Eddie Barnes: At the risk of sounding self-righteous, Scottish voters deserve a more intelligent level of political debate

A LABOUR MP accuses a BBC presenter of being biased in favour of the SNP. This, after the First Minister had described another BBC executive as a Gauleiter – a term dating back to regional leaders under Nazi Germany.

The leader of the Liberal Democrats accuses the Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations, the umbrella body for voluntary groups, of being biased in favour of the Scottish Government by supporting the case for a second question in the referendum. The voluntary sector body describes his view as “unworthy of a public figure”. Then, an independence-supporting journalist goes on national radio to debate with a fellow pro-Union hack and accuses him of being “a fascist Tory git”.

The debate around Scottish independence has been described as a national conversation. On current form, this is a national conversation in the same way that World War II was a public disorder incident.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

The ferocity of exchanges, also witnessed in pre-referenda battles like that in Quebec in the 1990s, reflects the stakes in the referendum lead-up, still two years away.

Complaining about the tone of political debate always runs the risk of being over-pious and naïve. But, within Scotland’s wider public sphere – which is watching on at the bear pit scrap – there is a concern among some that the next 27 months will produce all heat and no light.

In particular, the concerns touch on some of the mini-rows as noted above. Across Scotland, public bodies of all kinds are having detailed conversations about the implications of constitutional change. There are lengthy lists of questions being readied about the knock-on effects of independence or more devolution. But many are concluding that, given the length of the process and the ferocity of the debate, that it is better for now to keep schtum. Why risk being branded one way or the other?

One consequence of this is a growing desire for hard facts which can remaining standing, no matter how much mud is thrown at them. While much of the constitutional battleground can only ever remain hypothetical, there are some facts, argue bodies like the trade body Scottish Financial Enterprise, which can be set out with accuracy now.

The UK government, it is noted, has set up the Office of Budget Responsibility at arms length, to offer independent commentary on the country’s financial health, currently headed up by Robert Chote, the former head of the Institute of Fiscal Studies. His previous criticism of the government had earned him a clean record of political neutrality.

Shouldn’t a similar body be set up in Scotland too, it is asked? It may be too much to expect 20-20 objectivity from anyone. But as the political warfare gets more brutal, so the patience of a country wanting to know more answers is only likely to wear thinner.