Alf Young: A grey area in the independence debate

The BAE Systems shipyard on the River Clyde at Govan, Glasgow. Picture: Reuters
The BAE Systems shipyard on the River Clyde at Govan, Glasgow. Picture: Reuters
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The fervour of both camps is alienating those who remain undecided in the referendum debate, writes Alf Young

I am not a betting man. However, when I was at school in the late 1950s, I had a job in a family-run bookies. The owner’s son was a contemporary. I could count quickly and accurately. Saturday was the big racing day. I helped take in the betting slips and pay out the winnings. I quickly learned that a lot more money came over that counter than went back out.

There were exceptions. I’ve never forgotten one regular who rarely mixed with the other punters. He bet big, remarkably big, given the times. And always on the favourite. As soon as he placed a bet, we had a standing instruction to take it to the owner, in the back shop. This guy had a habit of winning. So sometimes some or all of his wager would be laid off elsewhere.

This week someone bet big on Scotland voting no next September. The wager was £50,000, persuading the bookmaker to shorten his odds on that outcome from 1/7 to 1/8. Astonishingly, other individual bets on a no vote have been as big as £200,000. Odds on yes have lengthened to 5/1, the biggest since the referendum process began, said a Ladbroke’s spokesman.

I can’t imagine why anyone would risk so much money on a decision that’s still ten months away. One about which so many tell pollsters they’ve still to make up their minds. Clearly those Saturdays processing betting slips knocked any gambling instinct right out of me. But how to better understand the forces shaping our defining collective decision next year?

Writing in the New York Times last month, Scottish crime writer Denise Mina described her experience of being the don’t-know participant in a radio discussion about independence, with rivals from the yes and no camps. She laid bare her frustration with the growing divisiveness and nastiness of the whole referendum debate.

“During the course of the show, I outed myself as not “undecided” but sick to death of the debate’s simplistic binary framing. None of you are listening, I said. Voters are tuning out. Referendums have to be framed as yes or no because nuance makes terrible law, but the discussion needs to be expansive because independence is such a complex proposition,” Mina, who holds a law degree, said.

She described how the yes/no advocates in her radio debate had had “a brutal falling out” before the show started. How the yes man, a prominent business advocate of the cause, was boasting of his bulging contacts book, acquired from his participation. How would she like him to seem to be listening, he inquired. And, if he played along, would that sway her vote?

I heard the same yes man, on another radio show last week, telling the Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson not to dare argue with him on numbers. He’s a businessman. His take on numbers is beyond scrutiny. As if. That kind of unflinching certainty, whichever side of the divide it springs from, is becoming intolerable. Don’t the perpetrators realise that reducing expansive debate about constitutional complexities to this kind of arid binary discourse simply risks turning even more people off getting involved at all?

I agree with Mina when she observes: “Fervour has enormous social currency. The capacity to listen to people we disagree with is framed as indecision.” I don’t expect the SNP government’s white paper in ten days time to do much to change that reality. If it comes in at the rumoured 500 pages or more, how many will even try to digest it? The spinners on both sides will enjoy many more field days.

Last week in this slot, with the row over warship building on the Upper Clyde raging, I tried to explore some of the complexities surrounding that issue. A bit of historical context. Some analysis of the competitive challenges. Evidence of the Clyde’s indifferent track record in recent decades on diversifying its customer base.

Scotland’s deputy first minister had asserted that, with a yes vote, Clyde yards could not only retain the Type 26 order but also diversify their product range and boost exports, just like the Norwegians. “Who do this well,” she claimed.

One reader responded by arguing that, since I hadn’t directly countered Nicola Sturgeon’s claim that 42 Norwegian yards had built more than a hundred ships last year, it remained the case that, if Norway could do it, Scotland – freed of a UK parliament more interested in developing London’s financial markets – could do the same.

I’ll pass over the irony that, while our deputy first minister was making her case for a major Scottish shipbuilding revival on Clydeside, Alex Salmond was in Hong Kong, predicting an independent Scotland would be an even more influential financial centre in the future than it has been in the past.

The collapse of Scotland’s two 300-year-old banks in the 2008 crash was never mentioned. Nor was the fact that HSBC – “a bank in China more or less founded on Scottish principle”, our first minister lauded it – was, in 1981, prevented from mounting a hostile takeover bid for Royal Bank of Scotland, by direct intervention of the government led by Margaret Thatcher.

But back to Norway’s shipbuilding record. More than half its 109 new builds in 2012 were not ships at all. They were small boats built in small yards – 37 inshore work boats, 14 coastal fishing craft, eight passenger catamarans. Most of the rest were for the oil and gas industry, built by yards now owned by a major Italian shipbuilding group and previously owned by South Koreans. Finland’s icebreaker building capacity is now owned outright by a Russian corporation.

Norway exports very few ships. Almost 90 per cent of what it does build is to meet domestic demand. But it does export a lot of ship design and know-how to yards in the Far East, just as Scottish shipbuilders have historically done too, a trend that is causing significant concern there. Norway imports a lot of ships too. As I pointed out last week, its five new frigates were all built in Spain. Like a devolved Scotland has done, it has bought several car ferries from Polish yards. It is building oil rigs in South Korea. It hasn’t built larger commercial vessels for years.

Like independence itself, charting new directions for any national economy is a complex proposition. It can’t be resolved by soundbites or lazy comparisons. But those of us who ache for more serious debate about what the past tells us and what the future might credibly hold seem destined to be drowned out by the fervour of the committed.