Confrontation is inevitable in any referendum; but we should keep the debate good-humoured and fair, writes Allan Massie
Well, they’re off. The launch of the Yes campaign means that the referendum campaign is under way, even if we don’t yet know whether we are to be faced with a single Yes-No question or whether there will be a third option. More of that in a moment. Meanwhile we can’t doubt that the next two years will be dominated by the independence debate. That’s a long time and the argument may become bitter.
It’s important that it shouldn’t. Whatever the outcome we are all – unionists and nationalists alike – going to have to live with it. We’ll still be the same five million or so people living in Scotland, whether the country is on the way to independence or chooses to remain part of the United Kingdom. So, in the course of the debate, we should all accept that those in the Yes camp and those in the No camp all want what is, to their mind, best for Scotland and the Scottish people. Moderation of language is desirable. Insulting those who hold a different view from the speaker or writer is damaging, for such language will be resented and resentment will fester. Happily, I think that Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling, who seems likely to be the leader of the No campaign, both realise this, and will choose their words carefully.
Unionists should start by acknowledging that the SNP is remarkable among nationalist parties for the restraint that it has shown, for its rejection of violence and direct action, for its persistence in seeking to achieve its goal by persuasion and democratic means, and for its espousal of civic, rather than ethnic, nationalism. Likewise nationalists should desist from insulting unionists by calling them traitors or quislings, and from presenting the Scottish Labour Party as a mere subsidiary of what some of them like to call London Labour. Instead they should recognise that the Labour Party in Scotland is every bit as Scottish as the SNP and indeed that the same is true of the Scottish Conservatives and the Scottish Liberal Democrats.
No doubt some harsh things will be said in the heat of debate. This will not matter too much if both sides try consistently to be fair to the other. If they can’t manage this, then, no matter what the result of the referendum may be, divisions will be sharper and deeper, and Scotland after the referendum will be a less happy and less agreeable country than it is now.
Comparisons with other countries are of limited value, because circumstances are always different. Nevertheless, it is worth remarking that the achievement of independence has sometimes resulted in the deepening of divisions and the persecution of those who opposed it, while on the other hand its rejection or incomplete achievement has seen disappointed nationalists turn to violence. The history of Ireland since the partition of the country and the creation of the Irish Free State, which led to a civil war between the Free Staters and those nationalists who objected to the terms of the treaty that brought it into being, should serve as an awful warning.
Good humour is desirable. This demands not only decency in debate, but also an expressed willingness to accept the result of the referendum, no matter how disappointing this may be. One way to promote good humour would be to accept some of the other side’s demands. So, for instance, unionists should drop objections to the SNP’s wish to extend the vote to 16 year-olds. They should recognise that this is reasonable: these young Scots will live longer with the consequences of the referendum than those of us who are already collecting our pensions. People who are considered old enough to marry – even if not to buy a pint of beer or packet of cigarettes – are old enough to vote. Likewise, the SNP should agree to have the wording of the question on the ballot paper decided by the Electoral Commission as a neutral body, so that it is seen to be fair and not loaded.
Which brings me to the argument over a third option. I suspect that most of us recognise that further devolution is likely if Independence is rejected. The arguments in favour of devo-max and devo-plus have been set out, and command considerable support, even if the general public may not have troubled itself too much about the detailed proposals. So the case for putting the third opinion on the ballot paper is quite good. It also attracts people on both sides of the divide: nationalists who fear there is insufficient support for full independence, because its approval would lead to a greater degree of self-government for Scotland; unionists because they may consider that having the question on the paper would dilute the vote for outright independence, while its absence might make more people likely to shift into the nationalist camp. I suspect this argument is good.
Nevertheless, there are difficulties. The first, and most cogent one, is that while independence may properly be regarded as a matter for Scotland alone – even if its exact terms were subject to negotiated agreement – the terms and extent of further devolution would require the approval of other parts of the UK. This couldn’t be done in advance of the referendum, and it would be absurd to attempt it, especially since one of the negotiating parties, the present Scottish Government, is committed to independence, not merely more devolution. So a third question could commit us only to the principle of further devolution; and many will think this unsatisfactory.
The only way out of this difficulty – if the third question is to be on the paper – is for all the Scottish political parties to agree to accept the principle of further devolution if this is found to command majority support, and to pledge themselves to work together in concert with the UK government to develop the most generally acceptable terms and extent of such devolution. Indeed some such agreement is desirable even if the ballot paper offers only a single yes-no question.
All this makes it still more essential that the debate be conducted with good humour and generosity. Any referendum must be confrontational, but it’s desirable that the confrontation should be followed by acceptance of the result, and by a reconciliation that takes the form of a consensus.