Yes and No

Nicola Sturgeon must stand firm on the issue of a Yes/No referendum. There must be no compromise. The crucial factor is that, by the time a new referendum is held, ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ will have been associated with the opposing positions on the constitutional issue for a decade. These associations are firmly established. Far too firmly established to be affected by any of the factors which have caused the Electoral Commission to rethink its position on Yes/No options.

What was problematic with the ballot in the 2014 referendum was, not the Yes or No response required, but the question asked. By asking ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’, independence was made the contentious issue. Despite the fact that independence is the normal, default status of all nations, it was this that was being queried. It was this that was presented as the option which had to be proved. The question itself suggested doubt about independence.

The question largely determined the nature of the campaign. And it was a structure which greatly advantaged the anti-independence side. They were never required to make a case for the Union. The form of the question gave them a basis of doubt on which to build an almost entirely negative campaign.

Better Together, the British political parties and the British government were never required to make a case for the Union. The matter of the Union and what it means for Scotland was never scrutinised. Despite the Union being constitutionally anomalous, it was treated as the ‘natural order’. Despite it being by far the most common constitutional status, independence was presented as the scary unknown.

All of this stems from, or is strongly influenced by, the question on the ballot paper. We are entitled to wonder why the Electoral Commission failed to identify and address this issue.

In a referendum, voters are asked to make an informed choice between two options. A referendum is, or should be, a binary choice between two clearly stated and reliably deliverable options. In order that the choice should be as informed as possible, both options must be subject to similar scrutiny. This was not the case in the 2014 referendum. The case for voting No was barely examined at all. There was precious little case to examine. The direction in which the campaign was driven by the question meant the anti-independence campaign was let off the hook.

How could voters make an informed choice when they were presented with massive amounts of dubious information about one option, and no information at all about the other option?

The next independence referendum, gives us a chance to redress the balance. Allowing that the result of the 2014 referendum stands as a verdict on independence delivered on the basis of a campaign which made this the contentious issue, we can reverse that in a new plebiscite by making the Union the contentious issue. We can use a question which will drive scrutiny of the arguments and facts presented in support of preserving the Union. We can, at last, have the case for Scotland being part of the UK thoroughly examined.

Anti-independence campaigners cannot complain that this puts them at a disadvantage without admitting that the Yes side was placed at a disadvantage in the first referendum. The pro-independence side can argue that their case has been scrutinised and that the results of this scrutiny are a matter of public record and public knowledge. The new form of ballot would tend to promote a campaign which would add to that knowledge material which was left out of the 2014 campaign.

I would suggest that, instead of a question, the electorate should be asked to vote on a proposition that the Union between Scotland and England be dissolved. The ballot would ask if they agree with this proposition. The issue is clear and either option is obviously deliverable – the Union can be dissolved, or not. The ballot requires only a Yes or No answer and maintains the established associations of those responses with the two sides of the constitutional issue.

There are many lessons to be learned from the 2014 independence referendum. The Electoral Commission shows little sign of having learned those lessons. Besides which, the UK’s elections and referendums watchdog really shouldn’t have an influential role of any kind in Scotland’s referendum. It is Scotland’s referendum and it should be entirely managed in Scotland and and by Scottish institutions answerable to the Scottish Parliament. That is something else our First Minister must stand firm on.

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BritNats say the daftest things!

My readers are doubtless familiar with the catalogue of inanities spouted by British Nationalists as they attempt to defend the indefensible. The dictates of reason and logic are no obstacle to those determined to maintain the Union at any cost. Truth and accuracy count for nothing compared to the British Nationalist’s devotion to the British ruling elites. There is no conduct, however reprehensible, that cannot be justified when it’s purpose is to preserve the structures of power, privilege and patronage which define the British state.

Reprehensible, or merely ridiculous. British Nationalists are ever willing to appear the fool in the service of their ideology. One need only witness an episode of First Minister’s Questions and the antics of the British politicians squatting in the Scottish Parliament to be struck by the eagerness with which they make themselves appear pathologically stupid in their efforts to undermine public confidence in Scotland’s Parliament, Government, institutions and public services. Who can forget British Labour in Scotland’s (BLiS) Iain Gray demanding to know where the money would come from for an oil fund. Or, more recently (and perhaps less amusingly), Maurice Corry for the British Conservative & Unionist Party in Scotland (BCUPS) insisting that the lower alcohol limit introduced by the SNP administration had caused an increase in road traffic accidents.

This kind of idiocy pervades British Nationalist rhetoric. During the 2014 independence referendum campaign there were countless instances when the Project Fear propaganda descended into farce. You may recall an official paper published by the UK Government which claimed that the cost of setting up an independent Scottish state would be over £2bn. This was almost immediately revised down to £1.5bn before the whole claim was hastily buried amid a storm of criticism from people who can do arithmetic and the academics whose research had been grossly misrepresented.

Then there was the claim that independent Scotland would have to renegotiate around 8,500 existing treaties. This figure, too, was revised down from Liberal Democrat Willie Rennie‘s original claim that “They would have to negotiate over 14,000 international treaties…”.

