By Stuart Ritchie (@StuartJRitchie)
“Whatever happens on September 18”, goes the current saying, “this has been a great time for democracy”. The Scottish independence referendum has, we are told, galvanised thousands of previously apathetic voters, leading to a ‘renaissance’ of political discussion and engagement. The problem with this feel-good argument is not just that it is a cliché, regularly and boringly repeated in newspaper columns and on social media. The problem is that it is wrong.
It is certainly true that an unexpectedly high percentage of the Scottish electorate—97%, in fact—are registered to vote. In itself, this would indeed be encouraging. The referendum is the talk of every town, every office, and every pub; discussion is by no means restricted to journalists and other politics obsessives. But it is the quality of much of the discussion that is cause for concern. These newly-energized voters are not, as the ‘democratic renaissance’ crowd would like to believe, engaging in-depth with the economic, political, and philosophical questions that surround such a momentous decision. Unfortunately, the ‘Yes’ side of the argument is afflicted by three ailments, none of which lend themselves to the improvement of democratic debate. They are glibness, self-pity, and conspiracy-theory thinking, and I shall discuss them in turn.
First, glibness. An all-purpose political tactic has been seized upon by the Yes campaign. It is the following: any objection to your beliefs, however earnest, well-researched, or authoritative, can be dismissed as ‘scaremongering’ (see also: ‘bullying’, ‘bluffing’, and ‘blustering’). This indolent refrain is regularly deployed as a way to close down debate and ‘monster’ one’s opponent: after all, if the First Minister of Scotland can use this approach repeatedly in debates and interviews, why shouldn’t the average Yes activist? It hardly needs be said that this is not conducive to well-informed discussion. If newly-engaged voters have been taught by Yes activists that this is how political arguments should be conducted—assume the worst intentions of your opponents and on that basis dismiss their arguments—they have been sold a pup.
Second, self-pity. Many pro-independence campaigners believe themselves the victims of a biased, pro-establishment media. Undoubtedly the media has made missteps during the campaign (missteps which have favoured both sides and are completely to be expected). However, the main target of the Yes activists’ ire has been, perhaps surprisingly, the BBC. Yes campaigners have repeatedly held protest rallies against perceived ‘BBC bias’ outside the headquarters of BBC Scotland in Glasgow, complaining petulantly that the rallies are not immediately made front-page news afterwards. They point to an analysis by a Media Politics academic at the University of the West of Scotland who purports to show that the BBC “has not been fair or balanced”. Many of the assumptions of this report are questionable at best, and most importantly, the analysis did not appear in a peer-reviewed academic journal, instead being published as a column on a politics website.
Even if it were shown convincingly that the BBC (or any other media outlet) asked more questions of the Yes campaign than it did of the No, it would not necessarily be evidence of bias. The burden of proof is on those arguing to make such a major change to the status quo, and they should thus be able to defend it against robust questioning. However, for many pro-independence supporters, journalists are not simply questioning them in order to shed light on the many questions that arise about possible independence. Instead, they are part of an organised ‘anti-Scottish’ cabal. Impugning the motives of journalists is an ugly business, and is a conspicuous feature of demagogic, anti-democratic countries from Russia to Venezuela. The current situation in Scotland is, of course, far from that in those countries, but the fact that the comparison is even possible, and that the Yes campaign is encouraging new voters to be not just sceptical, but utterly cynical about the media, should worry those who care about the vital role journalism plays in democratic debate.
If the media has been organised to do Scotland down, does this mean that there exists a larger conspiracy? For many Yes activists, the answer is, well, ‘yes’. This is the third weakness of the Yes campaign: conspiracy theory thinking. Of course, the main three UK political parties are unionist, so we can expect them to support the No camp. But many think they are going further. Take, for instance, the story that has feverishly been passed around social media, that the ‘world’s largest oil field’ has been discovered off the Shetland Islands and hushed up by David Cameron (who secretly visited it during his recent trip to Scotland). A recent YouGov poll showed that, unbelievably, 42% of Scottish voters believe this theory is correct. The poll also showed that 26% think that MI5 is involved in trying to stop an independence vote (a theory not ruled out by the First Minister), and no less than 19% think that the referendum itself ‘will probably be rigged’ (a message spread around Yes Facebook groups that voters must bring a pen to the voting booth, lest the shadowy powers-that-be rub out their pencilled cross with an eraser).
That YouGov poll—and it is just one poll, though one carried out by an authoritative and respected polling company—paints a grim picture of the outcome of the referendum campaign, suggesting that baseless, tinfoil-hat conspiracy theories are rife among the Scottish electorate. These theories are not the foundation either of a new progressive state (after a Yes vote) or a process of healing within the UK (after a No vote). Incidentally, such beliefs are also regularly found in conjunction with the kind of default anti-West mindset that will be familiar to readers of the Gerasite blog.
I should stress that I am not arguing all Yes campaigners engage in these closed-minded tactics and mindsets. Far from it. But those who are arguing that the referendum has revitalised Scottish democracy would do well to consider the glibness, self-pity, and conspiracy theories of the Yes campaign, and reflect on whether these are indicative of a positive, valuable debate.
Outside the poky little world of Scottish nationalists, clouds are gathering. It is difficult to argue that the optimal response to an ascendant China, a revanchist Russia, and an eruption of vicious terrorism in the Levant is the breaking of the back of one of the world’s most powerful, liberal democracies. Foreign policy has largely been off the table in discussion of Scottish independence, with both sides content to discuss mainly domestic issues. This is perhaps a good thing; there is no conspiracy theory, after all, like a foreign-policy conspiracy theory. But, as with many of the other big issues in the campaign, we have had precisely no answers to how an independent Scotland would deal with these critical geopolitical issues. Given the First Minister’s previous statements, and given the tendencies of the Yes campaign described above, we can only hope we won’t have to find out.