Re-thinking the Union – A Summary of the Three Debates, EIBF 2012

The first debate on ‘Would Culture Lose its Shine in an Independent Scotland?’ promised well, even if the question seemed oddly phrased. It seemed to suffer from its panel – novelist Alan Bissett, Professor Linda Colley and David Lammey, MP. These last two appeared to have been drafted in late in the day in substitution for other speakers who had had to cancel, and their inability to speak adequately to the question left Bissett to produce a stout defence of his own views on Scottish culture and politics without much opposition.

This was unfortunate, especially as contributions from the audience did not produce any questions or observations on the role of Creative Scotland, nor on the possibility of Scottish Studies becoming part of the national school curriculum. Both of these issues might have generated debate, instead of which we had much re-statement of political positions, but little consideration of culture.

This was a particular pity, since as Joyce Macmillan pointed out in the final debate, we are where we are politically largely because others have focused and promoted attention on the political aspects of Scottish culture for many years. Indeed, as an aside, it could well be argued that unionism, by taking and indeed promoting an inferiorist view of Scottish culture, has been unable to engage effectively in the political debate precisely because of the position it has adopted.

The second debate – ‘Would an Independent Scotland Lose its International Influence?‘, seemed an equally strangely phrased proposition, but did produce a more focused response, both from panellists and the floor than its predecessor.

Tony Benn and Alyn Smith, MEP, duly presented the cases against and for the Union, but possibly the most interesting contributions came from Dr Nicola McEwan of the politics department of the University of Edinburgh, who reminded us of the ways in which a vote for independence might create unprecedented possibilities – while it would be inconceivable that an independent Scotland would be disbarred from membership of the European Union or of NATO, the manner in which it might join remains as yet unknown.

Smith proved an able advocate of Scottish independence, arguing that Westminster politics had become dysfunctional and incapable of adapting to a rapidly changing world. This led almost unavoidably to Scotland being better able to serve the needs and interests of its population if it fully controlled its own affairs. Tony Benn offered perhaps the most sentimental argument of all debators, saying he would feel that if Scotland were to vote for independence, it would be a ‘divorce’ that would render him bereft.

The quality of contributions from the floor in this debate were considerably better, although some lengthy statements of clearly deeply held personal belief cut into available time for more purposive questions.

The third and final Re-Thinking the Union, although billed as considering ‘The Emotional Issues’, gave less time and space to these than the previous two debates had done. The panel for this debate was possibly the most potent thus far; Joyce Macmillan, being the only speaker with direct experience of the Scottish Constitutional Convention and the devolution debates, brought that and her other considerable abilities to bear on the debate, Professor Stephen Tierney his extensive knowledge of constitutional law and particularly referenda, while Andrew Wilson ably put forward the pro-independence case.

It would be almost impossible to neatly summarise the points all three speakers made, but the debate itself did point up some encouraging areas of agreement as well as deeply held positions among all three, which quite possibly mirror those of the public at large.

Wilson proved himself another able advocate of independence, arguing a pragmatic case that at times seemed remarkably close to the ‘Devo Max’ that a substantial proportion of the Scottish voting public appear to favour.

Joyce Macmillan is never less than articulate and a time-served expert at unpicking the arguments of others and displaying their flaws. Her anxieties about the tribal nature of the debate thus far seemed to find an echo in the audience, while Stephen Tierney’s analysis of the possible nature of any referendum helped contextualise what ought to be being talked about, rather than the predictable political posturing that has characterised the public debate on the issue thus far.

Did these debates help advance public understanding of the issues? Probably not, even among the interested that attended. However, as discussion of any referendum is likely to take up political time and attention in Scotland for some time to come, it was good to see some of the brightest minds likely to be involved in this in future already beginning to hone their arguments.

Bill Dunlop

This review was published with the kind permission of