What both these examples of BritNat bawheidery have in common is that they both seem long as you don’t think about them too much. Or at all. Question the claim about post-independence set-up costs and we find that, according to the very researchers cited by the UK Government, this would be more realistically estimated at £200m, spread over a decade or so. Examine the claim about thousands of treaties and we find that, in order to get the scariest figure possible the British Nationalists have been obliged to include the likes of a ‘Treaty with the King of Dahomey [regarding] Peace, Commerce, Slave Trade, Human Sacrifices’.

The point here is that it simply didn’t matter to British Nationalists that their claims were dishonest or daft. Knowing that those claims would never be scrutinised by the mainstream media, they just ran with the wildest story they could concoct. The lies and nonsense were trumpeted by the British media while the rebuttals and debunking remained relatively invisible. Truth is determined by the loudest voice. Reality is less important than perception. And the British establishment owns the machinery by which perceptions are manipulated. Even today, some five years since Project Fear was at its most feverish, there are many people in Scotland who remain unaware of the extent to which they were misled, deceived and lied to by the British government, the British political parties and Better Together.

If that sounds a bit Orwellian then there’s a good reason. The similarities to George Orwell’s dystopian vision are difficult to ignore. His ‘1984’ is, of course, fiction. In noting the similarities we must make due allowance for such licence as may taken by a writer the better to tell their tale. In real life, there is no Winston Smith sitting at a machine laboriously altering old newspapers in order to have them with the currently decreed truth. In 2019 the process of rewriting history is more sophisticated. More subtle. More insidious. Today, manufactured truth need not totally replace redundant truth. Instead, we have media which is a constantly, instantly renewing palimpsest. The old truth is not eradicated in order to replace it with the new truth. The old truth is, rather, gradually but rapidly obscured by a constant stream of new truths that are superimposed on it.

Think for example of Ruth Davidson’s enthusiastic championing of the Remain campaign in the 2016 EU referendum; now all but completely obliterated by the media-generated new truth of her at least equally enthusiastic support for the diametrically opposite position. The record of her previous stance is still there. Nobody has methodically tracked down and erased Davidson’s every written and spoken word on the absolute necessity of staying in the EU. Nobody needs to. What Orwell didn’t – couldn’t – foresee was the massive manipulative power of media in the age of the internet. If Orwell was writing today, Winston Smith would be probably be presenting rolling TV news for the BBC rather than altering old newspaper articles for the Ministry of Truth.

As I said at the start, most people reading this will be painfully familiar with the British Nationalists’ routine. It hasn’t altered much over the years. But, from time to time, they do come up with some fresh material. Or, at least, some material that isn’t as stale and mouldy as the usual stuff. For an example, I turn to everybody’s favourite British Nationalist cringe-monkey, Duncan Hothersall. For those who don’t recognise the name, Duncan is a sometime BLiS mouthpiece and one of the British establishment’s most prolific Twitter propagandists. An individual whose unthinking devotion to the British state and the ‘One Nation’ project is rivalled only by his mindless hatred of the SNP and his profound contempt for pretty much anything that is Scottish. He’s not called a cringe-monkey for no reason.

Duncan emphatically dismisses the notion that the people of Scotland are capable of running our country absent the beneficent intervention of the British political elite. He dogmatically rejects the idea that we deserve governments we actually elect. Generally speaking, he subscribes to the Tom Gordon ‘Scotland Is A Hell-hole’ school of thought. Everything in Scotland is awful and it’s all the SNP’s fault because everything was wonderful when British Labour was in charge and the Tories aren’t all that bad because at least they are Unionists and isn’t that the most important thing?

Bad as Scotland is, the one thing that would definitely make it worse, according to Duncan, is independence. Supposing Scotland was laid waste by pestilence and famine and rendered an uninhabitable desert by some devastating nuclear holocaust, Duncan’s dying breath would be expended on insisting that this is nothing compared to the fate that would have befallen us if we had chosen to be a normal independent nation.

There is, I strongly suspect, no news of Scotland so heartening; no achievement of Scotland’s people so impressive; no policy of the Scottish Government so successful, that Duncan couldn’t turn it into a gobbet of #SNPBAD propaganda or a Jeremiad on the ‘dangers’ of independence – abbreviated for Twitter, of course. Take a look at this.

You can almost taste the idiocy emanating from Hothersall’s response in a noxious miasma of bitterness and bigotry. As he would have it, no matter how horrific Brexit is, independence would surpass it. Try to get your head around the ‘logic’ which insists that, however much of a catastrophic mistake Brexit turns out to be, being the country that chooses not to make that mistake and has the power to ensure that choice is honoured, has to be a bigger mistake.

And that’s before we get to the comparison between the EU and the UK as political unions. A comparison which, even making allowances for the limitations of the medium, is stunningly simplistic, shallow and vacuous. In his assessment of the EU, Duncan echoes the inanity of the Mad Brexiteers who are totally, wilfully oblivious to the fact that over a period of almost seven decades the EU has evolved as the solution to a raft of issues – as well as bringing peace and prosperity to a continent historically blighted by bloody conflict.

