The Scottish independence referendum is not democracy in action: the quality of debate has been too low

Alistair Darling

Whatever happens the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum, the quality of debate has been so low that the Scots have not been allowed to make an informed decision, says UEA History and Politics student, Will Harragan. 

The Scottish Independence referendum, set to take place on Thursday, should be a shining example of the UK Government stepping back and letting the people decide who they want to be. We do, after all, live in a democratic society; one of the principles of which being self-determination and respecting the decision of the people as a whole.

However the debate that has surrounded the referendum has descended into scare-mongering, intimidation, and smacks of exactly the opposite of what referendums in advanced democratic nations should be.

First, let’s look at the scare-mongering that has taken place on both sides of the argument. There’s been far too much ink spilled over whether or not an independent Scotland would be allowed to use the pound, with the No Campaign holding sterling hostage in an attempt to keep nationalists quiet.

They tried to convince Scotland that it would not be able to stand on its own feet if it created a currency: “poor little Scotland,” they seemed to say “just stay with us and the Great British Pound will see you right”. Not surprisingly, this angered several Scots, as the notion that their country could not survive without help from merry old England made them more likely to vote for independence.

There’s also been the debate surrounding the state of Scotland’s oil reserves, with Alex Salmond claiming that there is more than enough oil in the North Sea to support the Scottish Economy for decades to come. And on this issue we have seen simply more scaremongering from the No camp, with Alistair Darling jumping on any study that even hints that the reserves are close to running out.

Far from making a No vote in September seem like a positive choice for the future of Scotland, Darling seemed to be trying to make it seem like a vote for safety and security, and the status quo under the helpful guidance of England.

It’s not like the Yes campaign are innocent from inducing the fear factor in trying to get votes, though. During the televised debates, Alex Salmond appealed to voters’ love of the NHS by positing that a vote for No would lead to the destruction of it thanks to the Government’s policy of “back door privatisation”.  Again, it seems his attempt was to make independence look the least worst option, rather than something positive.

There also seems to have developed a culture of intimidation and anger, particularly on social media, which has hindered people finding out facts and listening to arguments for themselves, thus preventing them from making an informed decision.

The most prominent example of this was when the novelist JK Rowling donated £1 million to the No campaign, in the process criticising a “fringe of nationalists who like to demonise anyone who is not blindly and unquestionably pro-independence”. Sure enough, this fringe took to twitter to denounce Rowling, with scathing comments about her not complaining about Scotland while she was living on benefits there. Although when Sean Connery, who hasn’t lived in Scotland for decades, declares he is all for independence; the fringe was a lot quieter.

My point is not that Connery is not entitled to an opinion about his home nation, nor that social media is particularly cruel (although it is). My point is that with the aura of intimidation and aggression that has developed around the debate, it prevents people like Rowling from voicing their opinions and arguments. This stops the regular folk on the street from getting the full picture about Scottish independence and inherently undermines the democratic process.

And this is before we address the problem with the televised debates. In all honesty, I’m actually in favour of televised debates before elections or referendums. Yes, there are issues surrounding the presidentialisation of British politics, and debates over whether they have any affect at all (2010’s “Cleggmania” didn’t stop the Lib Dems losing seats); but I believe that televised debates, when done properly, allow the public to get to grips with the key arguments and policy issues.

The debates between Darling and Salmond, particularly the second one, were nothing more than shouting matches. The combatants spent far too much time on the issue of the pound, probably because Salmond couldn’t come up with a suitable plan B in the first debate and wanted to shape up. Darling often appeared angry and frustrated, resorting to finger pointing at his opposite number and they both choose to simply talk over each other, rather than engage in proper discussion. With this result being broadcast, it’s not surprising that a number of viewers simply turned off.

For me, the debates have highlighted the problem with the referendum as a whole. That both sides have been stumped for reasonable arguments, so, in the absence of that, they resort to shouting down the other side; holding the pound hostage; creating scare stories about the oil reserves and the future of the NHS. What these tactics mean is that come September 18th, the people of Scotland will have been deprived a sensible and meaningful set of arguments, making it harder for them to make an informed choice on the future of their nation. This has not been a prime example of democracy in action, and that makes the outcome of the referendum very imposing indeed.

Will Harragan is a second year History and Politics student at the University of East Anglia.

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One thought on “The Scottish independence referendum is not democracy in action: the quality of debate has been too low

  1. One of the problems in evaluating the quality of debate is always the problem of the relevant comparator. Is the quality of (televised national) debate in the independence referendum lower than the quality of debate might be in a university seminar, or a deliberate polling exercise? Probably. Does that mean that there hasn’t been a greater quantity and quality of debate regarding Scottish independence than might otherwise have been the case? Unlikely.

    I think certain parts of the national debate have been tremendously inspiring. I think of the Big Big Debate, and the street stalls that have been set up.

    Others have been tremendously depressing. I think of posters being torn down, people being egged, that kind of thing.

    But it’s difficult to ignore the size of the debate, and its ability to engage people from all different walks of life.

    When I was in Glasgow two weeks ago, I got talking to an Irish colleague who’d been to a nearby pub. The pub had a sign: “No indy talk”. When was the last time politics talk was so prevalent that a pub had to clamp down on it?

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