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Scotland’s strange, emotionless referendum campaign

Scotland’s strange, emotionless referendum campaign

Decision on UK future is more than just an administrative matter 

by John Nugée

Fri 10 Jan 2014

Europe sees two important electoral dates in 2014, even though none of the larger countries has national elections. In May, the 28 countries of the European Union (EU) will together elect a new European Parliament. In September, the people of Scotland will vote on whether to separate from the rest of the UK.

The Scottish referendum is obviously very important for the future of Scotland, and indeed for the whole of the UK. It may also have the potential to have a greater impact on the EU than the European Parliament election. Scotland is one of the more pro-EU parts of the UK. If the UK were to be shorn of its northern component, sentiment in the remaining parts of the country would probably become even more in favour of an exit from the EU – an event that, however awkward the UK is as a member state, few in London, Berlin or Brussels want to happen.

In view of the importance of the Scottish poll, it is surprising that the referendum campaign seems stuck in a lifeless state. English voices are unwelcome – despite the fact that England’s future is being decided as well. Contributions from the rest of the EU are almost entirely absent. And even the Scots who are debating the issues are doing so with no passion, little engagement and no one daring to address the key questions. This is a pity. And it’s high time that this state of affairs changed.

One can understand that the pro-independence side wants the campaign to be very routine. Their aim is to be the voice of reason, to avoid scaring the electorate, to present the issue as a matter of efficiency, tax-planning and good governance: indeed, only a question of administrative detail. The overriding fear of the pro-independence campaign is to be ridiculed as promoting a romantic ‘Braveheart and Bagpipes’ vision of Scotland’s future which does not hold together in the cold light of logic.

The Better Together (i.e. pro-UK) campaign has adopted largely the same approach. Its team (partly echoing the dry style of their leader Alistair Darling) seems purposefully to be draining any hint of emotion from the campaign.

Britons may not by nature be the most emotional of people. But the future of the UK deserves a greater and more passionate level of debate. The issue cannot simply be reduced to financial calculations and tax levels. The sundering of the country after over 300 years and the ending of one of history’s most successful unions is surely not just an administrative matter, to be decided on such questions as whether or not Scotland can create a slightly more generous childcare system. But no one, on either side, seems willing to introduce wider issues and the necessary passion into the debate.

This may be essentially for negative reasons. The first side to resort to emotional arguments may be accused by its opponent of doing so because it lost the analytical debate. However a choice about the country one lives in and identifies with extends beyond pure rational analysis. There must be room for issues of sentiment, history, culture and national pride. At some stage, the campaign should shift from addressing Scottish wallets and start appealing to Scottish hearts. The sooner this happens the better. An issue of this spectacular importance deserves a full and thorough debate – and emotion has an important role to play.

John Nugée is Senior Adviser to OMFIF.

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