First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, in 2016, announced an SNP initiative to convince sceptical Scots of the merits of independence.
She conceded that her party’s arguments hadn’t been “compelling enough” in 2014 and that she hoped a new approach, that recognised not only the flaws in the case for independence but also the need for a shift on the tone of the debate, would create a more persuasive case. Her words were something I paid very careful attention to.
Speaking directly to the No-voting majority, she said: “We will hear your concerns and address your questions and in the process, we will be prepared to challenge some of our own answers.
“It will not be an attempt to browbeat anyone. Patiently and respectfully we will seek to convince you that independence really does offer the best future for Scotland.
“That is how we will turn the 45 per cent of September 2014 into a strong and positive majority for independence.”
Since then, we’ve had a referendum on the EU, followed by a snap UK general election, both delivering results many were not expecting – but were certainly dreading. Sturgeon’s impressive Westminster block was cut by a third, amid a Tory insurgency in Scotland, following the meteoric surge in support for the SNP in 2015, when it absorbed much of the Yes campaign. It was sobering to say the least but may also have been a defining moment for the FM, as she and her party hurtled back to political reality after a brief period of perceived invincibility. Despite such turbulent political events, Sturgeon has stayed the course she outlined in 2016, of attempting to build a new case for independence, which has, ultimately, culminated in the publication of the hotly contested Sustainable Growth Report.
But one thing many in the Yes campaign have missed – or chosen to forget – was Sturgeon’s insistence, back in 2016, on respectful debate and a need to listen more to the concerns of those who regarded the proposition too risky in 2014. She was, very politely, trying to encourage a bit more self-awareness in the Yes campaign, much of which remained in the polemical trenches following the defeat, and came to view hard-line pro-independence commentators, not famed for their nuance, as the only people worth listening to.
Sturgeon is an intelligent politician, who understands that for anyone to become willing to examine their beliefs, especially on a complicated issue they’ve already publicly declared an opinion on, certain prior conditions must be met. Conditions which require common respect, a degree of good faith and a willingness, on behalf of those who are making the case for change, to show an understanding and appreciation of the opposing point of view – even if simply to argue more effectively against it. Most of us, regardless of how virtuous or sophisticated we may regard ourselves, are not moved solely by facts. Indeed, we find ourselves in an age where we can simply curate whichever set of facts seem most aggregable to us, personally.
Persuasion is about more than citing what you regard as compelling evidence; fighting for what you believe is about more than dismissing anyone who questions those beliefs. It’s about showing a degree of emotional intelligence, as well as intellectual curiosity, not only about what other people think, but how they reason their way to those opinions. Behind every disagreeable opinion, there is a rich interior that one must come to understand intuitively if they are to become in any way persuasive. Sadly, sections of the Yes campaign have fallen into the trap of reducing the very people they must engage to no more than one-dimensional caricatures.
Since the publication of the report, I’ve seen some pro-indy commentators calling for the Yes campaign to stop fighting amongst itself and, instead, “attack” unionists for not presenting its own version of a growth report, outlining how they intend to strengthen Scotland’s position within the UK. While I respect that position, I also regard it as counterproductive, where persuasion is concerned. This strategy does not account for the great many people watching this debate from the side-lines, who may not have a strong, entrenched position, but rather, are coming to a view based not only on the arguments being made, but crucially, the tone of those arguments and the conduct of the people making them. Those who rarely engage with No voters are becoming blunt instruments.
It’s often those looking on from the side-lines, who are undecided, that you stand a better chance of convincing, rather than the ones you are arguing with, which is why the tone and style of debate needs to evolve to something resembling civil.
What, I feel, many in the Yes movement have missed, partly due to a general scepticism of mainstream media (which is understandable) compounded by a few influential, hyper-partisan nationalist voices, is the opportunity to better understand the complexity of the various No voting perspectives that exist. Instead, some have come to regard No voters as a monolith – because a monolith seems easier to “attack”. But this is an outdated tactical approach that harks back to the naivety of 2014, and one which is ever-corrosive, both in and outside the Yes movement.
Last week, I received countless messages from independence supporters – who thought I had become a unionist – expressing genuine surprise at my public support for Scottish independence and the SNP policy of minimum pricing on the BBC’s Question Time. Not exactly behaviour you’d expect from a “yoon”, a “sell-out” who “changed sides for money”.
I have my suspicions where part of that perception came from. Some, from my criticism of the SNP at various points. Some from my decision to vote Labour at the last election and some from my admittedly snide and arrogant approach to debate in the past. But to be consistently framed by some, as no more than a snake-oil salesman in it for attention and money, seems not only unfair, but is wholly inaccurate.
Perhaps it’s time to consider how useful a strategy – that begins and ends with an assumption that unionists (the people we need to persuade) are either devious or stupid, and that Yessers who engage with them are suspect – is going to be in the post-Growth Commission debate. And it might be worth pondering whether such bad faith really serves the respectful and honest debate Nicola Sturgeon has called for.
I’ve yet to be persuaded it does.