There was a mixture of laughter, passion, precise debating and occasionally a small measure of something like sorrow or wistfulness in Monday's Independence Referendum debate at the Calton Centre on Montgomery Street. Around 140 members of the public attended.
Organised by Leith Central Community Council, two Better Together and two pro-Independence speakers spoke for about 5 minutes before taking questions from the floor. Each speaker concluded with a short conclusion. There was no formal vote at the end. The meeting was impartially chaired by local resident and business consultant Jock Encombe.
What follows is meant as an even-handed, hugely reduced and impressionistic account of who said what. Spurtle has no position on the Independence question.
Better Together’s Labour MSP Malcolm Chisholm (MC) kicked off with an introduction of admirable clarity and concision. The concision, he later admitted, owed more to a misunderstanding of the ground rules than to a selfless desire to be brief. The audience was grateful nonetheless. MC said the Union allows us the 'best of both worlds' – the ability to share risks and pool resources. He predicted a Labour majority at Westminster in 2015, and a continuing process of Devolution with enhanced powers for Scotland. To ask difficult, serious-minded questions of what would follow Independence – particularly when so many macro-economic experts doubted its benefits – was not negative but entirely sensible. There were valid concerns about post-Independence interest rates, pensions, and international influence.
[There followed polite applause, but MC’s confidence in a Labour majority also prompted the first heckle of the evening. ‘What is the basis for you saying that? How can you be so sure?’ MC did not appear to hear these questions.]
The Yes Campaign’s Edinburgh business-woman Jil Murphy (JM) began by saying she had never joined a political party. In throwing herself into the debate, she was partly motivated by a desire to address Scotland’s lack of national self-confidence, citing its above-average tax generation, prudent spend:earn ratio, and natural resources as some of many reasons to be cheerful in ‘one of the world’s 14 wealthiest nations'. She sees Independence as a way to boost employment, improve infrastructure, encourage entrepreneurship – ambition, vision, aspiration. She considers it a (not short-term) way to fix inequality, poverty, low productivity and life expectancy. Not a question of whether Scotland can afford to be independent, but how it focuses resources better. Westminster will always prioritise an English majority over Scottish interests. ‘Independence is normal.’
[Despite JM’s rather halting delivery, her words – read from notes – brought the first really warm applause of the evening.]
A pro-Union Conservative councillor in the Edinburgh City Centre ward, Joanna Mowat (JoM) said that in the Independence debate it was difficult to interpret the blizzard of statistics, assertions and counter-assertions. She recommended asking Yes campaigners: ‘Can you really deliver what you claim?’ and ‘Are the great prizes promised really worth the great risks?’ JoM had grave misgivings ... ‘I smell a rat.’ The Union comprises over 200 separate bodies, all of which would have to be renegotiated in the event of Independence ... huge waste of time and a distraction. Polls show 16–24-year olds are against Independence: ‘Is this [an outdated] 20th-century debate on the cusp of the 21st century?’ The UK’s constitutional arrangements have always been a flexible relationship which should be allowed to continue evolving. Among other frightening statistics: Independence would carry an initial set-up cost of £200m, rising to £26b in the years to come.
[JoM’s softly spoken, regretful tone, with neat and short examples, evoked a soft, regretful, short ripple of applause. There was sceptical laughter at her claim that ‘times have changed’ and Scotland can count on better arrangements after a No vote.]
Yes-voting children’s author Lari Don (LD) conceded that audience members might not trust the political opinions of a woman who made stuff up about dragons for a living. But there was nothing fluffy or fairytale about her message, she insisted: the best people to run Scotland are the people who live here. Independence referendum is not about political parties but about how we govern. Scotland has ample resources to survive. Independence offers way to break the status quo, to reduce the rich/poor gap, and preserve universal public services and benefits. Vote for choice and imagination. Her fictional child characters always identify and sort out their own problems. They don’t wait for a handsome prince or a fairy godmother or a 300-year-old Union to sort things out for them.
[LD's self-deprecating humour went down well, and loud applause followed. But by this stage it already seemed clear that there was either a pro-Independence majority in the room, or that the majority of noisy participants in the hall were pro-Independence. LD early identified, by a show of hands, that at least 20 people present were undecided on how to vote.]
Over the next hour and twenty minutes, the following questions were asked. Attached to each are the most well-made or otherwise memorable responses. Not included below are the various rambling assertions from the floor which might, several muttered afterwards, have been more strictly curtailed by the Chair. In the Chair's defence, this observer is not at all sure the ramblers were in any mood to be curtailed by anyone.
1. All our laws already comply with EU standards. Who in Europe would make it difficult for an independent Scotland to join?
JoM: Spain, because of its opposition to Catalonian independence.
