By Alex Robertson
It is a fine thing to engage in debate, especially if it is vigorous and informed on both sides. I was tutored in the Glasgow University Union among such luminaries as Donald Dewar, John Smith and Ming Campbell.
The debates were fiercely fought, but constrained by conventions of courtesy and respect for the person, no matter how lively, or forceful the arguments posed. I was struck by a remark made by the Queen in addressing the Scottish Parliament on her last visit. She said “Scottish Politics is not for the fainthearted”. And there’s the rub.
I have no doubt that the debate leading up to the referendum in 2014 will be just as lively and hard-hitting as usual, and sincerely fought on both sides of the question. But if we are not very careful, we might just end up with a badly divided nation, regardless of what the final outcome of the vote is.
And whatever the outcome of the referendum, a divided Scots nation would be a price far too high to pay for whatever victor emerges. For it is for the Scots nation that we who favour independence struggle. And I have no doubt whatever that the vast majority of the Scottish pro-Union phalanx hold their views no less sincerely and strongly.
Somehow we have to find ways to conduct our debate with courtesy and respect for those who hold opposing views, to play the wicket and not the man standing in front of it. It is perfectly possible to do, and the public much prefer it by a long, long way.
Yet the way some of the Labour Party leadership are conducting the ‘NO’ campaign so far is a real danger for our democracy. From Mr. Davidson’s characterisation in the House of Commons of Scottish Nationalists as neo-fascists to the attacks at First Minister’s Questions by Mrs. Lamont, who repeatedly uses an insulting, disparaging nickname to refer to Mr. Salmond, and bases most of her criticism by personalising all her comments.
This demonisation of the SNP and its leaders is creating an atmosphere of ‘political bigotry’ unseen in my memory, even during some of the most fiercely fought issues in the last fifty years. As a friend pointed out, there are very real dangers in what Labour and their media friends are doing.
How do you, and how long will it take to rebuild trust and a willingness to collaborate, because the Scots will need our political leaders to do just that in the years to come, whatever crises are flung our way, to find democratic solutions and to work together.
The seeds of a constitutional civil war are being sewn by the top Scots in the Labour Party, and by them more or less alone. Why this should be so is a matter of conjecture: is it just desperation or fear of losing the debate due to a lack of arguments to deploy? Or is it some calculated device to, in Goebbels style, plant in Scots’ minds an image of ScotNats as sinister, crooked, undesirable and disreputable and therefore to distrust anything the ‘YES’ campaign says, to take a contrary view somehow in principle?
Either answer is not only shameful; it is dangerous and opens a new and despicable chapter in the book of the art of politics. Whatever the truth of the matter is, it is an avenue not to be followed, for it represents a frontal assault on values that Scots hold dear: fair play and respect for your opponent – some form of perverted Pavlov-ism?
And that is the key, that and Salmond’s First Law of Politics: “A positive campaign will always win over a negative campaign”, will command far more attention from Scots, and will go a long way to winning their good favour and respect.
Those of us who know in our water that an independent Scotland has much to offer the world would love to see this debate carried on in a way that will show the world what we Scots are capable of. We have come a long way in this cause, without even the merest shadow of violence or disorder.
Thank God for that! Now is the opportunity to finish the job in a grown-up way where each side seeks to carry the electorate by reason and not dogma or doctrine. It would be a marvelous second Scottish Enlightenment. More light and less sound. Those who campaign, on either side, should bear in mind that points will be deducted for unseemly behaviour or conduct likely to bring the Scots nation into disrepute.
So let’s ditch the scares and the smears and the spin, and let’s make this a clean fight. I know that is what the Scottish people want more than anything. Then, whatever the verdict delivered by the Scots in the referendum, we can all get on with building a better homeland for the Scots nation.