Peter Jones: All heat and no light in indy debate

As the referendum looms, rational discussion has been displaced by unchecked emotions on both sides, writes Peter Jones

Better Togethers Jim Murphy has faced abuse from Yes supporters during the campaign. Picture: Getty
Better Togethers Jim Murphy has faced abuse from Yes supporters during the campaign. Picture: Getty

All over bar the shouting? I rather think that the great indyref is. People no longer seem interested in rational discussion, whether the economic facts stack up this way or that, and have retreated to a rather different place where emotions rather than facts have become important.

The problem with this, I fear, is that two and a half weeks of shouting is a very long time and I worry that things could get nasty.

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Alex Salmond has had some road-rage idiot tailgating his car waving a No sign at him and more than a few death threats.

Jim Murphy MP has had eggs hurled at him by Yes supporters who have accused him of being a traitor, a paedophile, and worse. Such language and equivalent cyber-behaviour is daily fare for bloggers and comment posters on those blogs on either side of the campaign.

It is tempting to dismiss all this as the excess of a few idiots on the fringes of either campaign. Any political movement attracts people who range along a spectrum from crankiness through nuttiness to sheer extremism. Such people are convinced that they and only they have discovered the secret of the meaning of life and how to banish poverty, disease, and war.

Of course, it is their duty to tell everyone about this and when everyone hears their message, realisation of how the world can be made a better place will dawn. Their only problem is that nobody seems to want to listen to them.

Not wanting to listen is the commonest complaint on the blogs. For example, former BBC broadcaster Derek Bateman published a blog on 19 August headlined “Nothing to say” in which he cited a comment written by someone calling themselves William Lithgow.

Mr Bateman is an enthusiastic and active Yes campaigner, but was upset by Mr Lithgow’s description of the blog as “pointless outpourings” and his accusation of having a ­ “super-inflated ego, which simply masks an abyss of utter inadequacy”. It was an eloquent cut above the usual insults that get traded in this medium but contributed as little to the debate as a flying egg.

Anyway, the injured Mr Bateman was comforted by a host of postings from Yes supporters praising his writings. But they also commented that Better Together backers seemed to be getting increasingly abusive, arguing, taking their cue from the heading, that they had nothing positive to say.

You can see the same sort of pattern on pro-union blogs – that Yes campaigners are refusing to listen to rational points of argument and are just hurling abuse. I daresay online commentators to this article will prove the point; they certainly have in previous weeks.

But it is also clear that the heat level in the name-calling has risen sharply, as have aggression levels. This seems to be occurring on both sides, though my impression from anecdotes relayed to me by friends and from the treatment being meted out to campaign leaders, is that the Yes side is getting more het up than the No camp.

That’s arguable, but I do recall that Yes chief executive Blair Jenkins was promising that they would be in the lead by July. That clearly hasn’t happened, a frustration that may now be expressing itself. I also think that there is another reason why they will get even more inflamed.

That’s because, in the absence of oppression or a stand-out obvious injustice, nationalism is at heart an emotional cause. For a nationalist, nothing needs to be said to justify the need for independence more than this: Scots are a nation, nations should govern themselves, therefore Scotland should be independent. End of discussion.

Actually, logicians would point out that while this looks like a classical piece of deductive reasoning, it isn’t, because there are all sorts of problems with definitions of the terms used and whether they have widespread acceptance. It is really an emotional belief masquerading as logic.

But it is so deeply-held a belief that many nationalists cannot understand why all Scots, including Scots running companies and institutions, do not see this.

Any refusal to join the faith in independence is infuriating because these people are refusing to see the obvious – that an independent Scotland will be a better country, just because it is independent.

Some of these refuseniks reject independence because they reckon that Scotland won’t be a better place. They think, looking at the evidence on public spending and taxation, that there won’t be the money to sustain present levels of public services, never mind pay for all the good things that have been promised. But some of them also reject it because they adhere to a competing nationalism – British nationalism. They think that Scotland has been part of Britain for more than 300 years, that by and large Scotland and the Scots have done quite well out of it, feel very happy with the British aspect of their identity and don’t want to lose it. This too is more an emotional than a rational argument.

The non-emotional debate so far may have swayed a few non-nationalists of both types, but it hasn’t done the job of producing the killer set of facts and arguments for either side. In fact, the public debate looks to have become confused rather than clarified.

Many people, I suspect, have no clear idea whether there will be more or less jobs with independence, more or less public spending, more or fewer taxes, whether pound coins and notes will still circulate or not. And even if more evidence on these questions appears from impeccably non-aligned sources, people are also fed up with the whole thing and disinclined to listen.

This aspect of the debate looks to be over. People have either made up their minds or, if they are still swithering, are not going to find answers to their questions in the evidence.

Campaigners, I think, know that. It leaves emotion as the remaining hope. And because these are deeply-held emotions which oppose each other intensely with no possibility of compromise, I worry that there are going to be more and more incidents that have no place in a civilised democratic debate.