MC: Scotland will surely gain entry, but according to what timetable and what conditions?
JM: No-one. There would be chaos. Don’t believe propaganda.
2. [Addressed to MC in particular.] Johann Lamont [Scottish Labour leader] said in February that Scots 'are not genetically programmed to make political decisions’. How can I put my faith in the opinions of a person like that?
MC: Joanne Lamont’s comment has been widely misunderstood. [Laughter in the hall.] Of course Scots can make political decisions.
3. Can you explain to me, as an Australian, what the benefits are of retaining cumbersome systems (e.g. tax and passports) as part of the old Union rather than reforming them as part of a new country?
JoM: Touché! Not all processes are as we would want them. But desire to revise them is not a sufficiently strong reason for throwing away the Union. [Muted applause.]
4. What does each speaker think are the downsides of their own position?
JM: That’s a difficult question. Perhaps the discarding of so much shared history. That’s a difficult question. I think I’d like to go away and think about it some more.
JoM: Indyref debate here has catalysed political debate elsewhere in the UK – may be partly responsible for recent protest vote in favour of UKIP. Biggest downside would be if England didn’t wake up and respond with continued change, perhaps by granting more powers to English regions. [Loudest applause for JoM so far.]
LD: That everyone expects to get everything they want from Independence straight away.
5. Would an independent Scotland have sent troops into Iraq?
JoM: Scotland would not have had a significant defence force to send. [Greeted by sharp intakes of breath from some, laughter from others.]
6. [Directed particularly to MC.] What would be your second choice: a Conservative/UKIP Coalition at Westminster or Scottish Independence?
MC: I don’t want to get into a party-political dogfight, but I applaud the cleverness of the impossible question. However, I am confident that the situation you suggest will not happen. Labour will be the biggest party after the next General Election. [More heckles: ‘How can you be so sure?’ Laughter, including from MC.]
LD: The question is irrelevant. Independence is about how we run Scotland, not relying on what England or Westminster think. That’s a rotten question to throw at Malcolm Chisholm.
7. I am a Yes voter. Small northern European countries like Finland have worked through austerity to establish themselves. That doesn’t frighten me. At least it would be our austerity. Why shouldn’t we see Nordic countries as successful models?
MC: There’s no particular merit in those countries being small. Big countries can be successful, too. I respect your realism about likely austerity. I suspect most people in this room have already made up their minds, but I want to address the concerns of those Undecideds who worry about how their personal lives and public services will be affected. I also want to maintain solidarity with people in the rest of the UK. Without a strong economy, I don’t think we can make the big changes we want to bring about. [Moderate wave of applause.]
LD: You can use statistics to prove anything, but a lot of this question comes down to self-belief. The Economist – of all places – recently found the best places in the world to be born were small countries, e.g. Denmark and New Zealand. A good country is not all about money – it may also be about where is the best place to be a child.
8. In the event of a No vote, which Parliamentary party at Westminster would be best at getting rid of Trident?
LD: No party in Westminster will get rid of Trident.
MC: I first voted against Trident in 1979, but getting rid of it would be a bad reason for voting Yes as its presence here would be the greatest bargaining chip of an Independent Scotland. NATO would not accept a nuclear-free Scotland as a member. And there would be no point in simply moving Trident to England.
9. I am Dutch. At present I can vote in Dutch and Scottish elections, but not in Westminster ones. In an Independent Scotland, would I still be able to vote in Dutch elections?
[A look of queasy discomfort passed across the faces of all speakers simultaneously. No-one was confident about the answer. Eventually, with assistance from (perfectly) a Greek in the audience, agreement emerged that the Dutch questioner would have to choose between elections but could not participate in both at the same time.]
Speakers’ brief conclusions followed:
JM: I want to replace trickle-down politics with trickle-up politics. Get rid of Trident. Create opportunity for young people in a vibrant, inspirational future. There is no logical reason for Scotland to vote against Independence and its own best interests. [Loud applause.]
JoM: Our future is already in our own hands, thanks to Devolution, and can be more so. Those voting Yes because they think Scotland is naturally Left-of-Centre may be in for a surprise. This is not necessarily so. Successful, small, northern European countries in the past have built themselves using their own fiscal powers – not shared currency or the Euro. 'It’s a small step from exciting to complete havoc. Sorry to end on a negative note.’ [Persistent heckler beside this observer spluttered ‘Typical!’, fell silent and began violently grinding his teeth.]
LD: It’s not just about currency. It's also about Benefits and Tax, and local tax alternatives to get people out of poverty and into jobs. It’s about democracy and how we run the country. I am moved by the fact that the Independence Referendum is getting many people to vote for the first time. [Loud applause.]
