Thursday, 28 November 2013

The Death of Nuanced Debate

Binary choices make for polarised debates
Constitutional reform is something I care passionately about. There are significant problems with the way the United Kingdom looks to enable its people to govern themselves. I was converted to Scottish independence by a growing scepticism that Westminster was capable of reinventing itself and producing a credible approach for a new relationship between London and Holyrood. And yet I find myself utterly despairing at the argument and the attitude underpinning the Yes campaign. More than that, though, I find myself utterly scunnered with the way this debate is being engaged with, and the disrespectful misrepresentation and hostility being pursued by both sides.

Sturgeon v Carmichael - a Dirty Battle in a Disgusting War

Take this evening's Scotland Tonight debate. The general consensus of viewer and pundit alike is that Nicola Sturgeon defeated Alistair Carmichael and comfortably too. But she did so with a kind of politics and approach to debate that simply isn't worthy of a people answering difficult existential questions about their future. She constantly interrupted Alistair Carmichael before he could get a word in edgeways. She ducked and she dived several legitimate questions, including on the currency and European Union membership, engaging in irrelevant whataboutery (and sometimes, outright lies, for example that the currency is anything more than a legal instrument relying on Westminster statute applying to the United Kingdom).

Fudging Democracy

She trotted out tired lines about Scotland getting Tory governments "forced" upon it, ignoring the inconvenient reality that in 2010 it was Scottish votes that denied the Tories a working majority (or for that matter that more Scots voted for the Tories or for the Lib Dems in 2010 than for the SNP in 2011) and the fact that the SNP support decisions about Scotland being made by the European Commission and Parliament, bodies which respectively are not elected and in respect of which Scotland would have a SMALLER proportion of the representatives than the UK Parliament. She made no effort whatsoever to try to defend the central notion of independence, that it's not "getting the government we vote for" it's deciding who the "we" should be when we address particular challenges within our society.

Does she think that welfare is something on which better political consensus and delivery can be achieved through governments in Edinburgh or governments in Westminster? Does she think that international disputes and problems like climate change or EU decision-making or conflicts in the Middle East are better addressed through lots of Western states working loosely together through discrete actors in an intergovernmental organisation like NATO, or fewer, more integrated units in the same kinds of organisation? Are nuclear weapons more or less likely to be dispensed with in the context of Europe and further afield if Scotland works within the UK structures, or if it acts distinctly on the international stage? Those are the real questions that independence address, not a flippant "Scotland didn't vote for the Tories". She's already assuming that the answer to "who is the most effective actor" is *always* Scotland, without ever explaining why international organisations are different from the UK in this respect.

False Equivalence

She seemed more determined to "beat Alistair Carmichael" than actually to explain and defend the positions her government had adopted in the White Paper. She asked ridiculous questions of Carmichael, like what powers he could "guarantee" would come to Scotland in the event of a No vote. Of course he can't answer that! The proper way further devolution should be delivered is by way of a Constitutional Convention, involving multi-party discussions and input from civic society. There is no point in holding such a Convention just now, when it could be rendered redundant by a Yes vote, and since the Liberal Democrats do not comprise a majority of Scottish seats in any Parliament, it would be inappropriate for Alistair Carmichael to start dictating the terms of that process or the outcomes. He does not control the Scottish Labour Party or the Tories. The most he can do is to point her to Scottish Lib Dem policy, the detailed provisions for Home Rule set out by Ming Campbell. It's not his fault if she hasn't read it.

"But people are asking for the SNP to give answers to everything" comes the retort. Okay, so plenty idiots at BetterTogether have asked stupid things from dialling codes to Doctor Who. But that's not what Alistair Carmichael asked you. Engage him on his merits. He asked you not about "everything" but about things that either a) have to be decided in the event of independence, negotiated under their watch, as an exercise of sovereign power in the event of a Yes vote or b) serve as permanent structural limitations or opportunities to what an independent Scotland can do, irrespective of its internal democratic structure.

Misleading on the Currency

So the first example: currency and the EU are perfect examples of this. A Yes vote *triggers* a change in the legal relationship between us and international organisations and with the central bank of the United Kingdom. We therefore need to have an explanation what the people who will actually be negotiating on behalf of Scotland will do when they set up the framework of our independent state. We need contingency plans that properly articulate first of all what our preferred kind of structure is but then secondly what structure we would adopt in the event we were unable to reach agreement with other parties.

