Eddie Barnes: Fear of ‘unknowns’ could be putting campaign on the defensive

WE have Donald Rumsfeld to thank for the distinction between “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns”.

Yesterday, his famous distinction of the bounds of knowledge entered the lexicon in the count-down to Scotland’s independence referendum.

At a conference organised by The Scotsman newspaper, Rumsfeld’s theory was introduced by Owen Kelly, the chief executive of Scottish Financial Enterprise. Addressing the coming vote from the position as a neutral observer, Mr Kelly noted that one of the problems with the run-up so far was the difficulty in distinguishing between fact and assertion.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

There were facts around which all sides could agree: for example he noted that, if independent, Scotland would become a member of the European Union. But then we entered Rumsfeldian territory. On Europe, the SNP claim Scotland would inherit the UK’s existing obligations and carry on pretty much as before. The rest argue that Scotland would be seceding from the UK, and would therefore have to re-enter as a new state.

The European Commission, meanwhile, stays mum, with officials noting privately that all this would boil down to a political fix in the wake of a “yes” vote. Might it hang on Spain backing Scotland in return for access to its fishing grounds? Or the UK supporting Scotland in return for it keeping Trident on the Clyde? Unknown unknowns.

Mr Kelly put it in slightly less catchy terms: “We seem stuck in an epistemological limbo and it is not obvious to me how to escape it,” he said. In other words, it is nigh on impossible to claim now how an independent Scotland might look, because that country can only be shaped once it has been brought into being, first from lengthy complex negotiations with London and Brussels and then, not least, with voters in a post-independence Scotland deciding on what kind of government they’d like.

The trouble for the SNP is that suck-it-and-see is not a very auspicious offer to people, especially when they’re in the middle of an economic storm, with another poll yesterday showing a thumbs down.

Consequently, the party has attempted to ease those concerns by asserting how they see it working -– with the plan to keep the pound and a Monetary Union with the UK chief among them. But then, as these claims also come under scrutiny, the risk is that they come across as pushing something that isn’t theirs to offer.

On the Labour side of the fence, senior figure muse mischievously that what they’d really fear right now is a figure like former SNP MP Jim Sillars telling people up-front and square that all the Rumsfeldian unknowns in the world are worth it, so long as sovereignty is achieved. Instead, they believe the attempt to ease the fear of the unknown is pushing the independence cause on the defensive.