Moderator expands on his vision for reconciliation after the referendum
Published on 8 September, 2014
My heart sank during the heated debate between Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond when they went head to head in their second showdown on the BBC. A little heat can be a good thing in an age when many are left so cold by politics that they decline to vote. But we do not need heat that is searing and unpleasant as we enter the closing stages. It was, in fact, good to see Nicola Sturgeon and Douglas Alexander adopt a different approach on STV this week, one which modelled the way in which the last round of campaigning should be conducted.
We are just 12 days away from the vote which will decide whether Scotland should remain part of the UK or become an independent country. Alongside the debate about the actual outcome of the referendum, a critical discussion has emerged about the quality of the debate we are having. Much of the media attention has focussed on the polarised and divisive actions of a minority on either side, shouting down and intimidating those with opposing views. Actions which left unchecked can disrupt the majority. I believe it is not too late to make sure that in the aftermath of the referendum there is no "us and "them" but only "us". And I have two particular initiatives, and one hopeful idea, which I hope will help the nation come together again in the days after the outcome is known on the 19th of September.
Good or Bad?
There have been so many aspects of the referendum campaign that have been extremely positive. There have been hundreds of public meetings across the country and matters of real substance about all aspects of public policy in Scotland have been discussed by those who seldom talk politics.
The campaign has provided an opportunity for fresh and innovative thinking, such as the Common Weal movement www.allofusfirst.org/, bringing to life policy ideas and agendas which might otherwise have remained dormant.
Widening the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds has engaged young people in democratic and civic debate to a degree we have arguably not witnessed previously. And of course, while the debate has at times been heated, we have not seen the level of violence between the opposing sides that has marked debates about possible constitutional change around the world.
But, there is a danger of complacency and self-satisfaction. Some aspects of the campaign have undoubtedly been deeply unpleasant; recently I heard of an elderly woman who had a No Thanks poster pushed through her letter box – it had been torn off of the lamppost outside of her house, it was daubed with obscenities; her only offence was to have been the house nearest to the lamp post. On the other side I spoke to a young employee who felt constrained from speaking about voting Yes because his employer was bitterly against dissolving the union.
Some say they are too fearful of broken windows to put campaign notices in the windows of their car or house. As he took part in a BBC Radio Scotland live phone in, Douglas Alexander was sworn at by a caller. The First minister receives online death threats. Jim Murphy on the stump of the campaign trail is barracked and branded a "quisling" and "terrorist".
A poll in the Times on Wednesday found that 50% believed there would be remaining bitterness and division after a yes vote, while 55% expected a similar legacy if the country were to vote against independence.
This debate started with two sides - one making a case for YES and the other making the case for NO; now each has become a CAUSE and that's what makes me nervous. Both sides have to get the tenor of the debate under control.
If we do not behave respectfully to one another in the run up to the 18th September, what on earth makes people think that we will behave differently on the 19th September? Scotland may bein danger of becoming a divided country for some time to come. Sir John Elvidge, the former Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government puts it thus: "A Scotland in which everyone is defined by which side they were on, on a particular day, is not, I think anyone's definition of a healthy, modern society".
The online debate has been particularly fraught. Individuals who have provided financial support to the 'yes' and 'no' campaigns, such as JK Rowling or the lottery winners Colin and Chris Weir, have been subject to a high degree of personal abuse on social media.
Meanwhile, some important parts of civil society, such as charities and academics, have expressed a reluctance to "put their head above the parapet" and engage in the debate, for fear of being dragged into a highly emotive political battle.
Finally, the binary nature of the vote – 'yes' or 'no' – has inevitably presented challenges to a more nuanced and deliberative debate on a range of issues, particularly when this is played out through the media.
We also need to manage expectations and we need to be aware that the weeks and months following the referendum will be characterised by uncertainty. If the vote is YES then there is likely to be a protracted period of negotiation about the terms of separation for Scotland and the rest of the UK.
If the result is NO then a period of debate will begin about what, if any, additional powers might be devolved from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament. During these uncertain times it will be important for Scottish society to be cohesive, and for the discussions to be positive and constructive.
What Should Happen?
Regardless of whether or not the independence debate in Scotland is seen as having been healthy and positive or tarred by negativity and animosity, there is a clear interest for everyone in having a post-referendum period that is harmonious and future-focused. What then needs to be done to ensure that this is the case?
