Need for more light than heat in debate
Nothing illustrated the febrile nature of Scottish politics more than the indignity of our two most powerful female Scottish politicians slugging it out on live television. Two women united in their socialism, their love for Glasgow and the desire to rid Scotland of poverty but so viciously separated by a constitutional question that it threatened to rip them apart as much as it could a nation.
Nicola Sturgeon is a formidable politician. She has no need to prove her debating prowess. She has dispensed with, in quick succession during these televised debates, the deputy leader of the Scottish Labour Party, the former Secretary of State for Scotland and then his Lib-Dem successor whose final withered demeanour in the final moments of the Scotnight debate meant the segue into the erectile dysfunction ad during the commercial break seemed curiously a propos.
Johann Lamont is also a woman of conviction, a politician who has, in the past, made the hair on the back of this commentator’s neck stand on end as she has spoken with passion and vigour about the scourge of inequality. She is undoubtedly a woman who cares about injustice, she’s a former teacher, understands the importance of education as a passport out of penury and is, to boot, debater of the year.
These are two women who should act as exemplars of progressive politics – as role models for young girls that nothing is outwith their grasp. But faced with each other across a studio floor, their individual strengths and political commonality were diminished by their joint input into a common stairheid rammy about independence that revealed little more than they can ‘do’ politics just like a man.
Serious points about Scotland’s appalling statistics on life expectancy, the removal of Trident, the importance of currency, and the reasons why shipbuilders on the Clyde face a future riddled with recurrent uncertainty withered as the debate about remaining part of the UK or not was lost in a war of words, finger-wagging and near expletives. This wasn’t point making, it was point-scoring. And now, given the serious threat that a global company like Standard Life could leave Scotland in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote unless it can be reassured by some facts, it was also a farce.
We know that politics turns people off but it turns women off even more. So why, when the polls tell them that it is the female vote they need to engage, do women in politics so often emulate men? It seems the big swinging dick approach is what matters, even when you don’t have one.
Always wanting to trump your opponent by being louder, bigger or ruder is a man’s game and one we should neither tolerate nor indulge in. And right now, there is too much at stake. The referendum debate is still focussed on delivering more heat than light and that’s not good enough. Johann is keen on saying that you need to win the political argument and she’s right. But you don’t do that by simply being “astonished” or indulging in some couthy phrase cooked up by an apparatchik with a school-boy humour. We’re not, as she might say, all buttoned up the back.
But maybe, after all, we Scots are the too wee, too poor and too stupid people that some assume we are? You would certainly think so when we were treated to the spectacle of the two Cabinets meeting in Aberdeen – separated by a couple of miles but clearly worlds apart.
Cameron and his colleagues enjoying the splendid isolation of an oil company’s luxurious HQ – how more machismo could you get – from where they told Scots that the UK, with its broad shoulders, was best placed to steward Scotland’s oil. They had already told us we couldn’t share the pound. Meanwhile, the Scottish Cabinet arrived on foot for a public meeting in a modest church hall in Portlethen. No one needed to say it, but it was writ large – ‘who do you think we are?’
The Daily Record splashed with the photograph of Cameron’s Cabinet sitting in Sir Ian Wood’s office in Aberdeen and sent them a message: “If you believe Scotland will be taken in by a token charm offensive from your Con-Dem Cabinet of elitists who hammer the poor while lining the pockets of their millionaire pals… then shuttle off homewards to think again.”
For Johann Lamont and Nicola Sturgeon, whose fundamental driving forces are not so dissimilar – one rare, candid moment during last week’s debate informed us that Nicola joined CND before she joined the SNP – to not find common ground in accepting that their battle should not necessarily be with each other but with the inherent flaws in a Westminster-based politics that has meant that 40 years of oil revenue hasn’t even touched the sides of Scotland’s inequalities – and that Cameron could come here and rub our faces in that fact – illustrates clearly how devolution has split the left and let the SNP thrive. Labour, therefore, telling Scots that they should stand in solidarity with the poor of the rest of the UK as an argument against independence while they stand in solidarity with George Osborne on the pound is so much less seductive than arguing for us all to share a collective vision of reaching to a higher plane, whether within the UK or not.
There is no doubt the ‘No’ side have some big sticks to beat the independence argument with. The Standard Life announcement proves a point. And while Salmond can complain about bluff and bluster as much as he likes, the currency threat, whether real or perceived, is creating grave uncertainty. Scots are crying out for salient argument, not a bare knuckle fight that simply has one politician shouting ‘aye’ and the other shouting ‘naw’.
Who do we think we are is a question at the heart of this debate. Who do we think we could be is the question we need to able to answer with some certainty on September 18th. That requires everyone rising to the occasion and using more tempered vocabulary, reasoned arguments and behaving more maturely than we’ve seen of late.