Natalie McGarry: Sell independence to all of society

Alex Salmond (left) and Michael Moore (right) at discussions on the referendum last year. Picture: PA
Alex Salmond (left) and Michael Moore (right) at discussions on the referendum last year. Picture: PA
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Yes campaign must reach out to the conservative element of the electorate, writes Natalie McGarry

Trial lawyers know that expert witnesses can be found to attest any position that the prosecution or the defence wish to assert. This is because the law is not, as Aristotle would have you believe, “reason, free from passion”; nor is political negotiation. Law and politics are open to interpretation, hence dissenting opinions even between the top law lords in the country. The independence referendum will not provide us with reason free from passion because, by its very definition, it is a hugely emotional issue.

The Yes campaign needs to assert boldly that independence offers no absolute and concrete certainties, while ensuring that there is enough detail for people to be confident in the choice they make. Policies on tax etc post-independence are not in the gift of the independence referendum, but that of the parties elected to govern in 2016.

The Yes campaign has to be able to do this free from the emotion and encumbrance of any particular doctrine, or it risks alienating swathes of the Scottish electorate who don’t see themselves reflected in the narrative that sells it.

Thus far, the No campaign has been very capable in capturing the narrative by sage warnings and lurching from shock to horror. The cogency of this as a campaign strategy is only insofar as the Yes campaign allows it to be. The Yes campaign can choose to reject to engage with minutiae and instead concentrate on the real issue, which is democracy.

The Yes campaign needs to set its own narrative. Independence as a stand-alone is a bold proposition, but it isn’t enough. The onus is on the Yes campaign is to present independence as an opportunity, not a utopian fait accompli. The No campaign will continue to use the language of fear such as “pull the rug out”, “black hole” and “uncertainty”, but these can only find resonance if the Yes campaign can’t find an alternative positive position which will capture the electorates’ imagination. Endless fire-fighting when the No campaign throws content-less firecrackers, wastes time and energy.

The narrative that underpins the pro-independence stance rests on the very real fact that independence is the juncture at which to craft a new story for Scotland; a new constitution and an enshrining of communal values. This is what the Yes campaign must be able to convince the electorate of, not that corporation tax will be X amount. It must ensure that the electorate knows that a written constitution will not be written by the “victors”, but will be representative of the views of all Scots, regardless their position on independence.

Similarly, the Yes campaign needs to ensure that independence isn’t sold as a cure-all for societal ills; it is not. What it is is a starting point to coalesce around the need for change and to address how we go forward and what we prioritise as a nation together.

Utopia is an esoteric and intangible dream mirrored by the doomed quest for true communism, which has never existed except in concept in Marx’s seminal work. While a quest for utopia is admirably optimistic, real politick has other ideas and profound limitations – and human nature, by its very definition, mocks communal doctrine.

The attempt to craft the narrative on the Yes side by its broad organisations and groups to represent independence as a profoundly left-wing ideological route to a social utopia is to be admired but, realistically, independence only delivers the mechanism for change, it isn’t the change itself. Independence is about representative democracy, it isn’t about narrow, insular and petty party politics, nor is it about one type of vision and one vision alone.

Political parties have a role to play in the referendum, but the debate should be driven on the principles of what constitutional settlement offers Scotland the best chance to assert itself, with a democracy that better reflects the make-up of the Scottish voting electorate.

While the Left has been quicker to embrace the opportunity that independence affords to make real choice and to effectively “wipe the slate clean” and build a country based on the wishes of our people, using the lessons we have learned while as an integral part of the UK, there are tentative signs that small “c” conservatives are not immune to the opportunities either. The difficult balance which the Yes campaign must strike is to ensure that the independence it sells is about opportunity, and not restricted to any one segment of society or the electorate.

Striking a balance between the bulk of the more progressive Left who currently back independence and wider society is an unenviable task. There appears to be a reticence in some areas of political life to acknowledge the very real existence of conservatism in a large minority of the Scottish electorate who currently will not vote Tory, but who quietly bide their time voting for other parties while waiting for one that expounds their views.

If the Yes campaign wants to win the referendum, it needs to reach out to voters who don’t currently support independence and that includes the 15 per cent or so who vote Conservative or those in the Liberal Democrats who do not see the coalition UK government giving them opportunity to realise their aspiration of home rule. It also includes the Labour Party.

Independence offered a real renaissance to the right of the centre politics that Scotland consistently votes to power. It is true to say that if Scotland votes for independence, we will not have a Tory government again while not consigning those who believe in conservatism to a perpetual black hole.

If we believe in representative democracy, it is imperative that we welcome this. Good and competent government is one that faces strong opposition.