The wrong question is being asked. I blame that David Cameron. Less than two years ago Scotland’s First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party, Alex Salmond, was trying to get extensive devolution – known as DevoMax – as an option for this year’s vote on Scottish Independence, due on 18th September. But Cameron insisted the vote be a simple yes/no reply to the question “should Scotland be an independent country?”
At the time polls suggested a No vote would be secure and Cameron believed that would put the pesky Scots back in their box once and for all. But what Cameron missed is that, given the choice between three options: full independence; keep current arrangements and “transfer of more powers including tax and welfare but excluding defence and foreign affairs” Scots preferred the latter.
Fast forward to now, and Mr C (like everybody else) is discovering two things about democracy. First, choices are rarely black/white, yes/no. And that people feel seriously uncomfortable about being denied a more nuanced choice, especially for such a major decision. This is not like an ordinary election where today’s choice can be altered in a few years’ time. This is a vote to end a constitutional settlement that has endured for over 300 years. For better or worse, unravelling that will eye-wateringly expensive in money, time and general distraction, when there are far more urgent things demanding our attention and energy – like climate change and resource pressures, the ongoing mayhem in the global financial system and socially disruptive levels of inequality and deprivation.
We all deserve a better quality of debate
The quality of the debate so far has been shameful – for an ordinary election, never mind for a decision like this, which will have repercussions way beyond the beautiful shores of bonny Scotland.
Here I must declare my interest. I am a Scot: conceived in Stirling, born in Aberdeen, educated in Coventry (where I lost my accent) and Edinburgh. As I write I sit in my Scottish home of over 30 years looking out to just such a beautiful shoreline. Yet I do not have a vote in this election that will have so much of an impact on my future. I work and spend a lot of time in London just now making me one of nearly 1 million non-resident Scots without a vote.
That I have to justify myself like this is a measure of what has happened to the debate up here. Local people who are English or other nationalities by origin and do have a vote, are reluctant to admit they will vote No. To do so invites accusations that if they don’t love Scotland why stick around? And after the boss of a travel agent was vilified for saying a Yes vote would be bad for jobs and business, No-voting Scots are keeping their heads down.
A similar atmosphere pervades the public debate. The Yes Campaign (aka the current Scottish Government) is standing on a 670 page manifesto which states the choice facing the electorate as YES-“we take the next step on Scotland’s journey” and NO-“Scotland stands still”. Any attempt by the No Campaign (Better Together) to challenge this ‘framing’ of the choice is slapped down as an insult to Scotland and the Scots. For example, Lord George Robertson, former Nato Secretary General (Scottish and voting resident) was invited to put the international case for a No vote at the US Brookings Institute at the beginning of April and immediately a spokesman for Alex Salmond called his remarks “crass and offensive” scaremongering.
Which highlights another lesson for the democratic process. Set your campaign against the strategy of our opponent and you will only get the space they allow you. Something the No Campaign is learning the hard way.
A Yes vote – for independence – will cause a big constitutional upheaval for Scotland that will have ramifications up and down many levels of government. Already, the Scottish Islands (no happier about rule from Edinburgh than Westminster!) are petitioning for transfer of power to them – including control of the sea bed where much of the North Sea oil reserves lie. And in Spain and Belgium, separatist groups are watching carefully to see how Scotland fares in negotiating separate membership of the European Union. Yet it will only be after the referendum that big questions like whether Scotland will be able to ‘keep the pound’, ‘sit at the top table in Europe’, keep its own army, get rid of nuclear weapons but stay in NATO, and so on will be asked, never mind answered. In the meantime, the Yes campaign is able to promote the sunny uplands of post-independence Scotland and avoid all the thorny implementation questions.
Strategies work best if set against your own objectives – not those of others
This puts the No Campaign in a very difficult position. For starters, running a positive, attractive campaign for a negative proposition is not easy. But it has to be said they have not made a very good fist of things so far. Their website is dense, wordy and the arguments are diffuse and clinical. The No Campaign has fallen into the trap of responding to the Yes Campaign, rather than crafting a positive story of its own about attractive ways of de-risking Scotland’s future. An early engagement of a top class communicator to reformulate their website and arguments is strongly advised! Plus a reflection that, if the Scots actually prefer DevoMax, then surely the only way to get it is by voting No in the 18 September referendum. (Already the Scotland Act 2012 gives the Scottish Parliament the power to set its own rate of income tax and devolve further taxation from 2016 onwards.)
So where do I stand? Aren’t greenies supposed to favour substantial devolution? Isn’t it in the localities that change will be implemented: CO2 emissions halted, nature protected, resilient, communities developed? Well yes, absolutely. Way back in the 1980s I supported the notion of a Europe of the Regions as a serious democratic option for just that reason and still think it a good idea; sustainable development will require a combination of on the ground implementation and massive collaboration on a larger geographical and political scale. (Which, come to think about it, could be the foundation for a positive No Campaign narrative!)
But that is not the sort of independent Scotland Alex Salmond has in mind. His proposition does not sound, read or feel like the start of a great collaboration for a higher purpose such as sustainability, but of a separation, a drawing away – of taking a huge risk with people’s lives for rather banal and selfish motives. In 670 pages he mentions sustainable development only once, and then not as the central logic for securing the future of all people, but as one of a list of things a constitutional convention might consider if the Yes vote wins.
That degree of insularity is scary. So for that reason, if I had a vote, I would vote No. Scotland, and the UK, deserve better.