We may yet not have agreed all of the rules and regulations around an independence referendum. We still don’t know for definite when we will be asked to vote or exactly what question (or questions) we will be asked to vote on. But the Yes Scotland pro-independence campaign has now been launched.
Now I’m glad that we are getting away from technicalities and moving on to debate the real issues – even if it could yet be more than two years until the actual decision day. Alex Salmond knows that he can only count on one third of voters or so to support independence right now. And so he wants a long run at this to attempt to build up that figure. But that means gambling that a two year plus campaign won’t turn the electorate off entirely.
The Yes Scotland campaign launch wasn’t exactly the slick PR event that Salmond would have hoped for. Originally intended to be held in Glasgow it was moved to an Edinburgh cinema at short notice. And the many posters around advertising the film The Great Dictator were a gift to opponents of the First Minister.
The event itself featured speeches from actor Alan Cumming, who resides in the USA and a message from Sean Connery of the Bahamas branch of the SNP. But there were a few nationalists present who like Scotland enough to make it their home. The Greens and a few of the assorted brands of socialist parties also had minor roles in the production.
There was little detail and much rhetoric at the event, which many observers thought betrayed the fact that it had been organised in a hurry. By most accounts it felt rushed and looked disorganised. And, Liz Lochhead aside, the parade of white, middle aged and older men did nothing to promote the notion of wide support across the communities that make up Scotland.
Even the press conference afterwards was a little chaotic and the participants were not always on message. Asked if voters were being urged to sign the campaign’s Yes Declaration without all of the facts, Blair Jenkins, the former head of news at BBC Scotland, replied, “Well, yeah. It’s about hearts and minds in a broad sense, rather than the detail.”
And there’s the rub. Yes Scotland isn’t a conventional political campaign that will try to persuade voters to support a particular manifesto or candidate, or even a detailed position on a single issue, much as it pretends to be the latter. It’s all about the selling of an idea.
Scotland is great. Scots are great. Scotland should be run by Scots, wha’s like us?
Voters are being asked to make a leap of faith. To support the separation of Scotland from the rest of the UK on the basis that it will inevitably be better, just because it will. It’s obvious, isn’t it?
Now this is not a fight for freedom where an oppressed country is being occupied by another. Or where a nation has been denied democratic rights within a larger country. Scotland is a partner in a union and has its own devolved government dealing with many day to day issues – a position that the majority of its people have consistently favoured.
The No campaign, once it gets going, will concentrate on asking the difficult questions of detail that Salmond and co would rather avoid. Would an independent Scotland be in NATO? Well, no the SNP will say, as that’s its current policy. But it might well change at some point during the next couple of years. Would the Queen be head of state? Yes, she is, of course, Queen of Scotland. But that idea doesn’t appeal to many in the Yes camp, including those on the left of the SNP, who would prefer to see a referendum at some stage. And is this independence within Europe or outside the EU? The rules on whether an independent Scotland would be a member or would have to apply to join are open to interpretation.
The main battleground is likely to be the economy. The stark truth for Alex Salmond is that he will not win an independence vote unless he can persuade the majority of Scots that they and their families would be better off.
That involves creating an economic case for a separate Scotland – but much of the necessary data to do so can only be guessed at. What proportion of the UK’s assets would an independent Scotland inherit? How much of its debt? What budget would be required for defence and foreign affairs? How much could be raised in taxes? Would the country be in the EU? Would it use the pound or the Euro?
And would an independent Scotland, a relatively small country, be strong enough to withstand the economic buffering that all countries are facing in the current climate?
There are so many variables because many of the answers would only come from the detailed negotiation of Scotland’s separation from the UK. For now all we can do is make assumptions, and you can guarantee that the two camps will argue over these. Indeed there are already two extreme scenarios that show an independent Scotland as either a rich nation – or a near bankrupt one.
For all of the talk of an idealistic nation living peacefully in some sort of tartan clad paradise, or of a country with devolved powers remaining in a strong union with its neighbours on this small island, it is the amount cash in their pockets that will determine how most people will vote when the chance is offered.
But for now we have two years of intense debate and political argument to look forward to. The political anoraks among us will love the endless to and fro, the cut and thrust of it all. I just hope that the people of Scotland will stick with it – this will be the most important vote that we will ever have.