John McTernan: Democracy is a referendum winner

SCOTTISH INDEPENDENCE: The white paper, once the primary weapon of the Yes campaign, is not providing the answers that the voters want, writes John McTernan

Jim Murphys street campaign has proved to be an unqualified triumph. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Jim Murphys street campaign has proved to be an unqualified triumph. Picture: Ian Rutherford

If you love politics then you have to love the referendum campaign. It has spread conversations about politics everywhere – from pubs to offices, to school gates and hen nights. We’ve seen old forms of communications revived – think of Jim Murphy’s epic revival of street corner meetings, 100 meetings in 100 towns. And we’ve seen new forms, particularly social media, used – and sometimes abused.

The hallmark of the debate, despite a few nastier notes in the margins, has been respect, and above all else seriousness. “I’m not sure, I want to read more” is one of the views often expressed on the doorstep. What a fantastic antidote to the line you too often get on the doorstep during an election – “We’re not interested in politics. They’re all the same”. The referendum is an existential decision and the public are treating it as such. Not deciding until they have the facts.

To be fair to the Scottish Government, last year’s white paper Scotland’s Future was in part prompted by that public appetite for information. It must have seemed then to be a tactically smart choice. Produce a document with what consultants call “thud factor” – meaning that it thuds when it hits a desk, proving that it is big so it must be comprehensive. In terms of scrutiny the calculation was that any rows about detail could rage until Christmas and then would die down – to be forgotten in the New Year. Any difficult question about Scotland’s future could then have a single transferable answer – it’s all been set out out in the white paper. Defence jobs? Currency? European accession? “It’s all been set out in the white paper”.

For months, indeed for almost the whole of the first half of the year, that worked. A range of expert opinion tore holes in the white paper, but the mantra of the Scottish Government prevailed. Even when a currency union was definitively ruled out by the Bank of England, Treasury and all the parties that might form the next UK government the song remained the same. All would be as set out in the white paper. It not only provided the answers to all questions, it was also the road-map. The faith of the SNP in their white paper was amazing, their message discipline astounding. A complete universe had been created, one that was impervious to any and all critiques. Arguments bounced off them. It seemed that they had achieved a strategic victory, not just a tactical one, by neutralising all intellectual challenge. They would have got away with it – except for the pesky voters.

There has been a drumbeat in the focus groups. Not just a call for information, but a desire for answers. The public want to know the actual answer to some specific questions. They don’t have many – but they do have the right ones.

Fundamentally, it boils down to this – would Scotland keep the pound and what are the inevitable risks involved? These questions come back again and again in various forms. Early on in the campaign there was a widely held belief that the BBC could provide the answers. It’s a mark of the respect in which the BBC is held that it is trusted to be an independent interlocutor – almost an umpire – in such a contested and controversial debate. As time has moved on it has become clear to voters that this won’t be happening, but the questions remain. As does the faith in there being a right and a wrong answer. Seasoned and cynical political operatives might disdain this as naïvety. But they should instead be celebrating that not just can politics inspire debate it can renew a faith in the possibility of a politics beyond spin. One of truth and certainty.

This is why the debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling brought the campaign into life. It was the place in which one of the public’s questions could be answered – would we keep the pound. All the First Minister could do was assert that it would – relying in the end on the fact that anyone can use sterling. Technically true, but not an approach I’d try when paying for a cab in downtown Manhattan. The critical point, though, was not the inability of Salmond to come up with a coherent Plan B – just about enough First Ministerial leg was shown to signal that sterlingisation (the unilateral adoption of the pound without a currency union) was, at the very least Plan A, version 2.0. No, it was when Darling challenged the FM to consider for a moment that he might be wrong, there might – just might – not be a currency union. What then? This was the biggest trap and Salmond tripped up and fell headlong into it. The First Minister went straight back to one of his core arguments – ‘It’ll all be all right on the night.’ This is the “white paper” defence. It’s a flawed syllogism: “A vote for independence is a vote for the white paper; the white paper says everything will work out; therefore everything will work out as I say it will.”

This argument tests credulity – one of the constant refrains in the focus groups is that Alex Salmond is a clever man. This has been a strength for him, now it’s a weakness. The reasoning of the undecided voters goes like this. “There are always risks and problems in any big endeavour. Independence is no different. There will be bumps in the road. Alex knows this – he’s a clever man. They must be terrible risks, if he won’t talk about them”. So Salmond’s certainty boosts the voters’ uncertainty. Democracy working in real time.

Last year, the white paper looked like a great tactic – placing a massive roadblock across routes of enquiry which would have been damaging for the SNP. Today, the same white paper is more like a concrete block lashed to the Yes campaign and dragging it down, beneath the waves.