Skip to Content


Scottish Independence: Can't We do Better Than This Dismal Campaign?

20 February 2013

12:05 PM

20 February 2013

12:05 PM

Mario Cuomo, former governor of New York state (and father of the present governor) is perhaps these days most famous for his quip that politicians campaign in poetry but govern in prose. Sometimes, anyway. Scotland’s independence referendum campaign, at present, doesn’t even rise to the level of William McGonagle’s execrable verse. Most of the prose is stale and hackneyed guff too.

This is the subject of my Think Scotland column this week. An argument that should, in theory, be mildly exciting is instead – at least for now – failing to deliver:

My sense is that many of the people paying most attention to this campaign are the people most likely to be depressed by its current content. They ask “Is this all there is?” They wonder if it can’t be better, more enlightening, more elevated, more inspirational than this? What, in the end, are we fighting for?

It is unrealistic to expect a referendum campaign of this import to be conducted without a reasonable share of tendentious nit-picking and outright mendacity. Nevertheless, it is vexing that the campaign has thus far been dominated by these characteristics. Take the question of an independent Scotland’s membership of the EU, for instance. Acres of newsprint and cyberspace alike have been planted with discussion of this issue and most of it has been pointless.

It often seems that the duelling campaigns are incapable of recognising the difference between what is important and what is vital. Questions about EU membership are important but they are not vital. They are, essentially, questions of process, not of principle. If Scotland votes Yes there is no reason to suppose that these european issues cannot be resolved in a perfectly reasonable, amicable matter.

But it is unreasonable, I think, to make these questions a reason for voting Yes or, more particularly, No. Of course, the detail matters but it matters less than the principle. And this is – or should be – a vote on principle not on individual details. Both sides are guilty, at present, of presenting a false prospectus.

[…] I understand why process matters. I understand that the Yes campaign feels it must answer these questions to avoid the accusation they are “ducking the issue”. I understand, too, that it suits the Better Together campaign to raise awkward questions of detail and process, thereby to embarrass the Yes campaign. It often seems, however, that these process questions are really “gotcha” questions and when they’re not they’re still too often not much more than an endless game of Whataboutery? I think the No campaign can win like that but I think that would be a shabby victory liable to leave even some No voters feeling oddly depressed.

Of course, again, the details are not trivial but if the matter is resolved by the question of which side better persuades a majority of Scots that they will be a couple of hundred quid a year better off if only they vote a given way then, by God, we will have been wasting our time. Because that would be an ignoble victory.

Ignoble because, in the end, it trivialises the question. Can identity, nationhood and governance be reduced to such petty-cash accountancy? And if it is then what does that say about the people who allowed it to become so? I hope we can be better than that. I hope we can, at some point, discover some inspiration somewhere along the line.

This may be too much to hope for. Whole thing here.

Show comments


Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.