The argument about Scottish independence which, it should be said, is not a new one is best understood in terms of the Overton Window. James Overton, an American political scientist, suggested that the general public is only prepared to contemplate a relatively narrow range of political opinions and policies. Those that fall outwith this window of plausibility are discounted; the task for politicians and other advocates is to shift the window so that ideas once considered heretical now appear orthodox common-sense.
Overton suggested there were six phases to this process. A idea would move from being unthinkable to radical to acceptable to sensible to popular before, finally, becoming policy.
Scottish independence is currently somewhere between acceptable and sensible. Acceptable in the sense that most sensible Unionist critics concede there’s no hideous reason why Scotland couldn’t be a perfectly sensible or even successful independent country. The opinion polls continue to suggest, however, that, at least for now, a majority of voters are not impressed that this is a sensible future for Caledonia, stern and wild.
That may change. The publication of the Scottish government’s White Paper on independence today is designed to shift the Overton Window. An idea once unthinkable is utterly thinkable. The lack of drama – the merciful absence of bagpipes-and-Braveheart-bullshit – at the paper’s launch was quite deliberate. This, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon insisted, is a sober, sensible calculation of the national interest. It’s not a romantic romp in the heather or a doomed Jacobite jolly.
Of course there is a good deal of assertion within the White Paper’s 670 pages. And of course many of the issues it highlights – childcare provision and education among many others – could be addressed by the Scottish government now and without any recourse to independence. And of course – contra Alistair Darling – some of the questions asked by Better Together can’t be answered now because they are, essentially, unknowable. Or, if you prefer, known unknowns.
Take the question of a sterling zone, for instance. It is true that this remains a sticky wicket for the SNP and that it may, indeed, be the most significant procedural difficulty they face. True too, that they can expect no help from the UK government in answering these questions. But it is also true that London could help answer these questions. True that London could say that it would anticipate that future British governments would do their utmost to resolve these issues in an amicable, best-for-both-countries fashion.
Now we understand of course why that won’t, indeed probably can’t, happen during the campaign. But we also know that if Scotland votes for independence Alistair Darling will, presumably, do his bit to make the case for a currency union that he has previously (in January this year) suggested would be the most logical and even desirable outcome. (Darling would probably dispute that interpretation.)
Granted, these uncertainties continue to hamper the Yes campaign. It seems to me that this is unavoidable and Salmond & Co will simply have to take their lumps on these matters.
Nevertheless, even if a good deal of the White Paper rests upon assertion and some wishful thinking it is at least a substantial piece of work even if, again necessarily or unsurprisingly, it also represents a best-case scenario of one optimistic version of one possible Scottish future.
It might not work out like that. Reality can be an inconvenient mistress. Be that as it may, the mere existence of the White Paper nudges the Overton Window towards independence. The prospect is a real one and merits being taken seriously.
The White Paper – and everything about Salmond’s low-key performance this morning – insists that far from being a reckless adventure independence is something else entirely: boringly normal.
The people may yet disagree with that view and they may conclude that the SNP’s vision is too good to be entirely credible. Nonetheless, this is a long, long game and it may not be settled even by a No vote next September.
Alex Salmond wants to make independence seem inevitable. A completion of the national journey, as he might put it. To do that he must first make people feel comfortable about the idea of independence. The White Paper is part of that process – a softening up, if you like.
In the end, his message is a simple one: the only thing to fear is fear itself and this fear is doubly-invidious because, in the end, the only thing to be afraid of is ourselves.
That’s not the whole story, of course, but it is an argument that has some force and may yet prove persuasive. As it happens I think old Britannia has some decent tunes too but she’s too often too damn reluctant to play them.
And she needs to because, in the end, the nationalist suggestion that, as Nicola Sturgeon put it today, the case for independence rests on the “simple but powerful belief that decisions about Scotland should be taken by the people who live and work here” is a powerful one. Wherever possible, she might have added but you get the point. (It would, granted, be helpful if more of them were good decisions but that’s a weary struggle for another day.)
So it strikes me that asking where’s the beef? is an inadequate response to this paper. There are good reasons to be sceptical about some of its claims but that does not dent the fact that it is, on the whole, a serious publication.
And, again, its publication nudges the argument forward and makes the idea of independence seem more real, more routine, than it was yesterday. It asks us to ask ourselves what kind of country we wish to live in and that, whatever the answer we choose, is a question well-worth asking.
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