Scott Macnab: EU referendum campaigning is missing a trick

IN THE independence referendum all the issues got an airing '“ this time around voters say they don't have enough information, writes Scott Macnab
John Swinney managed to inject some much needed light relief into the independence referendum campaign. Picture: Getty ImagesJohn Swinney managed to inject some much needed light relief into the independence referendum campaign. Picture: Getty Images
John Swinney managed to inject some much needed light relief into the independence referendum campaign. Picture: Getty Images

Almost three years ago John Swinney provoked much hilarity among journalists covering the Scottish referendum campaign as he unveiled plans for a bonfire of UK quangos in an independent Scotland. As he set out proposals to improve consumer protection after a Yes vote, an exhaustive list of UK ombudsmen was published which would be merged to create a single Scottish champion for shoppers. Among the obscure bodies singled out were the Furniture Ombudsman, the Double Glazing and Conservatory Ombudsman and the Carpet Foundation. “So this is what the 300-year wait for freedom from London’s shackles has been all about” joked the mischievous hacks. An end to the tyranny of the National Caravan Council, another of the UK bodies which the SNP had earmarked for the axe.

It was a moment of levity in a long campaign. But perhaps it helps set out the extent to which the Scottish referendum campaign often drilled down into the hard detail of proposed new organs of state which would be needed to set up an independent country from scratch. Scots had three of years of this and by the end, many were heartily sick of it.

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But compared with the eight-week sprint which has marked the current UK-wide referendum on leaving the EU, such a similarly crucial decision for future generations, it does seem that British voters are being denied the same kind of public scrutiny of the issues. This referendum was called by David Cameron in an effort to draw a line under internal Tory party divisions on Europe. It remains to be seen how the civil war which has erupted with the “blue on blue” attacks of recent weeks will be put to bed after the vote on 23 June. The wider concerns for voters is that a barrage of claim and counter claim on the two keynote issues of the economy and immigration has dominated the debate so far.

Perhaps the Prime Minister hoped a short, sharp campaign marked by the Project Fear approach which helped claim victory in the Scottish campaign, would see the Remain campaign edge over the line. But claims about the threat of a “bomb going off under the economy” after Brexit and former prime minister John Major’s incendiary attack on Boris Johnson and the Leave campaign at the weekend saw the warfare intensify. You have to pity voters who increasingly complain that they don’t have enough information to make their minds up. Disputed claims about the UK’s weekly contribution to EU coffers and whether it is £350 million or £150m, put me in mind of something a senior Scottish political figure told me many years ago which still rings true. “Anything over £1m is just a big number to most folk,” he said.

The Scottish independence campaign certainly had its ugly side. The level of political debate was often little more than embarrassing. The current First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, now up there with Angela Merkel and Hilary Clinton on Forbes’ most powerful women list, took part in a number of particularly unedifying TV head to head debates with a succession of pro-Union politicians, including ex-Labour leader Johann Lamont and Anas Sarwar, the current MSP. These amounted to little more than “stair heid rammys” as our political leaders barked over each other, interrupted continually and left the poor voter feeling confused and, frankly, exhausted. The exaggerated claim and counter claim from either side was also a dominant feature of the independence campaign.

The Project Fear histrionics of the No campaign have been well-documented with the economic apocalypse, military vulnerabilities and EU isolation all drummed out by supporters of the Union. On the other side, perhaps the most ridiculous scare story of the lot was the Yes camp’s claim that the NHS would be privatised after a No vote. This was despite the fact that the health service is entirely devolved to Holyrood. Two years on, independence campaigners have gone strangely quiet on the prospect of a commercial takeover of the NHS Scotland.

The unsavoury side of things reached a real low when the Ukip leader Nigel Farage found himself effectively run out of Edinburgh under police escort after a baying mob of Nationalists swooped outside a pub where he was briefing journalists. But in the round the Scottish campaign did produce a more substantial public debate about the hard issues. The fact that it lasted three years meant that, between the rows, there was plenty of examination of key areas. So the SNP was forced to draw up extensive plans for a stand alone Scottish military, minus the Trident nuclear defence system, plans for the public finances, a pensions system and the banking and economic institutions which would be created. Its infamous White paper and a succession of other Scottish Government reports, like the Consumer Protection document, set out how things would be managed. In short, Scots got a blueprint for the creation of a stand alone Scottish state. Opponents certainly disagreed with many aspects and the currency issue was one area where the SNP was widely seen to have fallen short. Added to this a cottage industry grew up in think-tanks producing their own “independent” reports on the issues, albeit many were blatant fronts for one side or the other.

But no-one can say Scots didn’t give all the issues a good run around the course. In the current EU referendum voters say they don’t have enough information. In the Scottish referendum, they complained of being swamped with too much. Perhaps more fundamentally, Scots at least did get an impression of the kind of role the new independent Scotland would fill in the world, a left-of-centre Scandinavian style social democracy with a focus on excellent public services and, perhaps, higher taxes. This is a challenging concept to get across two years on in such a brief campaign. But if the Leave side fails to hold its current polling advantage and loses on 23 June, perhaps the absence of any real sense of the UK’s place in the world outside Europe will prove a fatal shortcoming.