Brian Wilson: A sorry excuse for political debate

Nicola Sturgeon jeers at the SNP's Holyrood rivals. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Nicola Sturgeon jeers at the SNP's Holyrood rivals. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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With no reasoned answers to reasonable questions, the SNP has resorted to shouting down the opposition, writes Brian Wilson

I watched the televised debacle involving Nicola Sturgeon and Johann Lamont on STV this week with a transfixed horror at the calibre of what was unfolding. But I also felt a real anger that this is the level to which Scottish political debate has been dragged down at this of all times.

We used to pride ourselves in being rather good at the cut and thrust of dignified, articulate debate. Arguments were won through persuasion. Politicians were expected to maintain certain standards of courtesy, no matter how passionately they prosecuted their case.

Now, after decades of obsessing about the constitution, Scottish political discourse is represented by a shouting match in which the primary aim of our Deputy First Minister is to prevent her opponents being heard. It was awful, and I am reluctant to believe that anyone other than her blindest disciples, tweets at the ready, was impressed.

I assume Johann Lamont, having watched the previous episodes, concluded that the only tactic was to stand her ground and not be silenced. She did that as well as anyone could. The problem is that when competing with crass boorishness, it is difficult not to end up tarred with the same brush whether merited or not.

As the week wore on, it dawned on me that the cacophony in Cowcaddens did have a usefulness, however deeply concealed. It should become the metaphor for the way the whole contest is moving – with every inconvenient argument against independence to be gabbled into submission while the Nationalists’ appeal is increasingly pitched at the vulgar end of the populist market, where glibness might be confused with reason.

Assertion is all. The assumptions about the lengths the world would go to in order to accommodate Scotland’s preferred interests are moving into the realms of farce. Nobody else, it seems, has any entitlement to act in what they perceive to be their own best interests. The case for independence is predicated on them all behaving in the way the Scottish Nationalists have decided they should.

According to the First Minister’s latest diktat, not only is the UK (continuing) to grant the currency union he demands, but it must also deny its own people the right to express an opinion through a referendum. This involves both an arrogant presumption about a matter in which he would have no say and also complete contempt for the realpolitik which would have been created.

In the event of a Yes vote, a currency union with departed Scotland would be about as popular with English and Welsh voters as, let’s say, a bid to join the eurozone. If further discouragement was required, another £8.2 billion in losses for RBS can scarcely encourage a consensus that Scottish banks would never again need bailing out, as required by currency union. The cry would inevitably go up for a referendum, with the vast majority of UK (continuing) voters demanding one.

So Mr Salmond’s Plan A depends not only on Messrs Osborne, Balls and Alexander reneging collectively on what they have said – when rational evidence suggests they will do no such thing – but also on them all agreeing to deny their own people a say in the matter, even if there was an overwhelming demand for one. Why on earth would they do that? Why would any UK (continuing) party risk political suicide, just because Alex Salmond said they were obliged to do so?

As has been confirmed this week, the currency question carries with it a vast range of implications. Tens of thousands of jobs and the security of millions of pensions depend upon a satisfactory answer being provided. One analyst spoke of “generational implications” of going ahead without certainty on a currency union. Yet all that is on offer is an increasingly threadbare unilateral insistence about how obliging the United Kingdom (continuing) and its political leaders would become, on the day after independence.

In support of that crumbling edifice of unreality, Mr Salmond blusters, Ms Sturgeon interrupts and disciples tweet. Their objective is to maintain a confusion of claim and counter-claim in which assertion and evidence become indistinguishable, while grievance is assiduously nurtured. What right has anyone to “come up here” or “talk Scotland down” or “bully” or otherwise prick these over-inflated balloons of hot air and self-regard?

As long as the other participants in this dodgy dialogue were politicians of non-Nationalist persuasions, it just might have been possible to get away with the bluster. But the Standard Life intervention is of a different order. Nobody beyond the loopier fringes of Nationalism claims they are part of some grand conspiracy or can dispute the obligation to state their concerns to the millions who have invested with them. The same will be true of many other employers.

But even in the face of Standard Life’s statement, which he must have foreseen for months if not years, Mr Salmond had nothing better to offer than the discredited Plan A. Standard Life (and, by association, every other financial institution in Scotland) did not have to worry, he insisted, because he, Mr Salmond, was right about “wanting” a currency union. Even small children understand that “wanting” something which is not within one’s powers to obtain adds up to nothing at all.

The truth, which Mr Salmond cannot afford to acknowledge, is that Standard Life is a great Scottish success story because we have been part of a political and currency union for all of its 189 years – not in spite of it. That is why it is happily headquartered in Edinburgh, providing 5,000 high-quality Scottish jobs, while 90 per cent of its business is in England. With the status quo, that makes complete sense. Divide our small island into separate states, and it makes none at all.

Amidst the plethora of opinion polls, the most interesting of the week showed support for independence in the generally prosperous north-east of Scotland at just 17 per cent. I doubt this weekend if they could muster even that figure among Standard Life employees and their families. Contrary to Nationalist caricature, the great majority of people in Scotland enjoy degrees of prosperity and security which they are not going to gamble on the basis of unproven assertions.

And if the offer to the rest is a higher degree of social justice, then that too has to be demonstrated rather than asserted. Maybe the next debate should be about what Nationalism has actually delivered to the poorest and weakest people and communities in Scotland, as opposed to what it is now promising.