Here we go, then. The debut Straight Debate is with Douglas "Edinburgh Liberal" McLellan, a Lib Dem member and activist, and in it we discuss the timing of the referendum, the meaning of the word "independence" and, appropriately enough, the tone of public discourse. (We had more stuff we wanted to cover too, but after we got to 2500 words from just two questions each it seemed a good time to take a break. So here's how we got on for starters.)
WoS: Hello! You're on record as saying that if the referendum was tomorrow you'd vote for independence. Would you really, as you seem to be implying, change your mind on such a major issue over something as trivial as the timing?
DMcL: Yes. The late 2014 date has one purpose and one purpose only. To see if the Tories are going to win the General Election in May 2015 which will then allow the SNP to say – look, take independence to be free of the Tories.
Independence should not be about that. Independence should be whether or not the people of Scotland want to govern themselves as they see fit (not within the confines of the Scotland Act), decide their own fiscal and monetary policies, their own regulatory frameworks etc. By making the argument about Tories and Westminster policies the SNP are being disingenuous. The very 1st independent Scottish Government could make changes to welfare that many Scots may not like.
That is the politics of a nation not the governance and, for the SNP, the independence debate so far has been all about the politics and nothing substantive about the governance. So if the SNP drag this debate out until Oct 2014, continue to carp about "English" politics and "English" policies instead of talking about the governance of an independent Scotland then I will give up on them and look for a positive message and a positive vision for Scotland elsewhere. I don't like SNP nationalism anyway so it will not be a wrench to find a better message to vote differently.
WoS: But those things aren't separate, are they? For a lot of people, rejecting/protecting themselves from the Tories IS the main reason for wanting independence, and there's nothing illegitimate about that.
Were, for example, Ed Miliband to to be honest about his pledge of starting from scratch when it came to Labour's policy book, and if he turned the party into a genuine and electable social-democratic alternative by 2014, it might well persuade a significant number of people to stick with the UK. That's enormously unlikely to happen, of course – so what's wrong with the SNP letting the situation play out so voters can see the real picture and the true choice facing them?
DMcL: Yes. Lets not pretend. The Oct 2014 is for one reason and one reason only. It is to see if the 2015 General Election looks like it will be a Tory victory or not. If it looks like a Tory win, then the SNP indy campaign will clearly be – look, the Tories will be in charge again, vote yourselves free of them. This makes the indy campaign not about the governance of Scotland and the desire, if so expressed, of the Scottish people to invest all of the powers a nation has in the Scottish Parliament. Instead, it makes it about policies and politics which is, frankly, wrong. It, for example, ignores the fact that the first elected Government of an indy Scotland could be just as right-wing as the Tories. It is fudging the line between principles of nationhood and the politics of running a nation.
Even now I dislike the SNPs nationalism and some of what they are doing and saying vexes my innate liberalism and internationalism. If their argument about self-determination is all about what we can reject (Westminster Tories) rather than what Scotland can be like in the future then I will look to a more positive vision for Scotland. The SNP offered a positive vision for Scotland during the elections last year but have changed tack a bit since then. Devo Plus, not my preferred option at the moment, offers a positive vision for Scotland that the SNP is in danger of losing. When I vote in the referendum I will be voting for the positive vision and delaying until 2014 is not an ideal start.
DMcL: It took just 133 days from Labour winning the 1997 election to the referendum on devolution. Whilst an independence referendum is a certainly bigger issue do you think the people of Scotland really need 1289 days to make a decision on independence, given that the issue is the very reason of the SNPs existence is to promote independence and they had been in minority government for 4 years already?
WoS: Don't know. The use of the word "need" there is a bit of a leading question. I don't think there's much doubt that it would be technically possible to have the vote sooner – although even that isn't clear-cut, given that the coalition seems intent on demanding strings before clearing the path of potential obstacles. (You over-simplify by the comparison with 1997 – that referendum was conducted by Westminster, and so didn't have to face any of the possible legal challenges that a Holyrood-run poll does.) But the Scottish people have waited 305 years to be given a voice on Scotland's membership of the Union, and may only ever get this one chance. Speaking as one of them, personally I have absolutely no problem whatsoever with waiting two more if it will help deliver the result I want.
