Keep calm and carry on

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by Kenneth Mcneil

As the dust settles, slowly, on the momentous events of last week it’s time to look forward to how the great referendum debate should be conducted. But what have we heard so far and what can we expect?

The remarkable achievement of the SNP in gaining an overall majority in the election has brought with it an enormous amount of media comment, academic discourse, political opportunism and public proclamation. Much of this is, how can I put it? Mince.

The English media have of course latched on to the result with glee and it is quite obvious, and was on election night, that they know nothing about Scottish politics and the only policy of the SNP they are aware of is independence. I watched some of the coverage on BBC 2 with David Dimbleby whose programme was covering all the various elections and the AV referendum. One or two of his political guests had the grace to admit they didn’t know anything about Scottish politics but others just pontificated, mainly about what this meant for the coalition or Labour’s chances of revival. They just don’t get it. We’ve heard that phrase a lot recently and we’re going to hear it a lot more.

Sadly the standard of journalism I’ve been exposed to has been pretty poor. I’ve lost count of the number of articles I’ve read informing me that the election result doesn’t give the SNP a mandate to declare independence, that I should be careful what I wish for and bizarrely that the SNP don’t have the ‘excuse’ of minority government and that now they are a majority they are actually going to have to implement their policies. I suspect I’m not the only who felt sorry for Nicola Sturgeon as she was told the same thing in interview after interview and was pressed constantly to name a date for the referendum. She must have felt like banging her head off one of those nice trees at Prestonfield.

Even the normally reliable Iain MacWhirter in the Sunday Herald was in mince-talking mode with his views on what the SNP require to explain to the electorate about independence, the banking crisis and the Calman Commission. An article today in the Scotsman was basically a straight lift from Alex Salmond’s interview on the Politics Show. Wish I could make my money so easily.

The English newspaper online blogs are full of the normal ill-informed rubbish and umpteen demands for the English to get a vote. Why not Canada, Australia and the rest of the Commonwealth while we’re at it. Self-determination is an alien concept to the little Britisher. Expect a lot more of this.

The BBC was quickly on the streets to bring us interviews with three members of the public who were vehemently opposed to independence. But in the middle of a busy Buchanan Street the day after the SNP landslide the Beeb couldn’t find one person who might express a preference for constitutional change. Expect plenty more of this, too.

And what of the politicians? Falling heavily into the ‘they just don’t get it’ category various Unionist numpties are suggesting Westminster should call an immediate independence referendum to spike the SNP guns. Quite outrageous that they should think such a tactic acceptable. Sadly Auntie Bella went along with this rather than slapping down Murdo Fraser and gently leading Lord Forsyth back to his padded cell lined with pictures of Lady Thatcher.

Some Nationalists have backed the idea too, in their case to cash in on the SNP momentum and to put the boot into the opposition while they are down and disorganised.

But this is where I think the politicians as a whole just don’t get it. The referendum isn’t about them. This is not the SNP versus Labour or Holyrood versus Westminster or any other combination you can think of. Of course the debate will involve the political parties, but banging away at each other like an election campaign is not what this is about.

It is about education. Why do the Unionists want a referendum now? Well you’ll hear all the usual stuff about the distraction from running the country, uncertainty for business etc. but the real reason of course is because they think they can win, and they’re right. Nationalists who think they can win an early referendum are wrong.

The fact is Joe Public doesn’t know what he would be voting for and when you don’t have all the details you don’t have the confidence to make a decision so the easiest thing to do is stick with what you know. That’s why the Unionists want to go early, they don’t want the debate, and they don’t want the voters educated.

Although the polls show the people want a referendum on independence they apparently don’t support it. Polls on independence roughly work out 30/35% for, 45/50% against and the rest don’t know. On the face of it, not particularly encouraging, but all to play for with the don’t knows.

But the picture is not as straightforward as it appears. The ’for’ vote is probably pretty solid. Either people who have educated themselves on the subject or have a gut feeling that they are Scots, living in Scotland and that the natural order of things is that they govern their own country. Why be ruled by a parliament where your representatives are outnumbered approximately 9-1 , and frequently provides a government you didn’t vote for. The don’t knows are the don’t knows and they are there to be educated and brought into the independence camp.

It is the apparent ‘against’ vote that is the most intriguing. Why do the 45/50% not want independence? Is it because they have carefully studied the arguments and made an informed decision? I don’t think so. The fact is we have never had a real debate about independence in this country. I’ve heard and read lots of arguments for independence but I’ve yet to hear a coherent, cogent and costed argument in favour of the Union. Like most people all I’ve heard is the well worn too wee, too poor, too stupid rhetoric of the Unionists.

So why is there apparently such a large percentage against independence? In a word, fear. Fear of change, fear of the unknown. People are naturally conservative. People don’t like change. We have been in this Union for 300 years. We have been bombarded with Unionist propaganda for decades. The truth has been hidden (e.g. the McCrone report), manipulated and distorted. So it is entirely natural that large numbers of people would be afraid of independence, it is what they have been fed. That fear is deep rooted and the regular TV type debate isn’t going to change it. Newspaper journalists write to their own agenda. How often have you watched a TV debate and heard statistics quoted but heard no evidence to back them up or read an article full of assertions but no referenced proof?

That isn’t going to be good enough. The Nationalists will win the debate. We’ll get all the so-called big guns wheeled up from Westminster but they don’t count and should be told so. They’re not up for election and they don’t live here. This is a debate for Scots about Scotland.

The Nationalists will win the debate because they are better orators, deeper thinkers, more committed and they have the arguments. But that is not enough. The don’t knows and many among the supposed no voters will come over to independence but only when they are educated. Armed with facts backed up with research and free of propaganda they can lose their fear. That is why I say this question now moves beyond the politicians. The appeal has to be directly to the people.

If I was in Independence Central HQ tonight that is what I would be thinking about. What is my message, how do I get it to the people, how do I back up my arguments. That is the challenge for the independence movement. The SNP’s great electoral victory buys the precious time needed to construct and deliver the strategy.

In the meantime, there are Scotland Bill arguments to be won, new legislation to be introduced, policies for jobs, local government reform and a host of other priorities to be met. Keep calm and carry on.