Tuesday, 3 May 2011

"Independence" is not a four letter word. Neither is "referendum"

The question of Scottish independence casts a shadow over Thursday’s election. As in 2007, a disproportionate amount of time – and press coverage – is devoted to an issue that looms much smaller in the minds of ordinary Scots than it does in those of Scottish politicians.

At Sunday’s leaders’ debate in Perth, I was more than disappointed at the predictable nature of the line of questioning from the audience. There were no probing, technical questions; nothing to seriously test the leaders or scrutinise policy differences. My question on the future of mental health provision obviously wasn’t perceived by the BBC as sufficiently relevant – instead we had to endure the tame and the lamentable as the non-issue of independence was allowed to take centre stage.

On the train to Perth I met some Green activists on the train who were poring over copies of the various parties’ manifestos, clearly attempting to evaluate which of the four major parties’ positions were closest to their own. On one level I found it quaint – people still actually read manifestos in order to determine how they should vote! On another level I found it uplifting to witness such intelligent scrutiny of policy from people who clearly wanted to be able to ask the leaders a serious question on environmental policy based on manifesto commitments.

As I’ve been out in my own prospective constituency, I’ve been impressed by how much Green issues matter to local people. I’ve had so many conversations on renewable energy and tackling the problems associated with climate change. I’ve also had many conversations about animal welfare, recycling, the future of the charitable sector, unemployment and the NHS. People are clearly concerned about many things, some of which are overlooked by the media and, sometimes, the political parties themselves. What they don’t seem too concerned about is the largely irrelevant matter of Scottish independence.

I have been asked by one member of the public if I would support and fight for Scottish independence. Obviously I couldn’t give a firm commitment on that score, but the truth is that I'm far from opposed to it in principle. The question was also put at a local hustings. But generally speaking I don’t think it’s something that too many Scots are excited about, and I definitely don’t equate Alex Salmond’s personal popularity with public support for independence. People like Mr Salmond for a number of reasons, not least because he has demonstrable leadership capabilities.

During the leaders’ debate Tavish Scott reaffirmed the Liberal Democrats’ position of being opposed to a referendum on independence. While he refused to be drawn on whether this position might change as a result of any “deal”, Scott argued that the independence issue was a distraction at a time when the big questions were about jobs and the police force. Iain Gray made pretty much the same point.

They’re not wrong. Independence is a distraction from the more pressing issues. But I’m not sure that opposing Salmond’s proposed referendum is the right tactic. I was asked the same question at a hustings meeting in Kilmacolm on Thursday and I gave a slightly different answer. It went along these lines:

Independence is an unwelcome distraction. In any case, I’m an internationalist, not a nationalist and could never subscribe to the small-minded raison d’etre of the SNP. I’m independence-sympathetic, although not entirely convinced by the merits of independence, but I’m unexcited by the tiresome, entrenched and admittedly dogmatic arguments of both the pro- and anti-independence camps. The issue dominated the 2007 election campaign and is being allowed to again. Why? Because the public haven’t had the chance to decide the matter one way or the other in a referendum.

I’m not a fan of referenda. I’m even less supportive of independence. But what I am concerned about is that Scotland becomes a world leader, that it takes its place at the heart of Europe and that it is home to thriving industry and a centre of innovation. Whether Scotland is independent or part of the union is therefore in some respects academic: certainly it is of lesser significance than facilitating the economic growth and creating the jobs necessary to ensure a successful Scotland.

Why not, as Wendy Alexander suggested, “bring it on”. If we’d had this referendum during the last parliament, the Scottish people would undoubtedly have rejected independence and the matter would have been resolved for the foreseeable future. It would have put the SNP in a rather difficult position and would have proved a greater setback to them than Salmond’s inability to hold a referendum. Personally I think that, on this kind of constitutional issue, allowing the public to decide Scotland’s destiny is preferable to another five years of talk, likely inaction, political stalemate and this largely irrelevant matter continuing to dominate Scottish political conversation.

Tavish Scott argued that there is not a need for a referendum. “There is an election on Thursday”, he explained, “if you believe in independence, vote SNP.” He went further, claiming that this election is about independence. He performed reasonably well in the debate, but such a position is intellectually unsustainable and as misleading as Salmond’s insistence that the regional vote is an election for First Minister. This election is about many issues, but first and foremost it’s about electing a new parliament at Holyrood and deciding who governs Scotland. Arguing that the election is about independence (something that actually would make Scott’s role in it largely irrelevant) is flagrantly disingenuous and actually plays up the significance of the “distraction”.

Salmond claims that his opponents are “talking Scotland down”. Scott rightly chipped in, saying that was a “cheap” misrepresentation. No, we’re not talking Scotland down – those who believed we should have an economy based on Iceland’s were inadvertently doing that kind of thing. But continually denying the public the option of voting on the matter not only allows the SNP to make these kind of claims, it gives them credibility.

Ultimately, it comes down to what your vision of a better Scotland means. There are some of us for whom taking Scotland forward means separation from the Union – nothing more, nothing less. Others prefer a vision of Scotland as a world player and are more interested in advocating policies that will see Scotland emerge as a strong, influential leader on the international stage.

Personally, I’ve always cared more for people than lines on maps.

There is, to paraphrase Harold Macmillan, a “wind of change blowing through this nation and, whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.” That national consciousness does not necessarily manifest itself as a desire for independence, but it is undeniable and will only become stronger if the Westminster coalition is perceived not to be acting in Scotland’s interests. While it is unlikely that Scots would support an independence option in a referendum now, there is nothing to say that the mood will not change if unionist parties are seen to be thwarting democracy and the SNP can play up the “democratic deficit”.

So, while I have some concerns about full independence and would not campaign for it without some knowledge of the nature of our independent fiscal policy or our relationship with the EU (if we’d been independent four years ago, we would now have an economy like Iceland’s), I also can’t passionately fight against it. The issue is genuinely a distraction and I am reluctant to give it my time and attention when there are more pressing priorities.

But I would not necessarily be opposed to a referendum, as it will not only give Scots the power to decide their own destiny but also settle the matter for the foreseeable future. From the point of view of the unionist parties, there would be little to fear from a referendum in which the public would almost certainly reject Salmond’s drive for independence and the SNP’s sole reason for existence; it would also disarm those who would accuse unionists of being anti-democratic or talking Scotland down.

I expect we’ll be hearing a lot more of this on the weeks (and perhaps years) to come. That is more than regrettable. It’s now hard to have a political conversation about our nation’s future without resorting to using the “i” word. Nationalists can’t envisage a brighter future in which Scotland is not independent; unionists can’t make proposals for a better Scotland without denigrating the nationalist arguments.

Perhaps it is time to move the debate forward from being the preserve of tribalist politicians, their entrenched perspectives and their inevitable games. Scottish national identity means many things to many people, but it should never be hijacked for political purposes in the way that it has in recent years.

“Independence” isn’t a four letter word. Neither is “referendum”. Let’s have the referendum – and maybe then we can start talking about something else.

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