The debate on constitutional change has been widely characterised as not living up to its historical importance. While parts of the debate have resembled, as Sir Tom Farmer put it, “a playground fight”, there are positive aspects of the debate that deserve credit. We are sometimes too quick in Scotland to condemn ourselves.
Of course there are negatives. The recent TV debate was a playground fight and the Pavlovian response of some supporters on Twitter and in the comment sections of newspapers are shocking. Why some people think they will win over the undecided through slogans and abuse is beyond my understanding.
And yes, anyone who has to deal with the Scottish Government understands that independence is the primary focus. It’s not that their eye is off the ball - that is the ball!
The formal ‘Yes’ and ‘Better Together’ campaigns come in for a lot of stick; largely unfairly in my view. It’s their job to promote their case and rebut the other side - an essential base line for the debate. No one is seriously expecting objective analysis, so accept their role and treat the outputs accordingly.
My main point is, that these negatives are masking some very positive debate and discussion in Scotland that probably wouldn’t have happened without the Referendum. I have done workshops and events across Scotland on the constitutional issue. It is certainly the case that these events have been dominated by questions about the consequences of independence. Anyone in the ‘Yes’ camp, who thinks that these matters can wait until the first election after independence, is living in cloud cuckoo land. Trade union members are rightly used to evaluating an offer and they will treat the White Paper and greater devolution proposals accordingly.
However, the discussion doesn’t stop, or even start at independence or devolution. There is a real appetite to talk about the sort of Scotland they want to live in. It is not true that the debate is simply limited to shouting slogans.
My own union UNISON has promoted its ‘Fairer Scotland’ paper, as has the STUC with the ‘Just Scotland’ initiative. Civil society organisations like SCDI, SCVO and many others have done the same. Some commentators argue that Civil Scotland has gone missing or is somehow irrelevant to a wider debate that the Internet has facilitated. Again, this is a gross simplification. This debate is different to the devolution campaigns because there is not a common position. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a debate and Civil Scotland is playing its role in facilitating it. Just because these organisations don’t buy into a particular commentator’s view of the world, doesn’t mean that they are irrelevant.
Of course social media is facilitating a wider debate, but it isn’t totally replacing traditional dialogue. If you look carefully at Twitter and blogs in the morning, they rely heavily on traditional media and good quality journalism. Twitter is great for a quick reaction and the blogosphere develops the analysis, but our media institutions are still the bedrock of debate.
Then we have the heavyweight analysis provided by books. The Referendum has sparked a range of publications that provide high quality analysis and ideas. Just because the contributors have a preference for one side or the other; doesn’t devalue the analysis or the ideas for anyone other than the blinkered. Books like ‘Scotland’s Future’, edited by Andrew Goudie, and ‘Scotland’s Choices’ by McLean and Gallagher are good examples of the genre. Equally, I often turn to the late Stephen Maxwell’s ‘Arguments for Independence’ because, while committed to independence, he understood the need to examine and explain what it might mean in some detail. The Economic and Social Research Council has also funded excellent academic analysis.
For those on the left, the referendum has forced us to think beyond the next piece of legislation or manifesto. ‘Time to Choose: Scotland’s Road to Socialism’, edited by Gregor Gall, was a good starting point and the Reid Foundation’s ‘Common Weal’, offers the prospect of new and different approaches.
The Red Paper Collective has recently brought together the mainstream left in their publication ‘Class, Nation and Socialism: The Red Paper on Scotland 2014’. This is a book about the politics of social and economic change rather than simply constitutional change. There is plenty of vision and ideas, but laced with a pragmatic view of the possible, not the improbable. It also seeks to do what is often missing in the current national dialogue – putting the debate in a UK context. There are also those outwith Scotland who recognise the strength of our debate, as Owen Jones makes clear in his introduction to this book.
Some argue that all of this discussion is limited to the chattering classes. Well, to a degree that will always be the case, but I would argue the debate has gone further. Many union members and activists don’t fall into that category and yet they have been willing and able to contribute to the debate. Let’s also not forget the broader understanding it can generate. As one activist said to me recently, “Thanks Dave, I never thought I would care, let alone understand, the difference between monetary and fiscal policy!”
Another, admittedly unscientific example, was a night out with some non-political pals. Without any prompting from me, they had a discussion about constitutional issues, including the currency, borders and the EU. I also noticed that three of the tables near me had at least short discussions on similar issues. Now, it may just be the pubs I drink in, but I think there is at least the start of a debate about the future of Scotland outwith the chatterati.