The Scottish Independence Referendum and ‘Positive Politics’

By Dr Alexandra Kelso, Senior Lecturer in Politics

We hear a lot about how the negative tone in which political debate is conducted has contributed to a declining willingness amongst people to get involved. Whether that’s true or not, the current political debate on the Scottish Independence Referendum due to take place in September 2014 claims to offer an antidote to those who are drained by relentless negativity.

Politicians are currently falling over themselves to prove that they are approaching the questions surrounding Scottish independence with a positive outlook. Both those for and against independence insist that the only way to win their case is to demonstrate the positive aspects of their claims, rather than focus on the flaws in their opponents’ arguments. This week’s evidence session held by the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee provides a nice insight into this.

As part of it’s long-term inquiry into the independence referendum, the Committee heard from the coalition government’s tag-team of Danny Alexander (Chief Secretary to the Treasury) and Alistair Carmichael (Secretary of State for Scotland), who were there to discuss a recent report on the case for independence published by the government’s somewhat sinisterly named Scotland Analysis Unit. ‘This programme is setting out the positive case for the continuation of the United Kingdom, despite what others may claim to the contrary,’ Mr Carmichael explained. While the UK government seeks to present a wealth of evidence that supports is defence of the UK, Mr Carmichael told the Committee that this stands in contrast to the practice of the Scottish Government, which he accuses of ‘saying one thing in public and another thing in private.’ The theme was continued by Danny Alexander, who explained that the new report from the Scotland Analysis Unit was significant ‘because the central argument it makes is an extremely positive one … Scotland is a highly successful small country because it is part of the United Kingdom.’

These snapshots of committee evidence are emblematic of the broader thrust of the referendum debate. The participants on both sides, but particularly on the unionist-side, have been extremely eager not ‘go negative’ for fear this will fuel their opponent’s cause. Naturally, these assurances from participants about remaining positive are part of a bigger rhetorical toolkit and, as we see in the extracts above, often come hand-in-hand with critiques of opposing claims.

Those in favour of preserving the UK are fearful of appearing to make the patronizing claim that Scotland ‘could not go it alone’. Those in favour of independence are reluctant to paint too much of an us-and-them portrait of the United Kingdom given the sizeable English population that resides in Scotland. This week’s grueling debacle over the appalling threat by the owners of the Grangemouth petrochemical plant to close the facility if workers don’t accept seriously compromised pay and conditions may yet shift the emphasis of debate away from the so-called positives of union and independence, into more meaningful terrain about how Scottish political actors actually deal with serious political and economic problems.

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