A choice of two futures
Something interesting is starting to happen in the independence debate. These articles, written by two leading Scottish journalists and published over the past few days are, perhaps, the first visible signs of it but they could, in my view, be the start of a much bigger tide of opinion.
Both Joyce McMillan and Kevin McKenna describe themselves as people who should be on the ‘no’ side of the debate but, instead, find themselves increasingly disillusioned by the lack of hope and vision from those arguing for the status quo.
And therein lies a big problem for those making the case against independence. Theirs is an approach which is unremittingly negative. It tells people what they should – supposedly – fear from Scotland becoming an independent country, but offers no hint of what people can hope for if they opt to leave key economic and social powers at Westminster.
Why is this a problem? Well, firstly – and contrary to what many people believe – it is my experience that people do prefer hope over fear.
Secondly, as an approach, it is subject to the law of diminishing returns. As one after another, the scares are answered, people become inured to them. Which means that, in order to retain any kind of impact, the scare stories have to become ever more outlandish. The result then is two fold: (a) the attacks become ridiculous – for example last year Alistair Darling claimed that an independent Scotland would have no claim on British pop music ; and (b) the determination to put a negative gloss on everything is so overpowering that own goals are scored – with the most recent example of this being the UK Treasury’s admission that an independent Scotland would be, at worst, no worse off than it is now. Surely this should be a cause for celebration, not an attack on independence.
But it is neither of the above observations that present the biggest problem for those on the ‘no’ side of the debate.
Their biggest problem is that the weakness of the political, social and economic case for the status quo means they have no choice but to be negative. So when they realise that it is the wrong approach (and I am sure wiser heads already realise this), there is little that can be done about it.
But sooner rather than later, those on the ‘no’ side will have to answer the question: What are the political, economic and social arguments for sticking with Westminster government?
Because in the referendum in 2014 there are two alternative futures facing Scotland – and both options need scrutiny.
Those alternative futures concern the kind of country we want to be, and it will be incumbent on both sides to set out how our preferred outcome will help make Scotland more democratic, prosperous, fairer, greener and safer than we are today.
Those of us on the ‘yes’ side will argue that, for all our strengths and attributes as a country, Scotland could and should be doing better than we are. This is not as good as it gets. Success needs to be achieved and we believe that independence maximises the powers and opportunities that Scotland needs to succeed.
We will point out that independence ensures that we always get the governments we vote for. We will make the case that control over direct and indirect taxation will give us tools to grow our economy faster, create more jobs and counter the gravitational pull to London and the South East. We will argue that the ability to make our own decisions on tax and benefits will increase our ability to tackle the poverty that blights our society, with all the knock on effects for the living standards, health and wellbeing of our citizens. We will contend that control over our own resources will allow us to invest in the priorities we set for ourselves as a nation.
Those on the ‘no’ side have to explain why, however bad or unpopular government from Westminster is in Scotland, they think it is better than any future we could achieve with independence. They need to set out, equally clearly, how leaving powers in the hands of Westminster allows us to tackle the challenges we face as a country better than we could ourselves.
The problem they will have in doing so is that, as an argument, it runs counter to experience: when generations of Westminster government have made us one of the most unequal countries in the developed world; when leaving economic policy in the hands of successive UK governments has resulted in a long term growth rate for Scotland that lags far behind that of many other comparable countries; when investment in nuclear weapons has been a bigger priority for the use of our resources than tackling child poverty; and when the living standards of so many Scots are under more pressure than ever before, as a result of failed economic policies, how can it possibly be argued that more Westminster government is the answer.
These are the questions the ‘no’ side can’t escape. Because in this choice between two futures, it will not be good enough for either side to simply attack the other. People will want to hear the positive case from each – a clear vision of the kind of country we want Scotland to be and how our preferred constitutional outcome will equip us to achieve it.
I know that the Scottish Government is up for that. I’m less clear that the ‘no’ side will be able to rise to the challenge.