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by Geoff Aberdein
15 March 2017
The Yes campaign will need to strike the right tone if it is to win an independence referendum

The Yes campaign will need to strike the right tone if it is to win an independence referendum

The SNP faithful will arrive at the spring conference in Aberdeen this week in customary large numbers and with a spring in their step.

And why not? It’s hard to believe that a little over 30 months since the 2014 independence referendum, all signs point to a sequel in the foreseeable future.

Delegates should be delighted.

Despite this and as they approach a landmark 10 years in office, things are pretty challenging for Scotland’s party of government.

Mixed education and health statistics in recent months preceded a difficult reaction to the handling of the business rates revaluation.

A government doesn’t become unpopular overnight and the strong political reaction to these issues, whilst legitimate, is also a reminder that the SNP continues to hold a very healthy poll lead over its rivals.

After all, the party should take comfort in the fact that you only get kicked if you’re worth kicking.

Nevertheless, mud sticks and Nicola Sturgeon knows only too well that her party’s dominance of Scottish politics over the last decade was built on a platform of a competent government.

So don’t just expect a simple tub-thumping independence drive from the stage at the Aberdeen Exhibition Centre.

Speaker after speaker will target their remarks to the audience beyond that of conference and seek to emphasise that the SNP is still a party of delivery.

But, of course, talk of a second referendum is on the lips of many across Scotland.

From someone that was on the inside during the 2014 campaign,  I know there are a number of improvements to be made to the argument for independence if a ‘Yes’ vote is to prevail next time.

It is also true to say ‘Yes’ did get many things right and Better Together got many things wrong – not least the promise that we would stay in the EU by staying in the UK. But on referendum day they, not the ‘Yes’ side, won the trust of a majority of the people.

I have little skin in the game these days but we know efforts are under way to augment the economic case and improve in other areas. But for the purposes of this article, I’d like to focus on one particular aspect relevant across the political divide. Tone.

The commentator Alex Massie recently had a typically well-written column in The Spectator characterising how he felt a potential second referendum debate might unfold. In it he said: “everyone agrees the next will be nastier than the first.”

Whilst there was much to agree with in his wider contribution, this is something I strongly disagree with.

Let’s be clear, there will always be a minority of ‘supporters’ from both sides of this debate who spout insidious drivel from behind the relative safety of their smart phones. Sadly, little can be done about that.

Whilst a second referendum will no doubt be highly charged and impassioned, there is a clear political rationale for a reasoned and mature debate.

The EU referendum result has thrown up a change in attitudes amongst some that mean previous ‘No’s’ have shifted to ‘Yes’ and vice versa. The last thing these swing voters want to hear is an aggressive ridiculing of the position they previously held.

Nor do they want their current ambivalence to be treated with anything other than respect by politicians of all persuasions.

But it won’t be done by having a rerun of the 2014 debate. We are in new times, and they – along with everyone else – need to hear a detailed case for a better future based on the reality of now.

The side that seeks to change the status quo will always be under greater scrutiny. In the SNP’s case, with control of government at Holyrood and numerical dominance among Scottish MPs at Westminster, this will overwhelmingly be the case.

So all SNP parliamentarians have a particular duty of care. They must lead from the front and realise that what they say and write on TV and Twitter is immediately endorsed by their followers and supporters.

To win this referendum – and to win it well – will require a narrative that transcends party politics, providing a reset from previous held allegiances.

Politicians in both camps would do well to consider this and the SNP conference at the weekend strikes me as a good test.

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