Is that partisan? I'm not sure that it is, or that it matters. The people of Scotland chose to give the SNP a mandate for that approach – all the bad-loser nitpicking from the Unionist parties about whether the "second half" pledge was in the manifesto or just the campaign is irrelevant, because the fact is that the voters gave the SNP a majority. That means they gave them the power to deal with the issue however they chose – the SNP are fully entitled to use that power to pursue their goals in what they deem to be the way most likely to succeed. Indeed, one could reasonably argue that they have a democratic DUTY to do so, not just a right.
DMcL: I think that it is clear a very legal and very free from challenge referendum can be held in 2013 not 2014. I am also clear that the governance framework and principles of a new independent Scotland can be communicated by then as well. I would also contend that the Scottish people have not worried about the length of time it has taken to be "given a voice" as it has only been relatively recently that the SNP have had the levels of support needed from the Scottish people to put a referendum on the table. Just 50 odd years ago the country voted in a majority of Tory/Unionist parliamentarians.
If your argument about the SNP having the democratic duty to use all the power that they have to pursue their goals is to hold water then that same duty should be granted to the Coalition government. So the Westminster government would be within its rights to use the power at its disposal to be vigorously against Scotland becoming independent, would you agree?
WoS: Yes. As far as I'm aware nobody has ever suggested it shouldn't be allowed to campaign, only that it has no right to dictate the terms. (Though in fact the Lib Dem 2010 manifesto makes no explicit commitment to the Union.) The SNP have a clear mandate to hold a referendum, and the coalition should not interfere with it. It should, of course, campaign strongly for the outcome it desires.
But the idea that the Scottish people have always had the opportunity to "put a referendum on the table" is severely disingenuous. Until 1999, even if every single Scottish voter had voted SNP they couldn't have forced a referendum, because Scottish MPs were (and are) still vastly outnumbered at Westminster – they could have exerted pressure, of course, but Westminster is adept at resisting pressure if it isn't backed up by cold Parliamentary arithmetic, as the millions who marched against going to war in Iraq will tell you. The chance has realistically existed for just over a decade, and it hasn't taken the Scottish people very long to seize it. I don't think they'll look kindly on any attempts to obstruct, limit or manipulate it (as happened in 1979) now.
WoS: It's interesting that your earlier reply emphasised the difference between governance and principles as opposed to policies. I think that's a very strong point. Do you therefore agree with me that the constant demands from the Unionist parties for the SNP to clarify any and every last aspect of policy in an independent Scotland have no place in the referendum campaign, and that these are matters which instead will be settled in the normal political manner – that is, at general elections – if and when Scotland becomes independent?
DMcL: Yes. I agree that the SNP do not need to have in place a complete programme for government during the indy campaign. In fact, I think that is actually somewhat short sighted by those opposed to indy as they will have problems getting a coherent manifesto together in time for a 1st indy Scotland elections. That said, I think Murdo Fraser is probably ready given his pitch for the Tory leadership.
However, the SNP do need to be clear on a number of generalities. They claim that Scotland will be high on the OECD ratings so should be in a position to make similar international comparisons. For example – "Scotland could afford to spend X% of GDP on defence which is comparable to X nations" and "Scotland currently spends £bn on welfare which is affordable based on £bn of income". The details of these figures dont need to be that great though. I am much more interested in, for example, how retaining the currency and the monarchy will work in an independent nation, what the constitution and election system will be (STV & no Lords please) and what the relationship to international institutions will be (clear legal advice please).
WoS: Do you see any compelling reason for changing the constitution or electoral system, or detect any substantial desire for either of those things among the people of Scotland? The current system seems pretty good to me – it discourages majorities without making them impossible, and it should always be possible for the people to elect a majority government if that's what they want.
Much of the data with regard to proportions of expenditure is, I think, already in the public domain – see some highly informative comments on the Guardian's recent "Reality Check" series – but it would certainly be welcome to have them clearly and concisely stated as an official position by the Scottish Government, and I think we will between now and the referendum.