Whatever it’s defects and failings, none but the most embittered Europhobe would deny that the EU was established for the most worthy of reasons and with the best of intentions. The EU’s fundamental purpose is honourable and its existence is broadly beneficial to member states even if, in practice, it often falls short of what we might hope of it in certain areas.

Compare this with the Union under which Scotland toils. A union that was contrived in a different age for purposes that were never relevant to us.

A union that we, the people, had no part in creating or sanctioning. An anachronistic, dysfunctional, corrupt union which serves none of the people off these islands well.

A union which was always intended to serve the purposes of the ruling elites. A union which, in that regard if no other, has not changed one iota in the last three centuries.

A union that sucks the human and material resources out of our nation and in return gives us government by parties that we have emphatically rejected at the polls.

A union that imposes policies which are anathema to our people. Policies which have been rejected by our democratically elected representatives.

A union which serves primarily as a constitutional device by means of which the people of Scotland are denied the full and effective exercise of the sovereignty that is theirs by absolute right.

A union which, were we being given that option now, not one of us would vote to join – but which we are nonetheless being asked to vote to remain in.

A union which we would reject just as we rejected Brexit.

Duncan Hothersall is a fool, blinded by British Nationalist fervour and partisan prejudice. Of the two political unions to which he refers, only one is actively doing harm to Scotland, and promising to do very much worse. Only one poses a real and imminent threat to Scotland’s democracy. Only one is so anti-democratic as to try and deny Scotland’s right of self-determination. Only one requires that the people of Scotland, our democratic institutions and our elected representatives be treated with callous contempt.

If you doubt how dreadful and dangerous the Union is, just listen to some of the crazies who imagine it to be the divinely ordained natural order.

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The Cybernat Diversion

CyberBrit abuse?
Project Fear’s tactics are not subtle. It’s propaganda techniques are pretty crude. The very phrase, “Better Together” is an example of a propaganda technique known as the “Glittering generality“. It is a phrase which has a certain primitive emotional appeal but which is ultimately devoid of content. It doesn’t represent anything real or present any meaningful argument.

Other propaganda techniques used by the anti-independence campaign need no explanation. “Appeal to fear” is an obvious one. As is “Flag-waving”.

“Demonising the enemy” will be instantly recognisable. Alex Salmond is the main target of this.

How about, “Obtaining disapproval by association”? Sometimes called, “Argumentum ad Hitlerum“.

When you hear anti-independence propagandists relating the word “nationalism” to the Fascist movements of the early 20th century, that is the name of the propaganda method being employed. You won’t hear them talk of the nationalism of Ghandi or Nelson Mandela. Only Hitler.

I could go on. For anybody who has been following the referendum campaign mention of the following will instantly bring to mind examples from the Project Fear playbook.

Quotes out of Context. Exaggeration. Disinformation. The list goes on.

But I want to focus here on a particular form of propaganda – “Ad nauseam”. Frequently combined with, “Appeal to authority“. I, and many others, have often remarked on the cyclical nature of Project Fear’s output. The same issues get raised over and over again. Each time presented as if they were a new argument against independence that has never previously been addressed.

“Appeal to authority” is often used in conjunction with repetition. An example of this would be when some utterance from Manuel Barosso provides a pretext for rolling out the threadbare old “EU membership” scare story.

When awkward questions start being asked about Barosso’s authority or motives, or others with equal or better authority start to contradict him, some retired general will conveniently crawl out of the woodwork to mumble something about independent Scotland not being able to defend itself. Cue recycling of all the tired old scare mongering on the defence issue.

When Project Fear starts to come under pressure on this topic, lo and behold! Some economist pops up with doom-laden prognostications for independent Scotland’s finances which look curiously similar to the last round of economic scare mongering that went past on the conveyor belt.

I’m sure you all recognise the pattern. You should. It’s been going on for what seems like an eternity. An interminable cycle of grinding negativity with not one word or idea that is new. The same stuff over and over again. and every time the issue is dropped as soon as it starts to come under discomfiting scrutiny.

Not from the mainstream media, of course. With a few notable exceptions, analysis of the referendum debate in the almost exclusively unionist British media ranges from the merely lazy and inept through the woefully shallow and blatantly biased to the downright malicious.

If the traditional media was as dominant as it once was, one of the anti-independence campaign’s original propaganda exercises would have been vastly more successful. I refer to something called “Bandwagon”. The appeal to certain victory.

The days when Better Together could take victory for granted are a fading memory. The anti-independence campaign’s early assumption that it need do no more than flaunt its lead in the polls and mock the chances of a Yes vote look pretty ridiculous now. But the truth is that, in the beginning, that was all they had. Project Fear was cobbled together later and with it the scare mongering script that has been repeated ever since.

One of the problems that the No campaign has is that they have never figured out how to defend the union because it has never occurred to them to question it. Unable to advance a positive case for the union, they have been obliged to resort to entirely negative campaigning – with no redeeming features at all. Just unremitting negativity – smears and fears.

