By Stephen Bowman
It’s been a big week in Scottish politics and I think I’ve only now digested most of what’s been happening. Of course, it all kicked off on Tuesday with the release of the Scottish Government’s ‘Scotland’s Future’ white paper on independence, which meant that the rest of the week was taken up with discussion, debate and reaction from various people. There was the (predictably) immediate criticism of the white paper by Alistair Darling on Tuesday, then the casual anti-Scottish racism and gobsmacking ignorance of the panellists on Channel 5’s Wright Stuff on Wednesday morning. Then, that evening, there was the verbal mauling of Alistair Carmichael by Nicola Sturgeon during a debate on STV, and a statement from the Spanish Prime Minister about Scotland’s potential EU membership (which was really directed at Catalonia, but which was lapped up with indecent relish by the Unionists all the same).
One of the major criticisms of the white paper has been that it reads like an SNP election manifesto. It’s true that parts of it do, though it’s also true that there are some important questions answered, including in relation to a future independent Scotland’s diplomatic representation. Yet the focus on policies like childcare – which has grabbed the headlines, and which is indeed one aspect of the white paper that would seem more at home in a party political publication – is a noteworthy development. Though the SNP have long proposed a distinctly moderate and pragmatic version of independence (retaining the monarchy, for example), the white paper’s childcare policy would seem partly to be in response to the Unionists’ attempt to conduct the independence debate as though it were an election campaign, focussing on a variety of technicalities and policy issues. It’s a tactic that has tended to bring the tone of the debate down, and has deliberately obscured its intellectual and ideological nuances.
Last night’s BBC Question Time from Falkirk was a case in point. For the first time ever, the panel was made up of an equal number of Unionists and Yes campaigners. The debate, however, was, for the most part, petty and mundane. It was a bit like a goal mouth stramash at a World Cup Final: the occasion would seem to demand a more solemn, higher-level performance, but was a messy, routine and unedifying spectacle nonetheless Yet, it was also instructive of the different strands that run through the argument for an independent Scotland, with the three pro-independence speakers each representing one of those strands. Firstly, Nicola Sturgeon – who, along with Alex Salmond, is primarily responsible for the white paper – represented the SNP’s pragmatic and policy-driven approach. Secondly, the singer Eddi Reader was indicative of a more nationalistic approach underpinned by a belief in Scotland’s right to self-determination. It was largely left to the Green MSP, Patrick Harvie, to articulate the deeper ideological, societal and political transformational potential of independence, as well as to offer a strong challenge to the unpleasant xenophobic assumptions behind a question on immigration posed by a member of the Question Time audience
In truth, the three pro-independence panellists each called upon the different elements of independence. Indeed, that is the strength of the Yes message. Faced with these three strands, the No campaign can only tie itself up in knots. It demands policy answers from the SNP. It gets them and, in response, can only offer voters visions of uncertainty within the Union, for example Carmichael’s inability to guarantee Scotland would receive more devolved powers or that Britain would remain in the EU (interestingly, this is indicative of what would seem another change in the approach of the Yes campaign: it’s doing a bit of scaremongering of its own now). The No campaign says that there is no democratic deficit on the occasions that Scotland votes against the Tories but gets a Tory government at Westminster, yet at the same time is required to recognise Scotland as a nation with a right to self-determination. This recognition is implied by the very fact of the referendum, and was explicitly made by Labour’s Margaret Curran last night on Question Time. It’s also present whenever members of the No campaign mistakenly think it’s a good idea to go on about how much they love Scotland, as though it matters. Then, underlying all of this, is the ideological rejection of neo-liberal Westminster rule and the opportunity provided by independence to try a new form of progressive government. This should present a problem for Labour, who need to explain why they are happy to oppose progressive societal change with which they presumably agree, while at the same time propping up the Tories as part of the Better Together campaign.
So it’s been a fascinating and complicated week, in what is a fascinating and complicated debate. It remains to be seen what effect the SNP’s focus on specific policies, like childcare, will have. Even though this focus would appear partly a response to the Unionists’ approach, this suits the SNP. Simply, they are offering more attractive and more progressive policies, and this may yet prove decisive in the referendum. At the same time, however, it is important for the independence debate to remain grounded in a narrative of lasting and fundamental social change, as was so eloquently expressed last night by Patrick Harvie. Give that man a lollipop, or – even better – a more prominent role in Yes Scotland.