DMcL: Well independence is a total change to the constitution. Whilst I don't think that there is a clear clamour for moving to STV I don't see marches in the street for independence and nor, despite the election last May, do I think that Scotland would vote yes for independence if asked tomorrow. The SNP have been a competent government and the opposition has been poor so that the 2011 result wasn't, I am quite sure, the epic leap towards independence that some nationalists believe.
Your own point earlier about Scottish & Westminster elections having different meanings is quite correct. I would actually argue that a much larger number of people voting SNP for Westminster would have given a far clearer message of the desire for independence from the "mother" Parliament/nation. Nevertheless May 2011 gave the SNP a legitimate platform and mandate to hold a referendum which is where we are at. I believe that if you are going to set up a new country you may as well do it right and that includes a fair election system which is STV. Majorities are possible in any system. Unlike some I don't believe that the SNP broke the current PR system but I would be very wary, as you are close to suggesting, that we should keep the current system because the SNP were able to get a majority. Again that strikes at the very heart of my liberalism. If Scotland becomes an independent nation then the workload of its parliamentarians will increase. There will be a need for an increased number of MSPs. Since that is going to affect boundaries the process for voting should be changed as well.
And I unfortunately only ever get as far as words like "propaganda" in comments sections before I give up and not read any more of them.
DMcL: Is it possible that a person can be Scottish to their finger tips, sing Flower of Scotland at international events, feel a pride in having Edinburgh as their capital city and yet also disagree with pretty much all SNP policies, find comparisons stating the relationship between Scotland and rUK is like a domestic abuse relationship grossly insulting and view those who support independence and glory in terminology like, BritNat, Unionist, Quisling and Traitor with something like to contempt?
WoS: Yes. Though they'd have to be awfully prickly. That one was a bit rhetorical, wasn't it?
DMcL: No, I think it stands up given some of the tweets I got today. I generally dont mind things but since it appears few if any nationalists think the Record piece was anything other than gospel truth I was genuinely surprised at some of the defending tweets. For me, not actually caring about which paper it was in or who actually wrote the piece, the comparison to domestic abuse was shocking. I dont find that description valid, relevant or even helpful. Yet it is clearly one a lot of nats agreed with. I don't get it.
WoS: As you may have noticed, I had no problem with it, and find it genuinely hard to believe anyone was really, honestly offended – I can't help feeling perhaps these people aren't cut out for politics. Or maybe we're just less sensitive, because we're used to getting more abuse.
Once you've heard "Scottish Nazi Party" the first few hundred times, (or the ever-so-clever variant about being nationalists and socialists), or heard Alex Salmond compared to every mass murderer under the sun – not by anonymous internet loonies but by elected members of Parliament and Lords of the realm – or been called a "Tartan Tory" by neoliberals Keir Hardie wouldn't spit on at the same time Tories are calling you a scrounging socialist subsidy junkie, or all the "Braveheart" and "Brigadoon" bollocks and all the rest of it, you're not going to get your knickers in a twist about a pretty valid analogy.
We mostly just shrug our shoulders at abuse now, or make a joke of it, because we've been getting it for decades and it's nothing surprising any more. I think a lot of the problem is that the Unionist side is just used to being the bully, and they're having a lot of trouble adjusting to being on the wrong end of power.
But I'm fascinated by the way you seem to regard terms like "BritNat" and "Unionist" as being in the same category as "Quisling" and "Traitor". (The last of which, incidentally, is regularly fired at us too.) I mean, if you support the Union – whatever the precise internal arrangements – you're clearly a Unionist. If you want Britain to be independent rather than Scotland, you're a "BritNat" in exactly the same way we're ScotNats. There's nothing wrong with that. People can call me a ScotNat all day and all night if they like, it's entirely accurate. Although I must admit that the attempt by various Lib Dems and Labourites to subdivide Unionism into Federalists, Unionists and Devolutionists (or FUDs for short) was a very generous gift, so thanks for that one 😀
And that's how it works, folks. Simple, combative but civilised, with direct answers to direct questions. If you're interested in taking part in a Straight Debate, get in touch via our contact form or through Twitter. What have you got to be scared of?