Where the mainstream media has failed abysmally in its duty to properly scrutinise the No campaign, the online community has stepped in. It is news websites that provide reliable information it is bloggers who supply in-depth  analysis and pertinent commentary. The mainstream media is being sidelined in a way and to an extent that few would have believed possible when the referendum campaign began.

This has obviously caused problems for Better Together. The mainstream media is, for the most part, still a reliable ally that the British establishment can count on. But it is not the overwhelmingly powerful ally that they assumed it would be. The entirely predictable response has been to attack the alternative media. To turn some of the vitriol that had previously been reserved for Alex Salmond and the SNP on those who carry the banner of the independence cause in the virtual world.

It is a truism among propagandists that you must label the thing you are attacking. Something short and catchy is preferred. The word “Cybernat” had been kicking around for a while. David Torrance suggests it was Baron Foulkes of Cumnock who first coined the term. This seems to credit the pompous wee  puddin’ with rather more imagination than I have ever seen evidence of. But, given that it is intended as a puerile insult, it’s just possible that Torrance may be right.

Dictionaries define “Cybernat” simply as a supporter of Scottish independence who is active in social media and online. Many people the Cybernat label with pride. But there can be no doubt that the anti-independence campaign regard it is a pejorative epithet. A term of abuse.

Which is a bit ironic, really, as the epithet is most commonly deployed against those who are supposedly guilty of abuse against the opponents of independence.

I say “supposedly” because, for all the endless whining about “Cybernat abuse” actual evidence of the phenomenon is exceedingly sparse. George “The Red-nosed Baron” Foulkes was repeatedly asked to provide examples of the “Cybernat abuse” that was the subject of his own pathetic bleating. By the time I gave up waiting for any such examples, none had been provided.

David Torrance does no better. Back in October 2010 he wrote a blog piece under the title, Cybernats – a Scottish political phenomenon, which purported to be an expose of Cybernat abuse directed at him following the serialisation of his biography of Alex Salmond in Scotland on Sunday – the newspaper which so shamefully replaced the St Andrew’s cross on Scotland’s flag with the swastika. I, for one, will never forgive them for that.

But the comments that Torrance cites to back up his claims of abuse turn out to be no more than rather feeble criticisms of his book. or rejections of some of the claims he makes about Salmond. If this counts as abuse then even the mildest uncomplimentary review must read to poor wee David like a veritable torrent of vituperative vilification.

Fast-forward to the beginning of this year and we find that bastion of truth and moderation, the Daily Mail, running a series of high-minded tirades against Cybernats. But it too had some difficulty coming up with examples of the “vile abuse” they claimed was everywhere online. The stuff they cited would hardly have raised an eyebrow at the most sedate soiree far less offend seasoned politicians or political activists.

And there’s the point. This is politics. It’s going to get pretty robust sometimes. To suggest that political debate be conducted in language appropriate to a church tea-party is patently ridiculous. And to suggest that the kind of things David Torrance and the Daily Mail call abuse are inappropriate in the context of political debate is, frankly, just plain silly. some growing up is required.

So, what is really going on with the regular bleat-fests about “Cybernat abuse”? In part, as mentioned earlier, it is propaganda. an attempt to undermine the credibility or respectability of the online news sources and commentators who are proving to be a thorn in the side of the anti-independence campaign.

But there is another aspect to this.

It’s not difficult to see what is behind the latest ranting from an increasingly panicked and incoherent Alistair Darling as he berates unidentified persons for unspecified “online abuse”. He is facing crippling, career-ending humiliation over the threat to abolish the currency union and so he is, perhaps understandably, trying to divert attention from the currency issue.

It would be easy to dismiss Darling’s whining about “Cybernats” as nothing more than a diversionary tactic from a seriously beleaguered politician. But there is something rather more sinister here as well. There is an attempt to silence dissent.

Darling is arguing that people such as Bill Munro, boss of Barrhead Travel, should be allowed to spam employees email inboxes with lies and idiotic scare mongering in an attempt to intimidate them into voting No and do so with complete impunity.

He is saying that people like Munro should be allowed to say whatever they want – however dishonest or demented – while others are deterred, if not actually prevented, from challenging the lies. Dissenters are to be bludgeoned into silence with name-calling and unfounded allegations of “abuse”.

Basically, Darling wants free reign for Project Fear.

According to Darling and his ilk, it is perfectly acceptable for “business leaders” to threaten people’s livelihoods in pursuit of a self-serving political agenda, but it is outrageous if ordinary people threaten private profit in pursuit of their perfectly worthy aspirations to create a better, fairer society.

Where there’s a unionist bandwagon, there will always be some numpty trying to jump on it. enter stage left, British Labour MP for Edinburgh South Ian Murray.

Taking his cue from Darling, Murray tweeted that his constituency office had been vandalised by Yes campaigners. As we now know, there was no vandalism. At most, a sticker or two may have been put on the doors and windows. Although there isn’t even any evidence of this. And certainly no evidence that the culprits were in any way connected with the independence campaign.

