract from the referendum campaign?

The Independence Debate is a hot topic – but not always in the way you’d expect!

It’s perhaps no surprise that the independence question has been on many people’s lips this week. What’s been more surprising has been the way that the White Paper has not necessarily been the main focus of attention. Instead, it has been a mixture of three issues – the seeming failure of the ‘No’ camp to understand how this campaign should be fought; the intervention of the Spanish Prime Minister; and the sad demise of Scotland’s ‘quality’ newspapers just when they’re needed most.

Alistair Darling Too cerebral to lead the 'No' campaign?
Alistair Darling
Too cerebral to lead the ‘No’ campaign?
Depending on which opinion poll you look at, the ‘No’ vote is currently ahead. But there’s a widespread view that the result of next year’s referendum will be extremely close. The reason for that has to do with the huge number of undecided voters at this stage. It would seem therefore that there’s all to play for. But when you listen to some of the regular academic commentators, they point to the last Scottish election when there was a similar number of ‘don’t knows’ in the days before the poll. Most went on to vote SNP.

Some of the many who are watching and waiting think the ‘No’ campaign is in danger of losing the argument because they’re too focused on fact – economic fact in particular. And part of the problem is that it’s led by a former Chancellor of the Exchequer. There’s no doubt that Alistair Darling is a highly intelligent, very articulate man. But his comments tend to concentrate on what he knows – the economic impact of separation.

But for many people, the final decision about where to put their cross on referendum day will be based on emotion rather than economics. It will depend on how you ‘feel’ – Scottish or British! The ‘Yes’ campaign understand this all too well. Their messages are designed to appeal to the heart rather than (or perhaps as well as) the head. It uses history, heritage and culture as defining features of what makes us ‘Scottish’.

The British Raj  Much the same arguments were used there against claims for independence
The British Raj
Much the same arguments were used there against claims for independence
A British Asian business woman mentioned this recently with reference to the history of India. In the closing years of the Raj, the colonial government used the same economic arguments to try to persuade the people of the sub-continent about the folly of their desire for independence. So the supporters of freedom from the Empire changed tack and focused on the importance of Indian culture and heritage and why it made sense to go it alone. We all know who won THAT argument.

Until the proponents of the ‘No’ campaign here understand that their emphasis on the ‘facts’ and the risk to our economic future isn’t cutting much ice with the ‘don’t knows’, they’ll continue to lose the argument. If they want to win, they need to find an emotional reason to bind the union together and that’s a harder thing to pull off.

It’s almost certain that the Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, knew exactly what he was doing when he made his comments about an independent Scotland. However, his words were probably more aimed at a domestic audience than Holyrood. With nationalists in both Catalonia and the Basque country both contemplating leaving Spain, he certainly had THEM in mind when he made his claim that Scotland would NOT automatically be a member of the EU.

Mariano Rajoy Speaking about Scotland with Catalonia in mind?
Mariano Rajoy
Speaking about Scotland with Catalonia in mind?
“I would like that the consequences of that secession be presented with realism to Scots” he said after a summit in France. “Citizens have the right to be well informed and particularly when it’s about taking decisions like this one. I respect all the decisions taken by the British, but I know for sure that a region that would separate from a member state of the European Union would remain outside the European Union and that should be known by the Scots and the rest of the European citizens”.

That prompted discussion as well. Would Madrid veto an independent Scotland from joining the European Union (at least in the short term) in order to frighten off the nationalists at home? Would some of the other members think the same? Italy has its own separatist movement in the north of the country. There’s even a small nationalist community in Bavaria as reported here in recent weeks.

Speaking on BBC Scotland, the Finance Secretary, John Swinney, reiterated the Scottish Government’s position that Scotland was already part of the European Union by virtue of its membership as part of the UK. All it would take for Scotland to be accepted as an independent state would be an amendment to The Treaty on European Union, although this would have to be approved by all member states.

“We are members of the European Union,” he explained. “Once Scotland votes for independence – a Yes vote in September 2014 – we remain still within the European Union and the day of independence doesn’t happen until 2016. So we are doing this from within the European Union as part of our membership.”

Both The Scotsman and the Herald have been hit by falling circulation
Both The Scotsman and the Herald have been hit by falling circulation
Finally, there’s growing concern over what’s happening to Scotland’s ‘quality’ newspapers – the Herald and The Scotsman. Both have seen their circulation fall dramatically. People are reporting difficulty in finding copies of either title in major news agents in both Glasgow and Edinburgh. However, they’ll hold considerable sway over the political establishment which may not quite have realised how far these venerable newspapers have fallen.

It should be in everyone’s interests to have the widest possible public debate on Scotland’s future over the next 11 months. But for a paper like The Scotsman to respond by further cutting back – the Saturday magazine is likely to disappear in the New Year – that debate may well have to take place elsewhere.

  • Henry Hooper

    Im sorry David, but for many many people independence is about the economy and representative democracy…and thats entirely correct. Remember its Scotland thats been subsidising the UK not the other way round!!…why be governed by a government you didnt vote for imposing policies on us we time and time again reject..thats what independence will right for me and for all Scots

    • David Calder

      Henry – I have immense respect for people like you who’ve gone to the trouble of understanding the issues. The trouble is that I’ve met a whole host of undecided people this week who probably won’t make that effort. Indeed, I’ve been to all too many business seminars where the advice from the person leading the event has advised everyone NOT to read the newspapers or watch TV news because “it will depress you too much” (seriously!!) That’s why I wrote that, come next September, many people will go into the booth and make a decision based on heart rather than head. People like you already know that independence will be (as you put it) “about the economy and representative democracy”. My guess is that Ruth Davidson and Alistair Darling will vote in an opposite direction but would cite the very same reasons – though their explanations would be probably rather contrived. What I really want to do is make sure that more people cast their vote after making an informed decision. I’m planning to host some webinars in the New Year to encourage folk to learn more from both camps. I think we would BOTH like to make sure that the decision is decisive – anything less would leave us in a worrying quagmire which would suit nobody. Thank you for taking the time and trouble to comment.