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.]
[Despite JM’s rather halting delivery, her words – read from notes – brought the first really warm applause of the evening.]
[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.]
[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.]
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.
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.
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.
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: email@example.com 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!