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Game on!

15/01/2012

What a week! Of course the independence referendum has been on the horizon for some time, in the past seven days it suddenly became real, as the UK Government woke up to the reality of the SNP’s plan, and attempted to seize the initiative. Instead, it simply gave fresh impetus to the SNP, which recruited 800 members in five days, and saw support for independence climb to 40% in an ICM opinion poll against 43% support for the Union. A YouGov poll saw the debate even more polarised: 45% on either side in Scotland. The game is now very much afoot.

So how will the two cases fare? The way I see it, the arguments fit into three phases.

Phase One: Principles

Put simply, the question here is, do we want to consider the other questions? Is independence worth thinking about, let alone seeking? Both sides have their totem poles, with supporters anticipating a modern, forward-looking independent Scotland that can act solely in the interest of its people; Unionists believe that Scotland benefits from being part of a larger whole. Scotland free or a desert versus stronger together, weaker apart.

Both sides have to win the hearts and minds of the Scottish electorate, and it’s this phase of the argument which appeals to the heart. The problem is, the mind often gets abandoned and it gets mired in cliché and unfortunate language.

Take Joan McAlpine. There’s no doubt that the substance of her comments last week held water: despite continued and strong support for a referendum (even among people who would happily vote No), and despite figures – prominent figures – in the three Unionist parties arguing for a referendum, it’s taken years for the leaderships to get to where we are this week. First there was no call for a referendum – even when there clear was – then, it wasn’t the right time to discuss the issue – even though the same people arguing that would then list the reasons why their position on it was right in the next breath – then, when all else failed, they didn’t want anything to do with a referendum because it was Alex Salmond’s idea. Even now, the UK Government position started the week at formally transferring the power to hold a binding vote on independence to Scotland, but only if it held it in a manner approved by Westminster, which makes a mockery of devolution.

So there is, at best, a disconnect between the leaderships of the three Unionist parties and the Scottish electorate – even their own supporters. The middle ground is that there’s a mistrust on the part of those leaderships as regard whether or not the electorate will produce the ‘right’ answer. At worst, there’s an out and out contempt for the voters inherent in the assumption that they’d swallow such guff and tolerate the verbal (and in some cases, mental) gymnastics being performed by Unionist politicians.

But does that make them anti-Scottish? Even if it does, for Heaven’s sake, don’t say that! Instead of being forced to argue on the substantive points that Joan McAlpine was making, the Opposition managed to duck the issues altogether and merely protest in outrage at a perceived slight.

Of course, now that they have protested that slight, I’m sure that Unionists of all persuasions will back off from the spurious accusation of ‘anti-Englishness’ on the other side. Won’t they?

That’s the problem with this part of the argument: there is little substance and it’s all about sentiment – for good and ill!

Phase Two: Practicality

What makes the 2014 campaign different from the 1997 referendum campaign is that came with a White Paper which had been drawn up after years of deliberation on the part of the Scottish Constitutional Convention: we knew precisely what was being proposed and what mechanisms would be at work.

Now, the idea of independence is relatively straightforward – it’s tempting for supporters to ask in exasperation: “what part of ‘independence’ don’t you understand?”

But as we’ve already seen, there are questions about the potential outcome of the negotiations in the case of a ‘yes’ vote. The currency is the main question: Sterling? The Euro? The “Groat”?

Well, even this has subsidiary questions: would an independent Scotland be forced to adopt the Euro? Unionists argue that Scotland would effectively be negotiating for re-entry to the EU as a new member state, and would, accordingly, be required to adopt the acquis communautaire in full, with no opt out as the UK negotiated from the Single Currency at Maastricht. Nationalists counter by citing the precedent of Greenland, which on acquisition of new foreign policy powers, opted to quit the Common Market, but had to negotiate to withdraw, but wouldn’t have had to do so to remain. The truth is that we don’t know which is the case and won’t know until the outcome of the negotiations: as far as I’m aware, no EU Treaty has ever anticipated the secession of a constituent part of a member state, and the Greenland precedent doesn’t cover what happens if that constituent part then wants to remain within the wider European Union. It’s uncharted territory.

