The full debate can be found at http://player.stv.tv/programmes/yes-or-no/
Better Together panel
Douglas Alexander Labour Shadow Foreign Secretary and MP
Kezia Dugdale Scottish Labour Shadow Party Education spokesman and MSP
Ruth Davidson Leader of the Scottish Conservatives and MSP
YES Scotland panel
Nicola Sturgeon Deputy First Minister (SNP) and MSP
Elaine C Smith Convenor of Scottish Independence Convention
Patrick Harvie Co-Convener of the Scottish Green Party and MSP
Presenter Bernard Ponsonby
The debate was divided into opening and closing statements by Alexander and Sturgeon with three sections in which one representative from the Better Together and Yes camps was put up to answer questions. There was a fourth section which was the audience asking questions which could be put to any member of the two panels at the presenter’s discretion.
It was a more edifying spectacle than the Darling-Salmond shouting matches. This was largely but not wholly due to the difference in programme structure , which included much more audience participation, had six voices rather than two to be accommodated and excluded formal questioning of each other by the two sides. This removed much of the opportunity for the unseemly squabbling which had tainted the Darling-Salmond debates.
To the difference in programme structure improving matters can be added the absence of Salmond, , who was primarily responsible for the way the Darling-Salmond debates deteriorated into incoherence as the two politicians repeatedly spoke over one another. Darling is not naturally shouty and was provoked into behaving out of character by Salmond’s toxic behaviour. It is also true that Douglas Alexander was a vast improvement on Darling, both in his persona, which was relaxed and controlled, and in the quietly reasonable way he answered questions. However, his effectiveness was curtailed because the format of the show meant Alexander remained silent for much of the time.
Of the others Dugdale was nervously gabbling, Davidson attempted to give factual answers , but spoke too quickly, Elaine Smith was strident and emotional and Harvie supercilious and adolescently idealistic by turns. Listening to Sturgeon was to hear Salmond’s words slavishly repeated by someone else. She even mimicked his practice in the second Darling-Salmond debate of moving from behind her rostrum and wandering about the stage.
Although the debate was much better mannered than the Darling-Salmond encounters, it was not much more informative. There is an inherent problem with public debates where two sides are allowed to make assertions without challenge from any disinterested third party. Even where , as was the case here, the audience were able to ask a good number of questions, little is achieved because there is no sustained questioning of the speakers’ responses. Even where the speakers appeared to be giving hard facts there was no solid challenge to what they claimed. The presenter, with the amusingly incongruous English name of Bernard Ponsonby, made attempts to challenge what was being said, but these interventions rarely went anywhere and appeared more for show rather than a determined attempt to stop the speakers waffling, evading or lying. The upshot was that after the one and three quarter hours the programme ran I doubt whether the studio audience or the viewers were much the wiser about where the truth lay.
The subjects covered were social justice , benefit spending, health and social care, tuition fees, the currency, North Sea oil, the Barnett Formula, domestic violence, the nuclear deterrent, Faslane, defence, the EU and the further powers offered in the event of a NO vote. Because of the number of subjects, they were all dealt with quickly and inevitably superficially. Some questions or points from the audience went unanswered lost in the fog of politician’s waffle.
Only Alexander and Davidson made any real attempt to consistently answer questions with reference to facts. For example, Davidson had a very good point about the startlingly meagre nature of the proposed armed forces put forward in the SNPs white paper on independence. (Go into the recording at 1 hour and 15 minutes). At the point of independence the White Paper proposes that “ Scotland will have a total of 7,500 regular and 2,000 reserve personnel at the point of independence, rising to around 10,000 regulars and 3,500 reserves by the end of the five years following independence” (P237) with the possibility after ten years of 15,000 regulars and 5,000 reserves. (That is for the army navy and airforce of a country whose territory constitutes 30% of the UK).
Judged purely on the information being given by the panellists, the Better Together side was far superior, but the YES mixture of bluster, bald assertion and outright lies was backed up by aggressive audience participation by YES voters which covered the massive gaps in their responses to questions. The NO part of the audience applauded vigorously when good points were made by Better Together, but they did not exude the childlike excitement and joy seen on YES supporters’ faces , which were eerily reminiscent of the sublime inanity of the faces of the hippies in the film Easy Rider.
The extremely large elephant in the room – the interests of the rest of the UK in the referendum – went unmentioned but for one brief comment by Alexander. He pointed out that a vote for independence would give Salmond a mandate to engage in negotiations for the terms of separation, not as the YES camp claimed, a democratic mandate for anything Salmond demanded : “ The sovereign will applies here in Scotland. it can’t bind what would be the sovereign will of what would be a separate country after independence. “ Go into recording at 33 minutes.