Make what you will of all that. Far be it from me to suggest that the whole thing was a malicious smear attempt. A form of abuse, if you like.

The lack of any facts to support Ian Murray’s accusations makes a delicious irony of the headline on the blog in which he attempts to justify his behaviour.

“Let’s have a reasoned debate based on fact!”, he pompously intones. what follows is an object lesson in obfuscation, evasion, distortion, misrepresentation, insinuation and blame-shifting. It really is a remarkable piece of work. What is more even remarkable is that people actually voted for the author of this atrocious missive.

But perhaps we should be grateful to Ian Murray. whatever he may have done to whatever reputation he might have had, he has done us a service by revealing the vacuous maliciousness of the “Cybernat abuse” propaganda. Aware of the true dishonest and nefarious nature of these attacks on independence campaigners, we are better armed against the insidious effects of this vicious propaganda. We know who the real abusers are.

This is a longer version of a piece originally broadcast by Aye Right Radio
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Blind to the obvious

Every once in a while the behaviour of the Better Together mob is so infantile that one just can’t help being embarrassed on their behalf. A report in yesterday’s Herald was one of those occasions (No campaign pounces over MP’s claim on currency union). We all know that Blair McDougall and his maudlin minions are incapable of rational, objective analysis, but do they have to flaunt their shortcomings quite so flagrantly?
What Angus MacNeil has said is no more than what was already obvious to anyone who had thought about the issue of currency union at all. It is patently obvious that monetary union tends to become untenable if and when the economies of the participants diverge to some significant degree.
What makes Better Together’s bone-headed bluster all the more ludicrous is the fact that Angus MacNeil is referencing one of the arguments that the British parties use in an effort to rationalise their reckless and irresponsible threat to abolish the currency union. They bang on about the eurozone and the difficulties which arose because of – or were exacerbated by – the divergence between the economies of, for example, Greece and Germany.

The trouble is that, being interested only in anti-independence propaganda rather than reasoned analysis, Better Together present this as if it was directly and immediately relevant to the situation of Scotland and rUK. And they make bloody fools of themselves in the process.

The reality is that there is no meaningful comparison between Greece/Germany on the one hand and Scotland/rUK on the other. To suggest that there might be is quite preposterous.

But it is perfectly right and sensible to recognise that the economies of Scotland and rUK might diverge at some point in the future to an extent that currency union is no longer the best arrangement. In which case, isn’t it better that the two countries should be free to find an arrangement which is more suited to the new circumstances?

Economies move slowly. And, with goodwill and good sense on all sides, monetary union can cope with a considerable degree of economic divergence. It could easily take decades before the two economies diverged enough to make currency union unworkable. The governments of both nations would be able to see this coming well in advance and so take appropriate and timely steps to deal with the situation.

None of this is a cat that has ever been in a bag. It is plainly obvious to anyone who reflects on the matter to any extent at all.

But the position of the British parties gets even more ridiculous. They are busy trying to persuade us that the British state will conceded significant powers to the Scottish Parliament if the independence campaign is defeated. Nonsensical as it is to imagine that a triumphant British state would concede the very thing it had been fighting to hold onto, let’s take the “more powers” not-quite-promises of the British parties at face value for the moment.

What British Labour and their Tory/LibDem alliesare trying to deceive the people of Scotland into believing they will get in return for a No vote is something akin to full fiscal autonomy (FFA). That expect us to believe that the Scottish Government will be handed a substantial amount of control over the levers of the economy. But using those levers differently in Scotland and rUK is the way in which the economies will diverge. If measures are put in place to prevent this divergence by limiting the Scottish Government’s ability to follow its own fiscal policies then the devolved powers become meaningless.

So, the British parties’ plan – to the extent that they have one – is to create a situation in which Scotland’s economy is free to diverge from that of the rest of the UK, but keep us locked into monetary union. Even if the offer of further devolution was not just a ruse to dupe us into handing over to the ruling elites of the British state the power that will be in our hands on 18 September, what is being proposed would be disastrous. It is with devolution that we would be put in the position of having divergent economies with no option to rectify the situation this would cause by ending currency union. It is devolution that threatens to create a eurozone scenario.

That is one of the reasons why devolution is dead. It’s time to move on. It’s time to bring Scotland’s government home. Devolution is not an option. We must vote Yes.

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Silencing the proles

It’s not difficult to see what is behind the latest inane rant from an increasingly frenzied and incoherent Alistair Darling as he berates unidentified persons for unspecified “online abuse”. He is facing crippling, career-ending humiliation over the threat to abolish the currency union and so he is, perhaps understandably, trying to divert attention.

It would certainly be easy to dismiss Darling’s whining about “cybernats” as nothing more than a diversionary tactic from a seriously beleaguered politician. But there is something rather more sinister here as well. There is an attempt to silence dissent from the “approved” British nationalist line in the referendum debate.