So if the UK Government says that it will agree to a currency union, but only with specific measures for fiscal oversight of an independent Scotland, what kind of fiscal oversight would the SNP tolerate and what kind oversight would it reject? If the UK insist on a level of oversight greater than the Scottish Government are prepared to accept, because it would impinge on our fiscal levers more than it benefits us in terms of things like transaction costs, what is their plan B? Will they unilaterally adopt the pound, without a lender of last resort? Will they create a central bank with a pro-rata share of Bank of England assets and issue a Scottish currency at par? We need to know that they've given proper consideration to the alternatives, many of which, incidentally, would be more in Scotland's interests than to enter into a potentially very inflexible currency union. The smart response would have been to say that it is more in the interests of rUK to have a currency backed by North Sea oil revenues than for Scotland to choose willingly to enter into a currency union, gaining only limited transactional benefits, when Scandanavian countries have enjoyed far more flexibility and strength when combining oil revenues with independent currencies, and that Scotland is being magnanimous by agreeing this interim arrangement, in respect of which fiscal policy would be carefully monitored across the UK to assuage the markets that both new countries could hold their own.

But what did Nicola Sturgeon do? She lied. She said that the pound is "Scotland's" currency and that we "own" it too. First of all, you can't "own" a currency. It isn't an asset. It isn't "property". Currency is just a legal instrument used (usually by a state) to facilitate exchange of goods and services, issued against the value of reserve assets held by a central bank. Now of course there will be negotiations about what happens to the assets of the Bank of England, just as with all the institutions that are arms of the British state in the event of a Yes vote. But the assets, though controlled and owned by those institutions, are DIFFERENT from the institutions themselves. Scotland does not "own" a shareholding in British institutions. That's just not how our state is structured. We are a (legally) unitary state, not some sort of multi-national corporation. There has to be a negotiation about the division of assets (again, not institutions) and liabilities precisely because independence is the creation of a new state from part of the UK's old territory, rather than a disaggregation of a clearly demarcated confederal union. By giving inaccurate information about the true situation, Sturgeon may have done enough to persuade the layman that Carmichael's arguments about a currency union weren't relevant or especially penetrating, but she debased the proper understanding of what it means to be independent and how that transitional process would operate.

Fudging the issues on the EU

Similarly on the European Union. Sturgeon promised (without really justifying it at all) that the process will be straightforward, and that it will be in the interests of the other members to go along with Scotland enjoying membership on completely protected terms as good as they are just now, with opt-outs and rebates in full. All Nicola Sturgeon had to do was admit that membership wouldn't be automatic, but that there would be significant trade and movement consequences that would harm the rest of the EU if they were not to respond pragmatically to the new situation. She could have pointed out that even if we didn't get an ERMII opt-out, that in practice the obligation eventually to join the Euro is unenforceable. She could have pointed out that imposing Schengen rules on Scotland would bring no rational benefit to anyone in the rest of the EU because, being an island rather than on the Continent, all travel arrangements to and from Scotland would still involve an air or sea journey, which still involve passport controls. She could have pointed out that it was in the interests of those in continental Europe and of the rUK to allow Scotland to have a Schengen opt-out and to be part of the Common Travel Area, because to do otherwise would benefit LITERALLY no one.

But she didn't. Instead she made misleading statements about Scotland "already being a member" of the European Union. John Swinney did the same on Newsnight half an hour earlier. Scotland is NOT a member of the European Union. It is a territory that just happens, at this moment in time, to be part of a member-state of the European Union. Sturgeon was hiding behind a lie that doesn't even help her case. Instead of tackling head-on the question about the terms of Scottish membership and what renegotiation would actually mean, which if played right would have been a thoughtful and intelligent dismantling of the real world consequences of the "uncertainty" of EU membership, she turned it into an "us and them" debate, trying to imply that the UK was trying to act contrary to Scotland's interests.


The thing about these kinds of situation is that they do not have an actual comparator in the event of a No vote. The default position in the event of a No vote is the full provisions of the Scotland Act 2012 enter into force and Scotland gains, among other things, partial powers in respect of income tax and stamp duty land tax, beyond which anything that changes further will require the consensus of the political parties. Nicola Sturgeon mentioned that EU membership was under threat in the Union. No it isn't. If you vote No, there STILL has to be an outright General Election victory for the Tories or Tories with UKIP before an EU referendum is even remotely on the table. The Tories couldn't even win an overall majority in 2010, with 37% of the vote, and with the failure of the Boundary Reforms, the absolute best they can hope for is to be the largest party, which is still very unlikely. The idea that the UK's membership is under threat is ludicrous, and scaremongering straight out of the BetterTogether song-book.

And then there's the fearmongering about cuts to the block grant. The SNP cannot have this both ways. They complain that the funding formula is unfair because it takes inadequate account of what Scotland contributes to UK taxation by way of the oil revenues. Not only does this jar inconsistently with the more "redistributive" model of justice they sign up to for Scotland, but it also makes them completely hypocritical when they then complain that any (at the moment, tentative) moves to construct an alternative to Barnett based on need might lead to Scotland receiving slightly less, in order to balance out historical disadvantage to Wales and the North East of England.