MC: I detect a Yes majority in the room. My focus is on the Undecideds. I mean to remind them of the practicality of sharing risks and pooling resources. [Examples of NHS spending, interest rates, transaction costs of exporting to England were shouted down by some members of the audience. But some previous hecklers demanded that MC be heard.] I am glad at least to have provoked a reaction. [Unexpected, warm applause.]
The meeting concluded with thanks from the Chair to the panel members, audience and organisers, and a plea from Leith Central Community Council for more members of the public to attend its monthly meetings at McDonald Road Library.
How they fared ...
This observer – perhaps lazily – expected the audience here to be well-disposed towards the No campaign because of widespread and long-standing loyalties to the Scottish Labour Party in Leith.
Instead, the room seemed predisposed towards the Yes campaign from the start, with several disappointed or disaffected former Labour supporters making themselves known through questions, and other pro-Independence supporters heckling studiedly from various points in the body of the kirk.
Whether this is an accurate reflection of current sentiment in Leith, or the result of some careful 'stage management' by activists, is hard to judge. It made for a lively evening, though, and was never too ill-natured or disruptive in practice.
Malcolm Chisholm and Joanna Mowat were by a country mile the more practised and sophisticated political debaters. They used more, and more detailed, arguments than their opponents. They cited more, and more detailed, examples with greater fluency throughout. Paradoxically, they did so whilst acknowledging the public’s difficulty in understanding or believing such arguments. At times, they sounded almost apologetic for being better versed and necessarily negative in a No campaign.
Joanna Mowat was not as amusingly acerbic and impatient as she has been on Council hustings in the past. Her presentation was noticeably low-key, measured, unconfrontational. Malcolm Chisholm, on the basis of this evening and another recent public outing at which Spurtle saw him, seems genuinely concerned that robust Indyref debate could turn into something more damaging and socially divisive after the Referendum. He was a model of calm forbearance all evening, particularly given that a disproportionate number of questions were directed particularly at him, some none too kindly.
Jil Murphy and Lara Don did not participate in or encourage these more fiery and personal elements of the debate. However, much of their persuasiveness – and I think it swung or at least maintained the mood of the room – relied on strong emotions, articulately expressed with lashings of optimism and few admissions of nuanced self-doubt.
They frankly acknowledged the comparative lack of 'numbers' in their arguments – at times, their aspirations seemed to rest on little more than the supposed transformative power of positive thinking. But in many ways, such apparent shortcomings were unimportant. Murphy and Don embody an alternative discourse. Neither is clearly party-political. Each makes a virtue of her inexperience on the political stage, of how they represent the politically inexperienced but clear-minded. When one member of the audience criticised Murphy for her reliance on notes, she defended herself as a woman who – 'like most women' – was not used to this sort of thing. She read, she said, because she was anxious not to miss anything out.
This disarmingly candid response earned – among an audience whose questions had come mostly from women – warm and affectionate applause. It was a pivotal moment, an unintended but effective way of circumventing the more polished debating skills of Chisholm and Mowat. Murphy's answer seemed to encapsulate a wider diffident dissatisfaction with and distance from current political norms.
Such unconventional pro-Independence appeals to hope over fear, emotion over argument, are a real problem for No campaigners seeking to influence the remaining Undecideds by grappling with what they claim are inconvenient truths. Many – perhaps most – voters do not understand the niceties of macro-economics, cannot judge between the contradictory mysteries of distant experts, and end up deciding instead on the basis of a perceived political culture, a kind of would-be national mood music. On this occasion, optimism based on emotions people could understand seemed to win out over pessimism based on complicated details they could not.
What struck this observer about the evening was how little traction was gained by pro-Union arguments for trusting Westminster parties to deliver to Scotland substantive change and improvements in a post-No-vote future. Optimism apparently has its limits.
At present, the Independence debate boils down to this: Will pessimism about potential change outweigh pessimism about the status quo?
Just now, no-one knows how Scots in the hushed sanctums of our grotty voting cubicles – free from politicians, hecklers, and the pressure of peers – will finally decide. There remains everything to play for. AM
Did you attend Monday’s meeting? What were your impressions? Do you disagree with our account? Have we misrepresented or missed anything? Let us know by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter: @theSpurtle or Facebook: Broughton Spurtle
“@theSpurtle: Leith indyref debate report: http://www.broughtonspurtle.org.uk/news/leith-indyref-debate-%E2%80%93-unpredictable-art-persuasion … ” < was an interesting event!
"Optimism based on emotions people could understand seemed to win out over pessimism based on […] details they could not." MT @theSpurtle
@theSpurtle Tories vs Teeth-grinders?
Kevin Adamson This is another cracking write-up from the Spurtle, well done. I particularly like the detail on the spluttering and grinding of teeth!