Darling is arguing that people such as Bill Munro should be allowed to spam employees with lies and idiotic scaremongering and do so with complete impunity. He is saying that people like Munro must be permitted to say whatever they want – however dishonest or demented – while others are deterred, if not actually prevented, from challenging the lies and/or throwing a spotlight on the inanities.

Basically, Darling wants free reign for Project Fear.

All of this is, of course, rationalised by those distasteful notions of British exceptionalism that pervade the anti-independence effort. Anything, no matter how objectionable under other circumstances, is justified in the name of preserving the British state and defending its ruling elites. This is clearly a very dangerous philosophy. It is the unhealthy mindset which feeds religious and political fanaticism.

What Darling is really objecting to is people having power – and being prepared to use it. He and his unionist cronies are delighted to have business people threaten employees and communities and the entire nation of Scotland with dire, if wholly imaginary, consequences should they have the temerity to challenge the established order. He actually encourages such intimidation. Better Together quite literally begs business people to join in the inane scaremongering of Project Fear.

But when ordinary people choose to use what little economic power they have to give force to their views, Darling and his ilk go into fits of righteous indignation.

According to the servants of the British state, it is perfectly acceptable for “business leaders” to threaten people’s livelihoods in pursuit of a self-serving political agenda, but it is outrageous if ordinary people threaten private profit in pursuit of their perfectly worthy aspirations to create a better, fairer society.

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We need better questions

So, here we are! It’s 2014! The big one! The year of decision for the people of Scotland.

As the turn of the year loomed and in the immediate aftermath of the old year’s passing, there was much sombre talk of the seriousness of the issue and of the need for this seriousness to be reflected in the way the two sides conduct themselves in the debate. Hopes were expressed – some genuine and heartfelt, some no more than pious cant – that there might be less shouting at each other from entrenched positions and more meaningful dialogue. Thousands upon thousands of words were expended stating and restating the need for “more information” and “more answers”. Usually without saying what the questions were that required these answers, and almost never making any reference to the screeds of information that is already available. The New Year message from the pundits was simply that the referendum debate had to be “better” in 2014.

My advice, dear readers, is that you maintain normal respiration in the meantime.

While there will surely be developments in the referendum campaign (I would love to speculate on what these might be but, regrettably, that is not my purpose here.), the tactics and tone of the debate are unlikely to change much. The pace will quicken. The volume will increase. The media will make embarrassing efforts to sensationalise trivialities. But there will be little in the overall pattern of the debate which will differ from what we saw in 2013.

No difference?

At this point I should make it clear that I am not doing what so many of those pious and hopeful pundits do. I am not treating the two sides of the referendum campaign as if they are equivalent. Complaints about the quality of the debate have become tediously commonplace. Commentators seem to be queuing up to pontificate about how we’re doing it all wrong. We are constantly subjected to patronising lectures about how it’s the wrong people talking about the wrong things in the wrong way and at the wrong time. One of the more irksome features of these complaints has been the failure to adequately differentiate between the Yes and No camps.

Other than the fact that both are associated with the same debate, there are no real similarities between Better Together and Yes Scotland. In terms of their structure, their methods, their ethos, the two organisations are totally different. And yet those who rail against what they perceive to be the inadequacies and failings of the debate invariably take the line that each is as much at fault as the other. There are a number of possible reasons for this. It may sometimes be a misguided effort to appear even-handed and objective. It is often a matter of intellectual indolence in that it is just easier to lump the two sides together than it is to analyse and describe the differences between them. And, all too frequently, the assertion that one is as bad as the other represents a malicious attempt to tar the innocent with the same brush as the guilty.

Whatever the reason, rationalisation or excuse, it is wrong.

Given that the whole approach to the campaign taken by the two campaign groups is so radically different it is simply not reasonable to suppose that they will have the same effect. And it is not difficult for the honest, impartial observer to determine which approach is likely to have the most deleterious effect. When even unionists are criticising Better Together for its negativity and ineptitude there can be little doubt where  culpability lies if the debate does not meet the standards we might hope for.

The quality of the debate is not going to improve in 2014 through any changes in the way the two sides of the campaign conduct themselves. Yes Scotland doesn’t need to change. Its strategy is clearly working – as evidenced by the fact that the more people hear of the campaign’s message, the more likely they are to move towards a Yes vote.

Better Together is not going to change because, quite literally, it has nowhere to go. It has nothing new to say that is relevant to the issue.

Awkward questions

All of which begs the question, what then might raise the standard of debate? My answer, as you may have guessed from the title of this article, is “better questions”. We need better questions asked of those who campaign against the restoration of Scotland’s rightful constitutional status. And we need journalists and commentators to ask better questions of themselves when they purport to analyse the issue.

Why is the Yes side not included in this? Because pretty much all the questions that might be asked of them have already been asked – and answered – many times over. I don’t know about anybody else, but I have to suppress a scream every time I hear some variation on, “What are you going to use for currency? Deep-fried Mars bars?”. It doesn’t matter how often the answer is given (The pound!), the question is still endlessly repeated, always in tones that suggest the questioner is convinced that they are hugely clever for having found the fatal flaw in the independence case that nobody else has thought of.

