Andrew Tickell comes to the inevitable and unavoidable conclusion concerning the motives behind the British Electoral Commission’s insistence on ‘influencing’ the question asked in the new referendum. It’s because it’s the British Electoral Commission. And the important word there is ‘British’. It is an agency of the very entity which seeks to preserve the Union at any cost. It is only to be expected that it will reflect the “Sir Humphrey grade cynicism” of the British political elite.
Any intervention by any agency of the British state must constitute undue – and very likely unlawful – outside interference in the process by which Scotland exercises its right of self-determination.
Andrew’s exploration of the importance – or otherwise – of the language used in a referendum question is as perspicacious as we would expect. But one comment stands out.
… the basic language of a referendum can powerfully shape how the respective sides are able to campaign
This is a crucial insight. The British Electoral Commission – and by extension the British sate – is pretty much exclusively concerned with the the way the framing of the referendum question affects voters. For obvious reasons. The structures of power, privilege and patronage which constitute the British state largely rely on a highly developed apparatus devoted to the manipulation of public perceptions.
But, as Andrew observes, the referendum question is only part of a complex web of influences affecting voters. It is the campaign as a whole that is the context within which these influences operate. So it stands to reason that the most important thing about the question is the way it shapes the campaign. In relation to a new constitutional referendum, that importance is immeasurable.
Consider the question asked in 2014.
Should Scotland be an independent country?
Ask this question of any other nation and you would be regarded as an idiot. The people of those nations might regard the question as offensive, if they thought about it at all rather than dismissing it out of hand. That’s because independence is the normal, default status of a nation. The people of all nations take their independence for granted. It’s the way things are and the way they should be. So a more appropriate question might ask why Scotland must be the exception.
The 2014 referendum campaign was entirely shaped by this questioning of independence. It was the condition of independence that was being challenged, despite this being the ‘natural’ condition of nations. The question was inappropriate and it shaped the campaign in a way that favoured the anti-independence side by forcing the Yes campaign onto the defensive.
Surely simple logic dictates that it is the Union which should be questioned. It is the Union which is anomalous. It is the Union which is ‘unnatural’. It is the Union that sets Scotland apart from other nations. It is the Union that prevents Scotland from being normal.
Consider how different the campaign would have been had the question been,
Should Scotland dissolve the Union with England?
Such a question accepts the default assumption of independence and challenges the claim that an alternative constitutional settlement is preferrable. It forces Unionists to justify the Union. It puts the Union under scrutiny rather than the concept of independence which, despite – or perhaps because of – it being so ‘natural’, can be difficult to define.
Independence was placed at the centre of the constitutional issue. But independence is a disputed concept. Think back to the 2014 referendum. Not only were there massive differences between the way independence was portrayed by the opposing sides, there were significant differences even within the Yes campaign. A multitude of them! There was no single universally agreed idea of independence on which the Yes campaign could focus. Campaigning for a disputed concept is seriously problematic. The anti-independence campaign had no such problem.
The Union is not a disputed concept. It is a fact. It is a concrete thing. What is disputed is the justice and efficacy of that thing. Does this not, even at an intuitive level, seem like a more rational basis for a referendum? Does it not makes sense that, if there is to be a debate, then all the parties should be talking about the same thing? A referendum is, by definition, binary. So surely it is a basic prerequisite of a referendum that everybody should be campaign for or against the same thing.
The 2014 referendum campaign wasn’t so much shaped by the question as badly distorted by it. I accept that it almost certainly had to be that way given the circumstances that pertained 7 or 8 years ago. But the lesson is there to be learned. And circumstances have changed dramatically. We must not allow the new campaign to be distorted in the same way. And allowing agencies of the British state to determine the question is a sure way of ensuring that it is.
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