Duncan Hamilton: More honesty required on both sides of independence debate

THE kindest way to describe the campaign over Scotland’s constitutional future is to say that it has had a false start.

THE kindest way to describe the campaign over Scotland’s constitutional future is to say that it has had a false start.

Most voters are confused by the posturing and perplexed about the obsession with process over substance.

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Let’s be clear: both sides in this embryonic campaign are currently being less than candid. The argument which will eventually crystallise will bear no relation whatsoever to the stand-off we are currently witnessing.

The danger is that by the time we know what Yes and No really mean, many will have tuned out.

The No campaign is currently misleading the public on two vital points. First, it is continuing to sabre-rattle over the legality of the referendum. The threat of a challenge in the Supreme Court continues. But no-one who thinks about this seriously believes that will ever happen. Why? Because the UK government can – and everyone knows they can – sort this in about 20 seconds by drafting a Section 30 order passing the relevant power to the Scottish Government. The current draft Section 30 order has all manner of strings, traps and caveats, but it won’t be the last.

We all know that the power to resolve any lingering doubt in law rests with the UK government. If instead this ends in the Supreme Court, Scots will rightly blame the UK government for failing to avoid a messy and divisive dispute.

More fundamentally, the UK government doesn’t seriously want the question already described by the Tory leader in Scotland as “a fair and decisive legal question” to be blocked by the Supreme Court in London. Scottish democracy thwarted by a London court? As recruiting sergeants go, that is one the Yes campaign would welcome with open arms.

It is time to end this absurd dance. Ultimately this isn’t about law, it is about politics. And the politics dictate that a clean Section 30 order must and will be made.

Secondly, the No camp must revisit the frankly unsustainable position that hints to Scots that in return for voting down independence there may, at some unspecified time in the future be the devolution of some additional unspecified powers. Do they take us for fools?

David Cameron started this constitutional striptease on his recent visit, and Messrs Darling and Osborne have since variously floated the devolution of corporation tax and income tax. But the tease goes on – we have no firm proposals and no unity in the anti-independence camp on an agreed alternative prospectus. That line simply can’t hold for two years. It is therefore inevitable that something akin to devo-plus or devo-max will emerge as the unionist alternative. But we deserve clarity, and soon. A No campaign without a positive alternative looks foolish, threadbare and negative. Until the alternative vision is clear, this campaign won’t really ignite.

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Not that the Yes campaign is being entirely honest either. I know no-one in that campaign who would not also vote Yes for devo-max. The campaign is clearly for independence but, as gradualists, most independence supporters (like me) also see the merit in working with the majority opinion, which is currently overwhelmingly in favour of a second question on the maximum devolution short of independence.

We want Scotland to move forward united, and if that means accepting a slower pace towards independence, so be it.

It is hard, therefore, to understand the reluctance of the Yes camp to explicitly embrace that second question. Let’s not kid ourselves (or the people) that an alternative and more gradual path to independence with a brief stopover at devo-max would be a serious problem to Nationalists. In fact, that route is entirely consistent with the modern Nationalist narrative. Why should supporting devo-max be a problem for the SNP in 2014, when supporting a much weaker form of devolution wasn’t a problem in 1997?

Advocating that alternative route publicly isn’t heresy, nor does it reflect a diminished desire for independence. Rather, it confirms what every Scot already understands: independence is a process, not an event.

This campaign is going to be about trust and credibility. Starting now, both campaigns need to grasp that telling it straight and treating the population like adults is the most certain route to establishing that vital credibility.

Most vitally, we need substance. The white paper on independence will help the Yes campaign enormously. But most of all we need the big picture: an explanation of why change is both essential and urgent.

Once that prima facie case is made, the onus shifts to unionists to paint an alternative picture. If Alistair Darling is going to make good on his promise to be positive, he knows he must respond.

Both campaign launches were premature. Yes, this is a campaign in its infancy, but even so the level of debate on all sides has been desperately poor.

We need an intelligent, considered debate of the serious choices this referendum presents. So far, the great debate has been anything but.