Will there be a genuine public debate about Scottish independence?


By Lesley Riddoch

That question sounds defeatist – and daft.  If families like mine are anything to go by, animated debate occurs “naturally” every week.

And I’ll bet the Easter holidays created bumper opportunities for fallout and political discovery as far flung relatives met and exchanged views about Scotland’s big issue for the first time this highly eventful year.

By Lesley Riddoch

That question sounds defeatist – and daft.  If families like mine are anything to go by, animated debate occurs “naturally” every week.

And I’ll bet the Easter holidays created bumper opportunities for fallout and political discovery as far flung relatives met and exchanged views about Scotland’s big issue for the first time this highly eventful year.

I’ll also bet they did NOT discuss the same points that obsess the political classes.  And that’s the point of this article.  It’s a plea for someone to think strategically about how to facilitate a non-anorak-led, wide-ranging, purposeful political debate in communities.  Because as far as I can see it ain’t going to happen on its own.

Yes – the subject of Scotland’s future does interest just about every switched on adult (and many weans).  But viewing that fascinating subject through the prism of the independence referendum prompts hesitation and interest in equal measure amongst all but signed up party activists. Why?

Firstly, the independence debate has become a rather scary, finger-wagging and divisive space.  I’m not blaming anyone for that.  Feelings are heightened.  The fact remains that when voices are raised and words like disloyalty or even stupidity are bandied about, most normal people retreat completely.

Secondly there’s still a fear of publicly expressing interest in independence – even as an option.  The government may be SNP-run but the establishment is not.  And the establishment throws googlies into the debate every day.  Most Scots are independent-minded enough to express their opinions in the ballot box.  But in public?  Now?

Until Labour and the Lib Dems join the debate in earnest, many ordinary “home rule” enthusiasts will remain unconvinced that the referendum campaign is a safe and “neutral” constitutional vehicle.

People don’t want to board an “all stations” train to discover it’s actually a bandwagon with just one destination – and no stops en route.

So there’s the rub.  There’s safety in numbers … and in diversity.  If the only people wanting debate are card-carrying members of the SNP then – no matter how genuine the intent – there will be few takers.  That will doubtless be classed as another act of mass apathy.

An opportunity to “reality-proof” politics will be lost. And the constitutional debate will continue to be anorak-led, focussing on semantic differences and procedural issues.  Like “Questions about Questions”.

It’s hard to think of a hotter political subject than the number of ballot paper questions – or a quicker way to scunner the general public.  My twenty-something stepdaughters want to know how Scotland is different from England, why we can’t fix most things that are wrong in Scotland right now (very good question), and they want jargon-free, wide-ranging, experience-based, non-party political answers. 

In fact they don’t want answers at all.  They expect the same kind of exchange we (try to) have about everything else – thoughtful, focussed on their reality (not ours), devoid of long abstract words, vivid and funny.  They don’t want to hear bullet points or weary and oft-recited party lines.

Is this set to become the full range of the independence debate?  Informal private chats amongst friends and family on the one hand and formal public TV debates amongst “experts” on the other?  Can anything lie in between?

What about official consultations?

It’s easy to mock the lacklustre response to the UK government’s consultation paper – just 2857 people (0.006% of the UK electorate) bothered to respond.  Doubtless more people will take part in the Scottish Government’s consultation – but what will that prove?

Belief in the unimpeachable nature of “official” statistics collapsed decades back with Margaret Thatcher’s manipulation of unemployment totals.  And we as a bunch of people have also become more questioning of all “authority figures”.

BBC audience research in 1997 uncovered a massive difference in outlook amongst over 50 and under 50 age groups.  Older people expected opinion to be handed down like a tablet of stone by a professional member of the Great and Good (preferably also head of a respected centuries-old institution).  Under 50s were entirely different.  They expected “opinion” to mean a variety of views allowing them to agree with the one closest to their own – whether delivered by a cleaner, brain surgeon, Alex Salmond or the woman next door.

Is the independence debate set to involve this “open minded” type of viewer and citizen?  Can it?  Not in any event run by the SNP.  And yet no-one else is funded or mandated to take a civic lead.  SCVO may devote scant resources to nationwide activism – they may prefer to lobby like everyone else in Edinburgh.

So here’s a suggestion.

I’ve proposed a Referendum Roadshow to the Board of the Scottish Community Alliance where constitutional solutions would be ONE PART of a bigger debate about the obstacles faced by Scottish communities.

SCA was formed last year as a campaigning body for most of the community groups and networks that own and manage local assets in Scotland including housing, transport, energy, land management, allotments, food production, financial services and the environment.

The Alliance has strong links with communities across Scotland who’ve been turning the tide on decades of centralisation and centuries of landlessness in rural and urban Scotland.  The Referendum Roadshow would invite interested communities to identify the five main problems holding back local growth and SCA would hold a series of events.

The first part of each “Roadshow” would have local people outlining their “manifestos for growth” with politicians in the audience listening and asking questions.  Part Two would reverse the roles and invite those politicians – supporters of independence, devo plus, devo max and the status quo – to demonstrate how their preferred constitutional option might help resolve local problems.

We may find some communities don’t think big enough – we may find some want UDI.  We may find some problems could be resolved by powers the Scottish Government already possesses – we may find a strong case for more.  The aim of the exercise is to reverse the normal direction of travel, make politics practical and put Scotland’s most active people in the driving seat with politicians jumping to THEIR tune.

This is a low cost not a no-cost option.  It doesn’t need a lot of cash to happen.  But it does need some – and above all it needs politicians to hand over ownership of the process.  A half-hearted commitment to an innovative, community-focussed idea like this will not work.  Such an idea will eat up hard-pressed volunteer time and a commodity in even shorter supply – faith in politicians.

But if Scotland’s political parties mean what they say about having a memorable, vigorous, nationwide, grassroots debate before Autumn 2014 they need to step out of the way.

A genuinely independent debate can only be run by independent people.

Or does someone have a better idea?


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