The currency issue can be used to illustrate what I mean by better questions.

When anti-independence propagandists try to suggest that there is some difficulty about independent Scotland having a currency we should ask, “Can you name a single developed, relatively wealthy nation which does not have a functioning currency?”. This might be followed up with a question which could be asked a lot, “What reason do you have for believing Scotland must be the exception?”.

On the matter of maintaining the currency union after independence the awkward question for unionists is, “Why won’t the UK Government and British parties state categorically that they would favour abolishing the currency union?”.

Having thus disposed of the currency issue, we can move on to some of the other matters where better questions need to be asked. The supposedly thorny issue of Scotland and the European Union, for example.

When some European politician or EU official says something supposedly casting doubt on the Scottish Government’s position and this is then trumpeted by the mainstream media – invariably under a headline screaming about a “blow” to the SNP – then we should ask what real authority this individual has. Who do they really speak for? What reason is there to treat this view as definitive? What is their agenda?

When unionists insist that Scotland would be expelled and excluded from the EU, we should ask that most powerful question of all, why? Why would the EU do that? What reason would they have for behaving in such a way?

Much the same applies to Scotland’s relationship with other international organisations, such as Nato. The default assumption of the anti-independence campaign is that Scotland would be a pariah nation shunned by the world. It is an assumption little challenged by the media. Again, we need to ask why would Nato reject Scotland? How would this serve the interests of the alliance? What reason is there to assume that other Nato members would not favour Scotland being part of the alliance?

More powers?

I’m sure you’ve all got the idea now and know what I mean by “better questions”. But there is one area where really searching question will, arguably, be needed most and that is the issue of “more powers”. The British parties in Scotland are already desperately trying to pretend that a No vote is a vote for increased powers for the Scottish Parliament. That effort at deception will intensify over the coming months. It must be vigorously challenged. We must ask the awkward questions.

  • How might the three British parties in Scotland reach a consensus on “more powers” proposals that are also detailed and meaningful?
  • How do the British parties in Scotland propose to get the agreement of their bosses in London?
  • How will they make the proposals binding on a future UK Government? How will they guarantee delivery?
  • How can they credibly commend as part of a devolution package powers which they have claimed would harm Scotland as part of being independent?
  • Why didn’t they devolve these powers before?
  • Why do they now want to put forward proposals for more devolution when they refused the chance to have these included in the referendum ballot?
  • Why do they not want their proposals mandated by the electorate?
  • If they are offering something akin to full fiscal autonomy (FFA), how will the currency union work under devolution when they claim it wouldn’t under the FFA of independence?

 These are the sort of questions that must be asked. There are many more.

Silly questions

My hope, then, for 2014 is that journalists, interviewers, analysts and the general public will begin to ask better questions of the No campaign. It would also be good if they could stop asking silly questions about currency and deep-fried confectionery. But there is one silly question we can’t avoid,

Should Scotland be an independent country?

Why is that a silly question? Ask yourself what other nation would question its own right to be independent.

This article was first published in AYE Magazine.

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Looking behind the polls

I don’t often comment on polls. I find it a bit of a pointless exercise. Such comments as I see on independence referendum-related polling usually fall into two categories. There’s the endlessly analytical poring over the minutiae of the data that looks like a hell of a lot of work only to be rendered irrelevant by the next poll that comes along. Or, more commonly, there’s the simplistic acceptance of the headline figures as if they represent a definitive forecast of the result of a referendum that is still eleven months away. Polls can tell us nothing about the result. At best, they might offer some clues as to trends and thus serve as a rough gauge of how the two campaigns are faring.

People tend to take what they want from polls. And what they take from them depends on whether they are looking for illumination or reassurance. The analysers, not unexpectedly, are generally the ones looking to shed some light on matters, while those who look no further than the basic findings are invariably the ones seeking comfort in affirmation of their preconceptions.

I am happy to leave the statistical number crunching to those better qualified and considerably more patient than myself. And I could never be so shallow as to read as far as the bit that suits my purposes and then ignore the rest. So, falling between these two extremes, what do I make of these polls?

I have long maintained that referendum polling was deceptive. Given the normal human aversion to change, it was always to be expected that, to the extent that it is perceived as representing the status quo, the No side would dominate from the outset. While much has been made of how little change there has been in findings over the past year or so, little or no account has been taken of the fact that, where the preponderance is all to one side, most of the early movement will tend to take place within that largest block. There was never going to be a straightforward shift from No to Yes. Any movement was inevitably going to be from anywhere short of a hard No towards a softer No. Or from a soft No towards Undecided.

It will immediately be noted that I do not refer to any similar movement within the Yes vote. The reason for this is that the Yes side is smaller and more committed. There is less room for movement and all those who are on the Yes side have already overcome the inertia of resistance to change. Once that barrier is torn down it is all but unheard of for it to be re-established. The Yes side is not a mirror image of the No side. There is little or no uncertainty in the Yes side. All those who are in any way unsure place themselves elsewhere on the scale.

