The Debate in Review #2: The Day After

Published: 23 October 2013

How will Scotland feel the day after the referendum next year? A Yes/No referendum inevitably has a polarising effect. And a Yes/No debate can become a bitter debate, and some think it already has.

Sir John Elvidge, the Scottish Government’s former chief civil servant wrote in the Herald a few weeks ago that

This is, at present, a polarised and divisive debate. I'm not sure what legacy we should be left with in Scottish society at the end of this process, particularly if it becomes more polarised and aggressive as we move towards the referendum. A Scotland in which everyone was defined by which side they were on a particular day ... is not, I think, anyone's definition of a healthy, modern society.

Elvidge was at one level advising politicians and campaigns not to use some of the nastier language that occasionally flies around and creates bitterness (‘viruses’ or ‘colonists’, for example). But he was also challenging politicians and campaigns to be ready to move on from that ‘particular day’ on 18 September 2014 to find a new, and shared purpose the day after.

At the SNP’s conference last week Andrew Wilson – the former MSP now known to many as Scotland on Sunday’s most thoughtful columnist – rose to that challenge in a section of his 2013 Donaldson Lecture entitled ‘how we handle the result’. Wilson’s proposal was to set up a ‘Council of State’ of former (Labour) First Ministers Henry McLeish and Jack McConnell and three former UK Secretaries of State for Scotland, one each from all the three main Westminster parties, to support the Scottish Government in negotiating the terms of independence after the Yes vote he expected.

Why? ‘Because when we win all of the current opponents of independence will cease to be opponents of independence and should be given a clear stake in shaping the outcome to embed its legitimacy’.

That point about reaching out to the other side echoed some of what Labour’s Douglas Alexander said in a lecture at the University of Edinburgh earlier this year. He envisaged a ‘National Convention’ being established after the No vote he expected, following in the footsteps of the Scottish Constitutional Convention that paved the way for the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. The new Convention would ‘chart a new vision for an old nation’ and ‘could turn a referendum lost by those who want to walk away [as he described supporters of independence] into an opportunity for us all to walk forward together, no matter where our cross went on the ballot paper’.

So Wilson and Alexander each expect to win, but then to reach out to the other side. That is half the battle – a bigger challenge is to contemplate the scenario of losing, and still to want to reach out across the referendum divide. Election outcomes need to have the consent of those who lose; the losers must find their own way to accept the magnanimity of the winners. Wilson hinted at this, saying that ‘in all circumstances that follow the vote next September the SNP must be positive, engaged and leading’, perhaps, in the event of a No vote, as part of Alexander’s Convention.

Interestingly Michael Moore, recently sacked as Secretary of State for Scotland, was occasionally heard to speak openly from his pro-union perspective about what Wilson hinted at from his pro-independence view: that if Moore lost, and Scotland voted Yes, he would be supporting the Scottish negotiations on establishing an independent state. He might then be the former LibDem Secretary of State in Wilson’s Council of State.

Perhaps that ability to think what other politicians deem unthinkable was why Moore was sacked. But such ability could be sorely needed on ‘the day after’ to bring winners and losers together to work in Scotland’s – not Yes voters’ or No voters’, but Scotland’s– common interest.