Eddie Barnes: Vote with head and be wary of emotional spin in referendum

A QUICK test. 1: Whose ear did Labour use in 1992 to criticise John Major’s health policy?

2: The shadow cabinet minister whose tax gaffe skewered the Tories’ 2005 election campaign? 3: The free stuff Gordon Brown claimed David Cameron was going to take away if he became prime minister?

Election campaigns don’t age well. One veteran of several Scottish campaigns noted recently that he looks back at the various battles he has fought with a mixture of bemusement and embarrassment. It’s the unfortunate lot of Scottish voters that they now face the start of an 18-month campaign on whether or not Scotland should become an independent country. And as with all wars, truth may not come out of it very well. The undecided, uncertain public can look forward to plenty more pop-up 24-hour-long spats and half-answers from campaigns unwilling to yield an inch to their opponents.

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Voters clearly want more than this. “I want to read more about the issue. I don’t think you should judge the thing on emotion, but on what is best economically for Scotland,” noted Andy Murray in an interview at the weekend. Book shops are responding, dusting off previously unread tomes on constitutional change and sticking them at the front of their displays. Add to that, there are some new works due out which may help people further.

One, Scotland’s Future, serialised in The Scotsman over the last few weeks, and edited by the Scottish Government’s former chief economic adviser Prof Andrew Goudie, offers some advice – albeit in heavy prose – on how people might detach substance from the froth over the coming months. It is a form of mind-training for the undecided voter. Goudie sets out three principles people should follow. Given the outcome will be for decades, not just five years, people should be thinking long-term – a cautionary word against attempts to frame the case for independence as a referendum on the here-today, probably-gone-by 2015 David Cameron. Secondly, and given recent history with the financial crunch and the eurozone crisis, people should put “risk, uncertainty and opportunity” at the centre of their thoughts, he argues. Lastly, people should accept that while rigorous analysis about independence can be made, a lot will remain unknown, due to the fact that so much will be decided after a “Yes” vote in the crucial negotiations with the UK and other international bodies. Lord Gus O’Donnell, one of the contributors to the book, compared it last week to peering through the fog. We should still try to make things out, he said, even if it won’t be crystal clear.

This dry, academic approach discounts the important part emotion will play in the debate. But the Goudie approach may ensure, amid the storm and fury of a political campaign, that the country remembers the right questions – and retains some perspective.

Oh, Jennifer, Oliver Letwin and free eye tests, in case you’d forgotten.