Ewan Crawford: Hiding behind slogans won’t change the facts

UNIONISTS may have ditched their ‘No to independence’ for ‘Yes to partnership’, but fundamental flaws in their argument must be challenged, writes Ewan Crawford.

UNIONISTS may have ditched their ‘No to independence’ for ‘Yes to partnership’, but fundamental flaws in their argument must be challenged, writes Ewan Crawford.

ONE of the odd things about the biggest debate in Scottish politics is that those calling for change have had a tendency to say things are great, while those arguing to retain the status quo say the situation is terrible.

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This seems to upset the normal rules of political contests which usually mean an incumbent is unlikely to campaign on a platform such as: “We’ve created one of the most unequal societies on earth and run up a massive deficit. Vote for us.”

For years, however, that essentially, has been the position of the anti-independence parties as they told people in Scotland that if they wanted to alter this admittedly not ideal outcome there would be huge risks and dangers.

In particular the line is that, sure, lots of you may depend on out-of-work benefits and yes, that deficit does look a little on the large side, but who do you think is going to pay for that? An independent Scotland? Please, be serious.

To counter this, supporters of independence, particularly in recent times, have talked up both the potential and reality of Scotland. The employment situation they say is better here and although public spending may be higher so is tax revenue to the extent that Scotland enjoys a healthier fiscal position than the rest of the UK.

Heartened by successive Scottish Parliament election victories fought on an almost entirely positive agenda, the SNP is carrying that positive ethos into the independence campaign.

Wary of being cast as the negative side, The Scotsman reported yesterday that the word No will not play a big part in the, er, No campaign and that instead the idea of “partnership” will be to the fore.

Other themes that have been suggested are the idea that being in the UK allows risks to be pooled and that we are stronger together, weaker apart.

Having worked in a number of losing election campaigns I understand, painfully, the issues that need to be considered before deciding to what extent, and how, your opponents’ claims should be subjected to scrutiny.

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The main dangers of negative campaigning are that it both turns voters off and crowds out your own positive messages. On the other hand, if negative messages tap into real concerns held by voters they can be fruitful.

In a debate in the Scottish Parliament last week the old time anti-independence religion was much in evidence with Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont even at one point suggesting parents wouldn’t be able to feed their children if the SNP had its way.

So traditional negative, attack lines are clearly going to play a major part alongside the more cuddly presentations of the Alistair Darling/Annabel Goldie/Charles Kennedy dream team.

How then should the Yes campaign respond?

My own view is that the slogans and the ideas behind them need to be challenged vigorously.

Firstly, the stark truth is neither Scotland nor the UK are anywhere near together at present. We are apart now, locked into a system where according to the OECD: “Income inequality among working-age persons has risen faster in the United Kingdom than in any other OECD country since 1975.”

Crucially, with cuts to welfare and further huge cuts to public spending still to come, inequalities can only rise as we approach the referendum in 2014.

This then is the vision we are being offered if independence is rejected: the certainty of more inequality which cannot be hidden by an empty slogan which carries as much weight as George Osborne’s boasts that we are all in this together.

This leads to the second idea – that of partnership not competition within the United Kingdom. This to me is downright dangerous, telling people in Scotland that effectively we don’t have to bother about competing because someone else will engage in that unseemly business for us.

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The reality is we in Scotland have not magically been excused from the demands of a mixed capitalist economy. If we don’t compete either inside or outside the current constitutional arrangements, we will not create the jobs we need to. London and other major economic centres will continue to act as a magnet for investment and talent and we will continue to be denied the tax and other levers we require.

It has long been pointed out for example that we have a poor record of R and D investment in Scotland, which may be linked to a more severe decline in manufacturing here than in other areas. Without the ability to use tax incentives it is clearly going to be more difficult to address these issues.

The final argument is that being able to compete is actually not that important because the risks are pooled across the UK: in other words welfare benefits will be available in return for a lack of economic powers.

This is where the whole case collapses because the Conservatives are cutting benefits to low income working families and even, according to Labour, slashing money for families with disabled children.

It seems quite a feat therefore for Labour politicians to denounce the Tories so harshly at Westminster, while at the same time launching a campaign to sell us the virtues of Westminster government.

All of this does not excuse the SNP and Yes campaigners from spelling out the alternative. Commentators in this newspaper and elsewhere have been asking for more engagement over how these issues of equality and competition would be addressed in an independent Scotland.

I am sure they are right to do so, and hope and believe, we will have that proper debate.

But it is only right that those opposing change are put under as much scrutiny as those who support it.

• Ewan Crawford is a lecturer in broadcast journalism and was private secretary to SNP leader John Swinney.