For reasons that I will attempt to explain, all the movement is in one direction – from No to Yes via Undecided.

A recent poll from TNS BMRB (Record number of 2014 poll voters are undecided) was interesting in that it showed a small drop in the No vote and a very substantial increase in those Undecided while the Yes side remained pretty static. With all the caveats about not reading too much into a single survey, this is precisely the pattern one would expect to see if the idea of all movement occurring within the No/Undecided block was valid. The model I have suggested would predict that there would be no early signs of the campaign having any effect because all the movement is concealed within the No block. Polls would not reveal movement until some of the soft No block started to shift into Undecided territory. If this is a genuine trend, then the next batch of polls should confirm the increase in Undecideds indicated by the TNS BMRB findings. Although, given the variations in polling methodology, it would be foolish to expect that this trend will be anything other than erratic at this stage.

What is significant is that we may be seeing the first indications of the impact of the referendum campaigning. The first opportunity to find in the polls some indication of what the Yes and No campaigns are achieving, or failing to achieve. And, to the extent that these indications are meaningful, it is very good news for the Yes side. I would argue that this was inevitable. That, once the campaign gathered momentum, there was bound to be movement towards Yes that would be reflected in polling.

My reasoning on this has to do with the very different nature of the two campaigns as well as the way in which their respective messages are conveyed to the public. The No campaign is, as even unionist commentators have observed, relentlessly negative. It is almost entirely based on “smears, sneers and fears”. Scare stories about the imagined consequences of independence alongside disinformation about the Yes side’s case; general denigration of Scotland intended to destroy confidence; and attempts to undermine the credibility of those perceived to be the leading figures in the independence campaign by means of personal vilification – amounting at times to demonisation of the kind usually reserved for foreign despots who have fallen out of favour with the British state.

The trouble with this sort of campaigning is that it has nowhere to go. You can’t keep coming up with new scare stories without reaching the point where they start to look laboriously contrived and often extremely silly. It could easily be argued that Project Fear crossed that line long ago. It is also the case that repetition of the same scare stories only serves to diminish whatever impact they might have had while offering more opportunities for refutation by the Yes campaign.

Denigration of Scotland is dangerous territory. It can very easily backfire. Which is why we see the blatant hypocrisy of British politicians indignantly disowning the old, “Too wee! Too poor! Too stupid!” line while continuing to peddle stories which rely on the assumption that Scotland really is too wee, too poor and too stupid to be as other nations. From one side of their mouths they offer platitudes about Scotland of course being perfectly capable of surviving as an independent nation, while from the other side of their mouths they insist that independence would lead to economic catastrophe, social disintegration, global isolation and very possibly alien invasion. The problem for anti-independence campaigners is not only resentment of their insulting portrayal of Scotland, but the fact that their acknowledgement of the viability of independence remains even after the scare stories have been comprehensively debunked.

As for the smear campaign, mostly directed at Alex Salmond, it has been a complete failure. Other than fuelling the antagonism of those who already harbour an irrational hatred of the man, the effort to “Get Salmond!” has achieved precisely nothing. He remains a popular and respected figure with the sort of approval ratings that other political leaders can only fantasise about. Short of some tabloid publishing photographs of Alex Salmond microwaving babies in the kitchen of Bute House (At Taxpayers’ Expense!!!), that seems unlikely to change. The smear attempts just look petty and are a massive turn-off for the public.

The final point about the No campaign relates to the way their message is carried by the mainstream media. Better Together has been able to rely on the almost exclusively pro-union press and broadcast media – particularly the BBC – to follow the anti-independence agenda. Without getting into the ethics of all this or the disservice that such widespread bias does to the referendum debate or democracy itself, we should note only the fact that the No campaign’s message has already been heard. The fact that the media has always trumpeted anything that oozes out of Blair McDougall’s little band of doom-mongers and nay-sayers means that the No campaign’s message has already achieved maximum penetration. Not only do they have nothing new to say, everybody has already heard everything they have to say.

The crucial point being that the No campaign has already had pretty much all the effect it can ever hope to have. Having given it their best shot, the anti-independence campaign has made no impact at all on the Yes side of the polls. And, if the TNS BMRB poll is any indication, it is failing to hold the soft No vote.

On the Yes side we have a totally different story. The Yes message is not only positive and aspirational, it is open-ended. It grows as the campaign grows. The independence debate has widened and enlivened political discourse in Scotland allowing all manner of fresh, innovative, radical thinking to feed into the Yes campaign. The Yes campaign not only has inherent appeal, it has ever-widening appeal as more and more people find in the diverse possibilities and potential of independence now being explored by various parties, organisations and groups, something that resonates with them.

And the Yes campaign’s message has yet to reach anything like the level of penetration that the No side has managed thanks to the support it has received from the mainstream media. The full impact of the Yes message has yet to be felt. The effect of the Yes campaign has yet to be reflected in the opinion polls.

It may well be that those polls are going to get a lot more interesting in the coming weeks and months. I may even be moved to comment on them again.

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