As we edge towards 2013, it is easy to forget that a landmark vote in Scotland’s history creeps ever closer. Despite the media attention that this debate has afforded already, it never seems quite prominent or serious enough to reflect the importance of this upcoming question.
As an observer that is neither a member of Yes Scotland or Better Together, I lie firmly out with the official oppositions. Although, I remain still somewhat undecided as to my exact voting intentions. This does not mean that one is unaffected by the nuances of the on-going discussion, quite in contrast, I find myself continuously frustrated by the character that the argument increasingly takes, and am convinced that the meaning of the question being asked is being diluted or corrupted by those on both sides.
In this piece, I hope to address what I feel are the most frequently perpetuated myths surrounding the referendum. I will not address every facet of the debate, but those that I believe are largely wrong or irrelevant as we try to make up our minds in the most logical manner possible.
First of all, the party political nature of this debate is something I find frustrating at best, and angering at worst. As someone that is no longer explicitly supportive of one political party, I often can’t help observing those that are limited by their allegiance. One most marked consequence of party adherence is that of the constraints on individual agency. This is a phenomenon I find particularly apparent when discussing independence. It is clear to me that several people have already chosen along party lines, something that feels especially naive to this observer. If anything, such an ad-hoc judgement requires no deep thought. I feel this is especially the case regarding those already aligned to a party for other reasons. Thinking about the question along party lines is ultimately unhelpful. Too many people are rejecting the notion of independence based on dislike of the Scottish National Party, or even simply Alex Salmond. These people are forgetting the possibility of an independent Scotland governed by Labour. Some even suggest that the party political system will be entirely shaken up in the advent of an independent Scotland, an idea that is entirely possible if one is to consider the make-up of the SNP, a party of varied ideals united by one primary objective that would be eliminated by the achievement of independence. There have been some hints of compromise in movements such as “Labour for Independence”, but campaigns continue to be run limitedly. Better Together were flyering recently on a street near my residence, but accompanied by an enormous Labour party banner, something surely off-putting to potential unionists more inclined towards other parties. My preference is that grass-roots campaigns operate free of party endorsement, and that people really consider how they feel about the question, even if that belief is something that may make them unpopular amongst party cohorts.
Another common accusation made of Scots is that a ‘yes vote’ is motivated by an irresponsible and unhealthy dislike of the current Conservative-led coalition government. Whilst I agree that hatred of this administration runs especially high north of the border, to call Scots short-sighted is entirely erroneous. An increasingly two-party system at Westminster poses two potential outcomes for those in Scotland. We are either presented with a government we support handsomely; or one that we scarcely vote for at all. The democratic deficit suffered by Scots through alternating 10-15 year periods is deeply upsetting, and the differences in voting preferences between British north and south is undeniable even for sceptics. When such preferences are so geographically apparent, it is not unreasonable to consider that areas may be better served by regional governance. This is something made evident by the success of devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In the absence of any real potential offering for further devolution- the demonstrated preference of the Scottish people, the country is left to choose between independence and the status quo. For me personally, frustration with Tory ideology is not limited to the unbelievable awfulness of the present but rooted in fury towards happenings of the past and the inevitable grievances of the future. As someone unimpressed by the Labour party, it is difficult not to see Westminster’s system of democracy as a choice between all that I disagree with and something marginally more preferable. And, turgid and unmoving as the operation is, it is also not unreasonable to assume that this dichotomy is unlikely to change.
Another area dragged into the debate on countless occasions, is nationality. Both sides are guilty of linking the decision to feelings of national identity or respect for a history and cultures. A unionist friend of mine has had their Scottish national identity questioned by nationalists. Similarly, Ed Miliband suggested that Scottish support of British athletes at the Olympics if proof of their commitment to the union. For myself, both of these elements are unimportant when considering the question of independence. The independence question is a matter of governance. National identity is inconsequential when considering whether your affairs should be determined by the Scottish or the UK Parliament. Nor should a commitment to Britain or British culture be synonymous with approval of the latter. Previous nationalist efforts to link independence with a form of “Braveheart” mentality are laughable, but so too are unionist assertions that constitutional preferences are anything to do with a fondness for tea or Monty Python.
To summarise, it seems clear that an over-reliance on these sentimental lynchpins of the debate only serves to cheapen it and become something that it is clearly not fundamentally about. A move away from this would allow for a proper discussion of the genuine issues relating to Scottish independence. So too, would an absence of party political slanging matches, the presence of which in current debates makes for a muddying of definitive answers and confusion amongst the electorate. This may be the only way that the independence question is afforded the respect, and the clarity, that such an historic decision deserves.
Backbench Secretary of State for Scotland