I believe that the first 72 hours after the result is announced will be critical in establishing the tone for the following period. Political leadership is of paramount importance at this time, to establish a clear direction of travel for citizens and civil society to follow. Whatever the result, it is vital that in the immediate aftermath of the result senior figures on both sides the debate are seen to be clear in both their words and their actions that the issue has now been settled democratically.
Those who win the argument must avoid triumphalism of any kind – humility is a rare quality these days, but it would be refreshing to see some authentic humility from those who prevail in this debate. We should celebrate the process as an achievement for democracy of which Scotland can be proud. This should in turn lead to firm commitments on the involvement of all parties in what happens next – be that independence negotiations; or discussions about further devolution. In short, magnanimity in victory and graciousness in defeat will be of the utmost importance.
Symbolic, visual demonstrations of the two sides of the campaign coming together after the result would play an important part in establishing a constructive environment for the post-referendum period. This is likely to be particularly helpful in the first week following the vote.
So, there should be a series of meetings between the different campaign leaders (e.g. Prime Minister and First Minister; leaders of both campaigns; high-profile campaign supporters; newspaper editors who favoured different outcomes) I'm not saying this will be easy, but it's not the easy things that will make a difference on the day. I would very much like to see a post referendum press conference involving the main players on both sides leaving behind the frenzy of the last few days to discuss a shared post-referendum strategy.
And this brings me to the two particular initiatives and one hopeful idea I believe will help bring people together.
The first initiative is the service that will take place in St Giles on the Sunday after the Referendum. The Church along with many other institutions, faith communities and organisations in Scotland has a part to play in bringing people together in common purpose. Already the main players have indicated their willingness to be part of the St Giles service during which all of those present will be invited to participate in an act signifying commitment to the shared values inscribed on the Scottish Parliament's mace, namely: wisdom, justice, compassion and integrity.
The Church still holds the capacity to bring people of goodwill together under a banner of unity and a national church such as the Church of Scotland owes it to the nation to allow this to happen – not just in the High Kirk of St Giles but in every congregation in Scotland - where prayers will be said for Scotland's people and Scotland's future.
The second initiative is the work being done by Collaborative Scotland which has been set up by individuals from various backgrounds who believe in the value of respectful dialogue among all those involved in the independence discussion. The aim of Collaborative Scotland is to encourage people to listen to and respect the views of others, to choose language carefully and to engage constructively with one another as Scotland looks to the future. You can find out more at www.collaborativescotland.org but John Sturrock who is the energy behind this movement is right when he says, "If we behave with civility now, and look constructively at the ways in which we handle differences of view and difficult questions, we will prepare ourselves for what happens next".
The hopeful idea is that after the referendum both campaigns actively promote a positive, conciliatory agenda through social media following the announcement of the result. This is where much of the antagonism in the referendum debate has occurred so this is where much of the repair can be done. For example, both sides could agree a number of joint hashtags to promote magnanimity, a celebration of the process and cooperation. On a lighter note, what about supporters being encouraged to promote friendship and respect by taking a 'selfie' with someone who voted the opposite way.
After the 1995 referendum in Quebec 1995 two very different reactions to the result were expressed. Quebec premier, Jaques Parizeau, part of the unsuccessful Yes campaign said to his supporters, "Remain in the battle, remain in the fray because we need all of you. Be calm and smile even if that doesn't come easily, and bear in mind that it's from this solidarity in our midst that …………we will have our own revenge and we shall earn our own country."
In contrast, Daniel Johnson leader of the winning No campaign was quick to express his empathy for those on the losing side, he said, "I can't help myself thinking of those hundreds of citizens who feel a sadness and disappointment tonight". He knew how he would have felt had be on the losing side, so he quickly invited his opponents on board, saying, "Together we can continue having successes and making the progress that will make the Quebec of today and the Quebec of tomorrow."
Whatever the outcome I know which tone I want to hear on the 19th of September and whatever the outcome, I want the key institutions both in Scotland and across the UK actively to demonstrate a willingness to work together.
The involvement of civic society in Scottish affairs was at a peak in 1999 when the Scottish Parliament was finally established. Sadly however, much of that civic involvement was soon to be dissipated. That cannot be allowed to happen again. The momentum behind this upsurge in political interest and involvement must be maintained and that depends, on civil society's institutions, including business, organised labour, religious organisations and charities being given a proper place and a proper voice in the shaping of Scotland's future.