The Dwindling Rhetoric of the Scottish Independence Debate

The referendum on Scottish independence has been the most interesting political story of my adult life. Never before have I seen so many people passionate about their political future and mobilised to do something about it. The global recession and banking crises/scandals were met with as much apathy as outrage. Protest over the Iraq war was limited to a small faction of society. Never have I witnessed such a mobilisation of people at local level. Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, in particular, have shown themselves to be extremely adept politicians not just in Scotland, but on a wider international stage. Debate has been exhilarating and largely conducted on relatively firm democratic ground, but as the announcement came at the end of May that the official campaigning period for the referendum had begun, I let out a large sigh of exhaustion. Could it be that people are starting to tire as we reach the final lap? If so, whose problem is that? The importance of the issue has not shrank, but perhaps the appetite for debate is shrinking as more people make up their mind and the social media divide reaches comical proportions.

As the days pass, the old guard of Westminster politics becomes ever more prominent in the Better Together campaign. Given the considerable criticism Better Together have received for their approach in the early days of the debate, it is not difficult to believe the rumours that both Alistair Darling and Douglas Alexander, Labour’s election campaign co-ordinator and shadow Foreign Secretary, have taken more senior roles in campaign co-ordination alongside (or ahead of) Blair McDougall. Gordon Brown has been making his voice heard more regularly, and he has been followed by former Labour cabinet minister John Reid in recent days. On the Yes side, Nicola Sturgeon remains the calm, cogent face of the campaign with Alex Salmond, John Swinney and Patrick Harvie, leader of the Scottish Greens, continuing to press their case. Alas, something is amiss. The fire seems to have dimmed on both sides with pseudo outrage the order of the day in reaction to the latest news stories incriminating one side or the other. Although new faces are arriving in the Better Together campaign, they are repeating the same well-worn lines of their colleagues. Although the latest polls continue to show gains for Yes, one feels that considerable momentum of early April slowing down.

The recent ‘big’ debate between Nicola Sturgeon and Douglas Alexander on BBC Scotland 2014 was nothing short of impotent. The tone of the entire programme was muted and, while debate must not be nasty to be entertaining, each was happy to merely defend their corner than go on the offensive. The content was dominated by devolution. Alexander pedaled the ‘Best of both worlds’ line countless times, with Sturgeon methodically repeating the claim that the only way for people to guarantee these powers is to vote ‘yes’. That was it. It was Nick Faldo at Muirfield in the 1987 Open Championship, 18 pars = Par for the course. No ground was gained or lost. That, however, clearly suits Better Together more than the Yes campaign.

I was not the only one who felt as though Alex Salmond’s ‘100 days to go’ address was somewhat muted and equally as repetitive as Sturgeon’s approach on BBC. While events on the ground do not always echo developments in the media, the town hall politics that people have been championing, while still in full flow, appears not to be contributing to momentum for either side. People are making up their mind and there are less voters to convince. Although exit polls are often taken from local debates, polling showing large swings to ‘Yes’ are not reflected in larger polls.

These are worrying trends for the Yes campaign. While there is no doubt Better Together has stepped up their game by shifting debate onto devolution and the cross-party agreement on passing some level of income tax power to Holyrood, they appear largely content to play it safe and bore their way to victory in September. Yes no longer has the benefit of the No campaign repeatedly blowing its own limbs off as it did earlier in the year. So, it is down to Yes to pull something out of the bag. With time marching on, Salmond, Sturgeon and Blair Jenkins have that old choice between stick and twist. Stick and hope that clear delivery and repetition pays dividend (which it probably won’t, not 10-12 percentage points’ worth anyway), or gamble and risk going off message in an attempt to regain that infectious sense of momentum.