Alex Massie: Honesty best policy in independence debate

WITH A good case to be made on either side, nationalists do the nation a disservice with disingenuous mud slinging, writes Alex Massie.

WITH A good case to be made on either side, nationalists do the nation a disservice with disingenuous mud slinging, writes Alex Massie.

And so, in the light of the pompously titled “Edinburgh Agreement” our great national conversation begins. It will be a long, long two years and the largest, bitterest, most divisive public debate since argument raged over the Iraq War. That’s as it should be. Big decisions merit proper debate, though I expect this argument will not be short of “dodgy” dossiers either.

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Recalling the tumult of those pre-war days a decade ago, however, is also a reminder of how public arguments should and, more pressingly, should not be conducted. There was dishonesty aplenty in the months before the invasion of Iraq and if both sides shared some responsibility for this there was, in retrospect, little doubt that the pro-invasion block was the more grievously culpable. Their arguments were, too often, more concerned with playing the man while ignoring the ball.

I know this, at least in part, because I was happy to play the game that way myself. Like other supporters of the war I cheerfully labelled those who disagreed with my views “objectively pro-Saddam”. This was a bullying argument deployed to silence opposition and, where this could not be achieved, cast the worst aspersions on those who opposed toppling Saddam Hussein. Opposing the war had consequences and chief among them was a willingness to allow Saddam to maintain his vile regime.

The war’s opponents protested that it was possible to be appalled by and opposed to Saddam while also doubting the wisdom – or even the legality– of the US-led effort to remove him from power. Nevertheless, some of us insisted, this still left them, objectively speaking and in the current crisis, on Saddam’s side. It was a low, dishonest argument for what, alas, now seems a low, dishonest cause. One of the many lessons of that unhappy time is that how an argument is made matters just as surely as what the argument is.

All this borrowed from George Orwell’s famous line that “pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist. This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side you automatically help that of the other.”

We may, I think, discern some of the same tropes in our own independence debate. This time, however, the aggressive transgressors are, for the most, part clustered on the nationalist wing of the debate. Unionists will, I’m sure, offer their own menu of ugly imbecilities as they attempt to beat back the nationalists but, in general, Unionists appreciate that nationalists argue in good, if misguided, faith for what they believe to be Scotland’s best interests. The reverse does not always hold. On the contrary, the SNP and other supporters of independence are quick to label any opposition “anti-Scottish”. Even, dare one suggest it, objectively so.

Moreover, anyone opposed to the nationalist agenda is the same no matter the colour of the badge they wear. There is no objective difference between them. Indeed, according to the SNP, they are blood brothers not just equally guilty of opposing Scotland’s manifest destiny but treasonously supportive of a foreign power.

Thus, according to Paul Wheelhouse MSP there is “nothing to separate the anti-independence parties when it comes to Scotland”. According to Alex Salmond there is an “alliance” promoting “Tory-Labour cuts”. And according to Nicola Sturgeon the Labour party is “keen to team up with” the Conservatives because “there is a Tory-Labour consensus to roll back the progress of devolution”. At the weekend’s SNP conference, Ms Sturgeon was at it again, suggesting there are “two Tory parties in Scotland”. This, of course, is a lie that does not become any less of an untruth the more it is repeated.

This pernicious so-called Tory-Labour alliance leads the Deputy First Minister to argue, apparently in all seriousness, that bus passes for pensioners are among “the big achievements of the Scottish parliament”. It also requires her to ignore the inconvenient truth that, in the first place, the Scotland Bill passed by the Conservatives and Lib Dems at Westminster passes more powers to Holyrood and, second, that politicians from all the Unionist parties have pledged to look at additional powers should Scotland 
reject independence. Some roll back.

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Worse than this, however, is the suggestion that, objectively speaking, Labour are just the same as the Conservatives. Entertaining as it may be to tweak Labour by tying them to the leprous Conservatives, it’s an assertion that is as dishonest as it is beneath the Deputy First Minister. Not that she is alone in this. Indeed, in recent weeks both Johann Lamont and Ruth Davidson have been compared – unfavourably, it goes without saying – to Mitt Romney. By now, I’m afraid, we have entered the valley of the absurd.

Yet nationalists – to judge them by their rhetoric - seem to like it there. Writing in this paper recently Stephen Noon, chief strategist for the Yes campaign, argued that “the new Lamont-Osborne agenda” amounts to “’little more than vote no and things will get worse’”. Really? This is worse than infantile, it is stupid. Undaunted Noon concluded: “The agenda for a Unionist future is not one of hope or opportunity for Scotland.” Unionism, by implication, is irredeemably and objectively anti-Scottish.

There are many things that may be said about this argument but among them is the notable and evident truth that this is not a message based on hope and optimism. On the contrary, it is predicated on fear and the suggestion that, absent independence, Scotland faces a cruel and bleak future in which she can only be a victim. It might be awkward squaring this with the truth that, after London and the south-east of England, Scotland is the wealthiest, most successful part of the United Kingdom but, propaganda being their business, this does not trouble the SNP.

This is not just stupid, it is counter-productive. Casting the argument in the binary terms of “pro-Scotland” or “anti-Scotland” may assist the SNP’s efforts to win support from what American pollsters dub “low information” voters but doing so comes at a price. Since just 24 per cent of ABC1 voters presently say they support independence, the SNP have a class problem as it is.

Making arguments in a manner that insults voters’ intelligence – and raising the spectre of an unholy, anti-Caledonian Tory-Labour alliance is one such case – is unlikely to persuade these voters the SNP are offering a plausible, far less a wholesome, alternative. Nor, I think, will many Labour voters be persuaded by the argument they are really – objectively, speaking – the Tories’ useful idiots. Their own experience denies this and is unlikely to be refuted just because the SNP say so.

There is a good case to be made for independence. It would be useful if the SNP made it and played the ball, not the man. As they consider this they might heed another, less famous, Orwell column in which he recanted his “objectively pro-fascist” argument. By 1944 he had reconsidered his argument and concluded: “The important thing is to discover which individuals are honest and which are not, and the usual blanket accusation merely makes this more difficult. The atmosphere of hatred in which controversy is conducted blinds people to considerations of this kind. To admit that an opponent might be both honest and intelligent is felt to be intolerable. It is more immediately satisfying to shout that he is a fool or a scoundrel, or both, than to find out what he is really like.”

That, I’d suggest, is something all combatants – but especially the nationalists – might take to heart as we set off on our great 100-week argument.