Re-thinking the Union (Part 3), EIBF 2012, Review

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Joyce Macmillan, Professor Stephen Tierney, Andrew Wilson, Ben Thompson (Chair)
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Billed as considering ‘The Emotional Arguments', the final debate of three sponsored by The Guardian newspaper at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, under the heading ‘Re-Thinking the Union’ proved to be the most thought-provoking.

The line-up of speakers promised well: arts critic and commentator Joyce Macmillan, Professor Stephen Tierney of the University of Edinburgh, and Andrew Wilson of the Scottish National Party. Chairing a lively event was Ben Thompson, Chair of Reform Scotland.

Opening remarks clarified the meaning of the well-worn phrase ‘paradigm shift’. Quoting Hans Kuhn’s observation that paradigm shifts relate to technological change, Thompson pointed to the public use of the internet and smart phones as reducing governmental control of media. This brings into question who decides on the direction and shape of political decisions, which led on to Stephen Tierney talking about the ways in which referenda are used in other countries and situations.

Wilson asserted that Scotland progresses when politicians agree with democratic opinion, and that if there were to be a referendum on independence for Scotland, clarity was needed. Scottish opinion has consistently sought commonality. The debate, Wilson added, should be about principals, not details. Unionist arguments had focused on detail rather than arguing the political case, and on both sides, there had been considerable passion from ‘the trenches’, but little that had been politically constructive.

The question related to the size and role of government, Wilson said, pointing out that he believed the Scotland Act had codified the status of the Scottish Government but had limited its power to act. At present, the economic gap between the richest and poorest in Britain was only less than that in Romania and Turkey. Wilson believed an independent Scotland could only improve on these figures.

Joyce Macmillan pointed out that the debate on Scottish independence did not appear to be as wide-ranging and inclusive as that on devolution. Intellect and emotion were not mutually exclusive, as emotion draws on the rational side of the brain. However, she counselled against undue focus on our emotional responses, instancing the visceral tendency to stereotype she had witnessed in her childhood, which could turn relations between parts of the United Kingdom toxic. She pointed out that the present debate descends into detail in part because of the similarities of tradition brought about through 300 years of shared experience.

She believed that whatever the future held, Scotland should continue to be a forward rather than a backward looking nation. Recalling the 1980’s, and presumably the in-fighting that characterised politics in Scotland at the time, she urged us to beware nostalgia.

Professor Tierney pointed out that the 1707 Union had never been properly interrogated and that as a result rational debate was hard to come by. There was a need to understand the Union as embodying different constitutional projects, whose histories since 1707 had been different. An independent Scotland would emerge from its previous Brutishness, but Scottish perceptions of Brutishness were in any case necessarily different from those of England – interestingly, neither speakers nor audience participants mentioned the other constituent parts of the United Kingdom in this, or any other, of the debates.

There were a variety of unionisms but they did not sustain homogeneity. By necessity, the present Union recognises difference, and this provides an environment for continuing debate. Professor Tierney ended by pointing out that the United Kingdom is a product of multi-national enterprise, although he did not address the question of equality within that enterprise.

A number of interesting points were raised in the ensuing public debate. The first of these implied that if the current level of UK funding to Scotland is £36m, independence would be an economic non-starter. Although she did not mention that Scotland is a net contributor to the UK tax take, Joyce Macmillan responded stoutly and it was pointed out that a tendency to exaggerate the potential post-independence debts was very much part of unionist defence.

Professor Tierney pointed out that the situation of the European Union at the time of any referendum would be significant. Wilson astutely reversed a quotation from the Italian (or ought that to be Sicilian?) novelist, Giuseppe di Lampedusa, that ‘in order for everything to stay the same, things have to change’, to suggest what he hoped would happen.

Joyce Macmillan warned against the ‘narcissism of small tribes’, particularly with reference to political parties in Scotland. It was only at this point that the question of the impact of a vote for Scottish independence on the rest of the UK was raised, along with the possibility of a UK wide vote on the question. It was Macmillan who effectively ended contributions from the panel, saying that if ‘you want Scotland, you will have to make Scotland’, and reminding us that the cultural shift in Scotland since the 1960’s was largely what had created the debate on independence.

A final contribution from a member of the audience made an effective plea that we think of ourselves as ‘the people of Scotland’, irrespective of our origins or original ethnicity.

Event: 27 Aug 2012, 7:00pm