Equally, we don’t know the state of the Single Currency come 2014 when the decision will actually be taken. Euro-pessimists might openly question if there might even be a Euro by then for Scotland to be a part of; Euro-optimists might cite that the Euro’s infancy was troubled as its value on the international currency market plummeted, but it survived and regained a measure of credibility until the onset of the current crisis. They would argue that by 2014, membership of the Euro might not look so bad after all.

So the answer to the currency question hinges on a legal position we don’t yet know, and circumstances we can’t yet predict. Now, things will become clearer with time, but some things – like the final currency position, and doubtless defence and foreign policy infrastructure – wouldn’t be settled until after the vote, after negotiations had been concluded.

That gives an advantage to the Unionists, but it’s not a full one: they have to answer what the alternative is. The Scotland Bill? Devo-max? Just as we need to know what independence means in reality, we also need to know what Scotland’s place in the Union would look like after a vote. As the possibility of a second question on devo-max seems to be receding for the moment, and as the Scotland Bill has been well and truly overshadowed by events, it’s no longer obvious just what a No vote means. By contrast, the No campaign in 1997 had a clear (if unappealing) idea: Direct Rule, and the continuation of the Scottish Grand Committee. The status quo, in other words. Now, a No vote will just open up a new debate.

Phase Three: Policy

Again, the 2014 campaign contrasts with the 1997 campaign: did those who voted know that they were voting for a Parliament which would abolish Section 28 before Westminster? That they’d overturn tuition fees? That bridge tolls would be abolished? I’m not sure they did. I suspect that everyone understood that had a Parliament been in place ten years earlier, the Poll Tax would never have happened, but beyond that, what were the policy discussions?

This time, we have a better understanding of what politicians in an independent Scotland would do. We know that the preference is to remain in the EU; we know that the preference is to get rid of Trident. But just as the debate in 1997 was framed against the Tories’ policies between 1979 and 1997, so the 2014 debate will largely be framed against UK Government policy.

And given the unpopularity of the Coalition Government, it’s advantage independence. On most if not all reserved policy, the Tories and LibDems are relentlessly criticised, so if the campaign is framed as a Scottish Government versus UK Government contest, the Yes campaign can win: just look at last May’s elections. The Scottish Government’s party left Session 3 with 47 MSPs and entered Session 4 with 69. The UK Government’s member parties left Session 3 with 33 MSPs between them (counting Alex Fergusson as a Tory seeking re-election as a Tory) and entered session 4 with just 20. Meanwhile, Labour, as the Opposition in both Parliaments, is cut out of the debate unless the Labour Leader in one Chamber or the other (or possibly both) looks like a shoo-in for Government come the next election. That means that Labour has to find either a personality or a replacement for Ed Miliband at Westminster, and Johann Lamont has to get her policy slate together by 2014 – including her policy on the constitution! If the Scottish people think that a Tory Government is the likely outcome of the 2015 election, or if the politician in the key position to argue against independence – the Leader of the Scottish Opposition – has no clear vision of what Scotland still in the Union should look like, independence looks like the clearer, safer option. That the No campaign doesn’t even have a clear leader or structure yet makes finding that structure, that narrative of a post-referendum Scotland in the Union that much harder.

So given that first principle debates result in a no-score draw with each side only appealing to its own supporters, it all comes down to the terms of the substantive debate: do we focus on the practicalities of the negotiations – in which case there are enough variables to make people uncertain about independence – or do we focus in what policies Scotland would be a part of in either case – in which case independence becomes more tangible and attractive?

More than likely, each side will fight on its stronger foot: the pro camp going for what an independent Scotland would be able to do, and the anti camp highlighting all the pitfalls on the way.

Let’s see which case engages the voters more.

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