Even to give effect to Scotland having more control of its own taxes, however, Barnett ultimately needs to be done away with. In the event of a No vote, the SNP will presumably argue that the Scottish Parliament still needs more fiscal powers, to control income tax, corporation tax and capital gains tax. But at the point Holyrood controls most of its revenue, the Barnett formula, ultimately a spending formula, thus neither particularly good at assessing contribution or need, simply has to be abolished. By refusing to engage with the alternatives to Barnett, and by painting it as a zero-sum game, they are actually making it more difficult, not easier, to bring about more control for Scotland over its affairs and more fairness in the way Britain is being run from a financial perspective.

The Real Challenge

And this rather goes to the nub of the problem with this debate. The sensible, constructive dialogue that is necessary to get a true consensus on constitutional reform, is being drowned out by some absolute drivel and a polarised discussion about what the real options are. Westminster is not going to turn around and significantly cut Scottish spending without a quid-pro-quo over revenue control, and it's not going to take powers back in the event of a No vote. That would be absolute suicide, would lead to another independence vote within 10 years and a landslide for Yes. But equally, the framing of this debate as a binary question has culled any hope of free, independent thinking about what independence really means for Scotland and what the nuanced alternatives could be if only people were less needlessly antagonistic. In the event of a No vote, the SNP have backed themselves into a corner whereby they have created a prophecy of doom for Scotland. We need to know that they won't make it self-fulfilling by sulking in the corner saying "I told you so" and to be sure that they will show a genuine commitment to more powers for Scotland, unlike how it was with the original Constitutional Convention.

To be clear, I'm not just criticising the SNP. The Unionist parties have had an appalling attitude towards Scotland in the last six years, refusing to work with the SNP in 2007 on a referendum, refusing to work with them on the National Conversation and designing their response to Scottish politics to "dish the Nats" rather than simply to produce a relationship between citizen, Holyrood and Westminster flexible to modern requirements and capable of projecting Scottish and British interests onto the international stage. They need to banish the absolute dinosaurs like Ian Davidson, and start to talk constructively about how the very idea of sovereignty can be reinvented in the British state, reshaping what it means to exist in a multi-national union and to question the very premise that nation-states are the most desirable state of being. They need to talk about direct representation of the devolved administrations in EU delegations. We need a more consensual approach to decisions about things like national security and the intelligence services. We need to trust the devolved institutions to have direct control over welfare decisions. We need to make them, and the councils below them, responsible for raising most of what they spend. Creating a governing structure rooted in the idea of accountability rather than asking to whom the buck can be passed and who else can be blamed for difficult policy and spending decisions.

My real worry is that Scotland, far from being betrayed by the Tories, will ultimately be betrayed by its two biggest parties. An SNP who have bet the house on a narrative that this referendum is all or nothing, and who will therefore have a stake in proving that, and a Labour Party who, when it even pays attention, wishes this referendum were about all or nothing and will treat it as such if they win. Scottish politics has been poisoned by this referendum and the politicisation of the most basic facts and legal realities about how we govern ourselves.

Donald Dewar spent most of the 1990s telling Ian Lang "to have some imagination" about the possibilities for the future of Scotland in the face of the UK Government's opposition to devolution. What we've been given is a choice between Labour's void of imagination and the SNP's delusion.


  1. Fantastic blog post. Really hit the nail on the head with the amount of posturing Sturgeon did with Carmichael.

  2. Not a particularly edifying debate on either part - though you let the Secretary of State off for his patronising remarks and disdainful grin. On the possibility of a UK wide EU referendum only being on the table via UKIP and the Tories, think again - Nick Clegg is now signalling Lib Dem support for this too.

    1. All I see there is a commitment to a referendum when "the rules next change" i.e. as and when there is another Treaty.

      That's not going to happen. Not any time soon.

  3. erm... on nuance, Tories(412855 votes) and the libdems(465471 votes) combined received 878,326 votes in Scotland, while the SNP in 2010 got 491,386 votes in 2010 and in 2011 received 902,915 votes in the constituency section and 876,421.
    So your qualifier that Tories & LibDems received more votes than SNP in 2011 is only half true. They only got more votes in the list section.

  4. Great blog - I am on the other side of the fence re independence (I sincerely believe that we are "Better Together") so wondered if my reaction to last night's debate was due to my personal bias. Very refreshing to see such a candid, and in my view fair, account of the problems in the yes campaign.

  5. Graeme, I have not read your blog before but I found this post disarmingly honest and fair. Like Grace, I am a better together supporter, but more than anything else I have been appalled by the standard of debate we have seen, not least because on referendum day plus one, we all still have to live and work together and it's becoming ever harder to see how that will be possible if the animus continues on its present trajectory. I thought Nicola Sturgeon had a command of her facts and arguments, but had no interest in allowing Alistair Carmichael's alternative point of view to even be heard. Her style might be thought of as a commanding performance in a student debate, but is not what I expect to hear from a Deputy First Minister. It spoke volumes that legions of nationalists took to twitter to squeal with delight about Ms Sturgeon, but I strongly doubt that any waverers would have been convinced: if any watched to the end, the overwhelming sensation might have been put off by the whole thing.