The 25th January 2012 brought the independence referendum another leap closer to reality, and did its best to shift the debate along, while not quite succeeding. We now have a published timeline of events detailing exactly why the SNP has chosen Autumn 2014 for the referendum. Sure, unionists can argue that there are perhaps exaggerations in how long certain aspects are scheduled to take, but it’s pretty difficult to argue that any of the stages included are superfulous, which makes those who are still demanding a referendum “sooner rather than later” look even more ridiculous than they did before. It also makes it crystal clear why they make such demands – because they want a rush job, particularly as polls are already suggesting public opinion towards independence has now caught up to be completely neck and neck with the status quo.
For decades, unionists ignored all calls for independence. For four years, they claimed an independence referendum was a waste of time and money. For six months, they argued that the referendum had to happen NOW and that not knowing the date was harming Scotland. We now have a definitive time, yet apparently this still isn’t good enough. There is only one word for this behaviour: disingenuous. Well, maybe another word: petulant. You can only change your mind so many times before you start to look like you’re just arguing for the sake of it, and unionists passed that point long ago. We have a timescale – it’s now time to move away from this tedious argument and get onto the main, grown-up debate.
The day brought us much more besides this, however. We were given a useful glimpse into the mindsets of both unionist politicians and the media, and they didn’t disappoint those of us who were braced for disappointment. The First Minister chose Edinburgh Castle as the venue to launch the consultation document. As grand a setting as you could hope for in Scotland, and as such, exactly the place you should be conducting a press conference that has attracted worldwide interest and media teams from numerous countries. After all, when you invite guests round, you usher them into your best room. Except, it seems, when you are in Scotland. Unionist MSPs Willie Rennie, Johann Lamont and Kezia Dugdale all criticised the Scottish Government for using the castle’s grand hall to hold the event, which is particularly hypocritical in Dugdale’s case, as the exact same venue was used by her party to launch the 1997 Scotland Bill white paper. It says much for their attitude towards the referendum that they think it is “party political”. Clearly, they look at this as being an SNP toy, rather than something for the whole of Scotland, which is perhaps why they deem it appropriate to play such silly political games with the referendum. If the official launch of the “yes” campaign was being held here, they may have a point – although only if the “no” campaign were somehow precluded from doing the same. This is governmental business, and to view it as some SNP party stunt is, quite frankly, ludicrous. This is the sort of petty sniping that is putting people off Labour and the rest.
As for the media, we had BBC Scotland’s Big Debate and STV’s Scotland Tonight referendum special. Let’s be clear here: when people vote in this referendum, they will be voting for independence or the union (or possibly devo max, although it won’t happen); we will not – I repeat, NOT – voting for our favoured political parties. Therefore, when producers are choosing people to appear on their shows, you would except an even split between the two/three viewpoints. However, for some bizarre reason, it has been decided that each of the three unionist parties deserves to have their own version of the “no” arguments put forward, even though each amounts to the same thing. Conversely, it has been decided that independence = SNP, meaning the “yes” arguments are supported by only one person. This is despite independence being supported by three distinct groups in Holyrood (SNP, Scottish Greens and Margo McDonald – whose criticisms of the SNP’s handling of the referendum and other things mean she has valid contributions to put forward). In fact, with 72 pro-independence MSPs out of 129, Holyrood is very much tipped in favour of independence. However, BBC Scotland’s Big Debate show contained one pro-independence speaker (although Nicola Sturgeon did in fact manage perfectly fine without back up) against three pro-union speakers (although Lesley Riddoch did a marvellous job – far better than chairman Glenn Campbell – of taking Johann Lamont and Lord Wally to task on their confused, conflicting and ridiculous arguments). STV went one better, giving airtime to a staggering FIVE unionists against John Swinney and Jim Sillars (who was last seen extolling the virtues of “Indy Lite”).
This will not do. If our media is to do the Scottish public justice, it must have balance. No matter how sensible the SNP’s points may be, it is utterly unfair to have the pro-independence points being attacked from multiple angles, regardless of how bizarre and utterly fatuous those attacks increasingly get. We were often told during the past six months that not everyone who voted for the SNP supported independence. If polls are to be believed (and they’re only ever brought into disrepute by unionists when they don’t show what they want), it is perhaps more true to state that not everyone who supports independence voted for the SNP. It is a well known fact that there are Labour voters who support independence, and it does them a disservice to see the “yes” arguments only being made by SNP politicians. What about those who voted Green, or for the pro-independence socialists? Call me a cynic, but I see this as a trend towards trying to confuse people as to what counts as policy (e.g. what would corporation tax be – well, whatever the government that gets elected sets it as!), and what doesn’t. This would be harder to do with Patrick Harvie alongside the SNP saying “actually, we’d do it this way”, thus presenting the viewer with the reality that independence is about giving ourselves the choice to determine these things for ourselves, rather than about setting everything in stone forever.
These are slightly worrying, if not entirely unexpected, developments. Scotland deserves a grown up, fully informed debate. This can’t happen if discussions are weighted heavily in favour of one side, or if politicians refuse to put the toys down and get out of the pram. Scotland is not well served by petty sniping, bringing up the most tedious points, and refusing to look past minutiae that doesn’t really matter in the grand scale of things. If things don’t improve soon, people are going to start wondering if The Positive Case For The Union is nothing more than a figment of people’s imaginations, with less sightings than Nessie.