To take one example of the rest of the UK’s ignored interests which is of immediate concern , no discussion has taken place about the position of Scottish MPs at Westminster if there is a YES vote. If the General Election takes place in 2015 but Scottish independence not until 2017 (or even later if the negotiations go badly), there would be the absurd situation of Scottish MPs and peers still sitting in Parliament at Westminster, making decisions on English matters. In addition, if Labour win the election but only with the support of Scottish MPs, a Labour Prime Minister could find himself with a majority in the Commons one day and a minority government the next. It would also mean that the terms of independence for Scottish independence would be negotiated by a PM who was arithmetically certain to have to resign after Scottish independence day and was dependent on the Scottish MPs to pass whatever terms were agreed. That would be an incentive to give far too much away to the Scots.
Looking at the three debates together , (the two Darling-Salmond debates and this one) it is astonishing that so many important questions other than the rest of the UK’s interest in the referendum have gone largely or wholly unexamined. Here are some of them:
- The public service jobs which will go south of the border if there is a YES vote. This will be the military ones, including the Trident submarines and missiles at Faslane, plus the considerable number of public service jobs which have been exported from England to Scotland which deal with English matters such as the administration of the English welfare system.
- The position of public sector pensions in Scotland, both those already being drawn and the pension entitlements accrued to the date of independence which have not yet begun to be drawn.
- The condition of private sector pensions in Scotland such as those attached RBS and HBOS. These could very easily default especially if the Bank of England is no longer the lender of the last resort.
- The very heavy reliance of the Scottish economy on taxpayer funded jobs .
- The narrowness of the private sector of the Scottish economy, it being massively dependent on oil and gas, financial services and food and drink.
- Immigration to Scotland.
- Scottish Nationality.
How should the NO campaign have been conducted?
The Better Together campaign has suffered from what is always a fatal flaw: they have built their strategy around appeasement of the Scots. Appeasement can never be a strategy because the appeased always returns for more concessions. Appeasement can only ever be a tactic to buy time, something which does not apply in this context.
The policy of appeasement has meant there has been no input from those who are not Scottish and opposed to the break up of the Union. Any Unionist politician with an English accent has been treated as toxic by the NO campaign. The debate has been entirely about what is best for Scotland. Fear of being accused of being a traitor or Quisling has meant that no honest answer has been given to the challenge put by pro-independents along the lines of “Are you saying that this extremely wealthy and wondrously talented country Scotland cannot be successful as an independent country?” . This is because to suggest that Scotland is anything other than a supremely talented and amazingly wealthy country would bring exactly those accusations. Faced with that dread the NO camp has retreated to the absurd position of agreeing that Scotland is an extremely wealthy and talented country whilst saying that it should not be independent because it would lose so much economically by independence.
The fear of being labelled either a Quisling (if Scottish) or a bully (if an English Westminster politician) has allowed the YES camp in general and Salmond to make absurd statements which have gone effectively unchallenged, for example on these two major issues:
- Salmond’s claim that Scotland has part ownership of the Pound. This is a literal nonsense. The legal position is very simple: the Pound Sterling is the English currency. Scotland gained the right to share it when they signed the Treaty of Union. If they leave the Union they forfeit that right because the Treaty and the subsequent Acts of Union will no longer operate. No one on the pro-union side has made this very obvious point.
- Salmond’s threat to default on taking a proportionate share of the UK national debt if they do not get a currency union. This is a non-starter because Scottish independence is dependent on the Westminster Parliament repealing the Act of Union. Again, no one on the pro-union side has made this very obvious point.
- Sterlingisation. Why on Earth did no one on the Better Together side not ask Salmond the question “Who will be Scotland’s lender of the last resort if there is Sterlingisation?” A simple question but one Salmond would not have been able to evade.
The whole business has been misguided from beginning to end. Granting an independence referendum to be decided simply by those in Scotland when it affected around 90% of the population of the UK was wrong in principle. That error was compounded by the failure to define the terms of independence before the referendum was held. Had the terms been decided before the referendum, it is very doubtful that the referendum would have resulted in a YES vote because Westminster politicians would have been forced to take account of what the electorate in England, Wales and Northern Ireland would tolerate by way of terms for Scotland to secede from the Union. For example, the three major Westminster Parties would have had to make their pledge that there would be no currency union part of the terms, because to agree to a currency union would have left them open to the anger to the electors in England, Wales and Northern Ireland at the idea that the Bank of England (and hence the UK taxpayer) would be the lender of last resort for Scotland.
If the terms had been agreed in advance, ideally these should have been put to a referendum of the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland for their acceptance. But even if that was not done, the fact that a UK general election was to be held in 2015 would have put great pressure on the politicians negotiating the deal with the Scots to not give too much away.
What can be done before the referendum by unionists? Precious little if anything in terms of promoting the positives of the UK because it is simply too late. . What the Westminster parties should not be doing is scrambling around promising an ever more potent version of DEVOMAX. That would be because it will be seen as appeasement and because the closer the DEVOMAX on offer gets to independence, the less reason there is for people to vote NO to get DEVOMAX.
What we have had since the referendum was announced has been the very small Scottish tail wagging the very large English dog. That is both absurd and a betrayal of the 90 per cent of the population who do not live in Scotland.