It’s the wrong question. Whether the British Electoral Commission should have any involvement is a moot point. The Scottish Parliament has decided. But it’s the wrong question.
One of those strange contradictions that seem to be a feature of politics is to be found in the observation that the new referendum will not be like the 2014 referendum coupled with an insistence that the new referendum campaign must be exactly the same as that for the 2014 referendum. Various politicians and other leading figures in the independence movement seem perfectly comfortable with pointing out all the ways in which the circumstances have changed, and advising that this fact inform our thinking on campaign strategy for the new referendum, and then describing a strategy that is indistinguishable from the one used in the old referendum campaign.
The language is identical. All the talk of “listening” and “conversation” and “being positive” is precisely what was inculcated into campaigners all through the first referendum campaign. The Section 30 process must be followed exactly as it was then. The questions must be the same as it was then. The entire referendum must be framed just as was the 2014 referendum campaign. No lessons have been learned from that campaign. None!
The main lesson to be learned from the first independence referendum campaign is that we should not conduct such a campaign again. This is not to say that the strategy adopted then was wrong. In many respects, there was no choice. Compromises had to be made. Much of what was done was perfectly appropriate in the circumstances that prevailed at the time. Context matters.
The context is very different now. It has been changed, not least by the first referendum itself and the British state’s response to it, both during and after. It was changed by EVEL. It was changed by the Smith Commission and the subsequent tinkering with devolution. It was changed, perhaps most obviously, by Brexit. What is appropriate to this new context is, in many ways, the opposite of what was suited to or dictated by the context of the 2014 campaign.
Things that weren’t mistakes back then now look like mistakes with hindsight and would be mistakes now. That is why they look like mistakes with hindsight. We are looking at them through the prism of the present context. Or, at least, some of us are.
Perhaps the most fundamental example of something that wasn’t a mistake then but would be now is making independence the contentious issue. Independence is normal. It is the Union which is anomalous. It is the Union which is the ‘naturally’ contentious issue.
And there’s another problem with putting independence front and centre rather than the Union. The following is from an article I wrote in September 2019.
Not only did the question on the 2014 ballot paper make independence the contentious issue, it ensured that the Yes campaign was built around a contested concept. There was then, and still is, no single agreed definition of independence. The term, as it applied to Scotland, meant many different things to different people. Myriad individuals and groups within the Yes movement all presented voters with their own conception of and vision for independence. The Yes campaign became a confusing fog of competing messages and was thereby rendered very much less effective than it might have been.
Because independence is a contested concept, it is inherently susceptible to being misrepresented and burdened with all manner of prejudicial associations. It was, in other words, highly vulnerable to precisely the kind of negative propaganda effort to which the anti-independence campaign predictably resorted.That was NOT the question!
The lesson is not exactly subtle. Don’t do that again! For various reasons, it was the best – or only – way to go about things the first time, which we may best regard as preparing the ground for the referendum that actually matters. We’re not at that stage any more. We should have moved on. We should now be putting the Union on trial.
The question on the ballot paper must make the Union the contentious issue. Rather than asking if Scotland should be an independent country we should be asking if Scotland should dissolve the Union. The question should be formulated in such a way as to ensure Yes and No responses have the same implication as in the first referendum.
This would transform the debate and avoid it being no more than a rerun of the previous debate – which would tend to deter engagement. It would be an entirely new debate for an entirely different referendum.
Why is it not obvious that this is what is required?
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