Without arguments independence could fail

by | 7 Sep 2022

The cause of independence is coasting along on slogans while unionists sharpen their arguments. This is a very big risk the independence movement cannot afford to take.

Right now, in play, in public discourse, there are two arguments for the union and none for independence. We need to worry about this.

First, let me explain what I mean by argument in this context, a word I’m using as it is used in logic. In logic an argument is a set of premises which are presented with the inference drawn from one leading to the next via deductive reasoning and thereby reaching a conclusion which is valid based on the premises being true and the inferences being reasonable.

Which is a clever-clever way of saying that you set out a series of accurate statements about the way things are which lead onto each other because that’s where they go naturally, and that they reach a final point which is also reached naturally. A therefore B therefore C therefor D, so long as A, B, C and D are true and each leads coherently to the next one. That’s an argument.

And I accept that the arguments from the unionist side are valid. They’re bad arguments because they’re are selective, but they are within touching distance of true and the inferences are broadly reasonable. So you can follow one from its start to its finish and make sense of it.

The two arguments are more or less ‘too wee, too poor’ and ‘stronger together but still powerful on your own’. Let me show an example of each.

The first one is distilled in an atypically idiotic column by Mark Smith, a writer I disagree with but who is often still worth reading. His vision of Scotland’s future in the UK is like the relationship between a crumbling castle and a Cotswold village preservation society. Based on projections that Scotland’s only future is decline and decay, he proposes that the UK can just keep softening the blow of this decline in perpetuity, an idea he finds attractive.

Premise one is that Scotland’s population is definitely going to decline (‘true’ based on the report he references), that this will result in increasing economy decline resulting from an ageing population (a reasonable inference), that the UK isn’t going to see population decline (‘true’ based on projections), so can subsidise Scotland (a fair inference) thus sticking together is a good idea (a valid conclusion).

It’s clearly mad though – ‘you’re shit but we’ll tolerate your failure’ is a terrible pitch for the UK and ‘slower decline through union’ is a genuinely dreadful slogan. It is quite easy to point out that there are plenty of alternatives to accepting population decline and it is also easy to point out that this population decline is happening under Westminster’s auspices. But the argument is valid.

A less crazy argument is soon to be with us. The independence movement isn’t taking Gordon Brown’s latest attempt to recast the union for the future seriously. It may well turn out that scepticism is fair enough, that the grand plan is just more smoke and mirrors described with a new and pepped-up word salad. But it is possible we may underestimate what he produces.

How many people does it take to see some kind of DevoMax or pseudo-federal option as a potential compromise (even if temporary) to drop support for independence just enough to kill independence for a couple of decades?

His argument is simple. His premise is that we share more than divides us (true), that it’s therefore better for both to maintain very close working (a fair inference), that there is clear and legitimate desire in Scotland for more power (true) but that it is perfectly possibly to square these two premises off with an offer of seriously enhanced powers (a fairly inferred conclusion).

I worry about this. Right now with zero breakthrough in the constitutional deadlock, how many people does it take to see some kind of DevoMax or pseudo-federal option as a potential compromise (even if temporary) to drop support for independence just enough to kill independence for a couple of decades? Let’s call that the Quebec Risk.

But that’s their side and I recognise they have two valid arguments. What about ours? What is our case? There’s actually a number of these now but I would contest that the two or three that are dominant are not valid arguments. Let me explain why.

They are basically the same case in two forms. The first is that there are small countries like Scotland that do better than us (true) so we should be independent to be successful. But that isn’t a valid inference; you can’t just say that one of your peers has three attributes (small, independent, successful) and you only have one of them (small) so if you get the second (independent) you get the third (successful).

To show how invalid that argument is just use the same argument structure with different premises. So ‘my child is seven years old, has nylon socks and is short while my friend’s child is seven, has cotton socks and is tall’ (all ‘true’ premises) ‘so if my child had cotton socks they’d be tall’ (a completely invalid inference).

In both cases there is no ‘because’. In fact both only hold together in any way at all through the power of ‘just because’. (The other version has much the same problem – ‘we have good resources therefore if we were independent we’d be successful, the end’.)

Now you may think this is just pointless intellectualising, but that would be a mistake. Most people do not know the basics of the theories of logical argument but that doesn’t matter because we have all been exposed to them constantly since birth. We can ‘feel’ validity in arguments because we’re used to following the pattern of arguments that the discipline of logic describes.

Thus you instinctively know when there’s a hole in an argument, or when you feel an argument jump over the top of problems it doesn’t stop to deal with. We sense there is a problem in the argument.

This was a key part of the problem in 2014 – our arguments had gaps at crucial points and people intuited it. It was instructive to see Stephen Noon return to Scottish politics given that he was one of the people who demanded that those gaps were there in the first place. It was his firm ideological belief that you can’t set out descriptions of how things would be better because it scares swing voter so they should be fed propositions not arguments.

Since 2014 that ideology has become dominant in the SNP leadership. We have not only failed to fill those gaps, we’ve actually opened them wider, giant holes in our case which are deliberately retained. The SNP wants to be both low-tax neoliberal and high-tax Nordic at the same time by eschewing arguments in favour of slogans.

The cause of independence finds itself at a pivotal moment and currently it does not seem to be a moment to which we are capable of rising

Thus there is a very good reason that you can’t get a senior SNP figure to explain the party’s post-independence fiscal stance because it would scare any sane voter off, but they have no difficulty saying that nothing much will change but things will quickly get better anyway.

This is a criminal failure to make the very powerful arguments that are open to us right now. The UK is a basket case because for 40 years it has been the world’s chancer, selling its assets to anyone to disguise low productivity, relying on tax havens and fraud for growth, cutting taxes by cutting infrastructure investment to the bone, letting corruption set in to government decision-making at every level.

And that is why the UK is suffering the current crisis much worse than the rest of Europe. But the SNP refuses to make this argument as it implies a policy change and believes it can explain things without policy change (or rather by returning to the status quo ante). That is why (totally nonsensically) the First Minister argues that the reason the UK is suffering a greater crisis than the rest of Europe is Brexit.

Seriously? Is she arguing that if we rejoined the EU right now things would be fine and Britain wouldn’t be a basket case? Why did we bother in 2014? This is a comfort blanket for liberal centrists but an utterly useless means of arguing for independence.

There was no intellectual rigour to the No campaign in 2014 and they paid a price. The Yes campaign began with no intellectual rigour but this was tackled by the movement organically backfilling the arguments.

For example Yes Scotland (again under the direction of Stephen Noon and of course Nicola Sturgeon who chaired the Board) point blank refused to ‘put the NHS in play’. Those were the precise words they used with me when I strongly argued they needed to look at the privatisation threat the UK posed. Thankfully Philippa Whitford (not then on the payroll) simply ignored them and put it in play anyway. And it worked very well indeed.

Now there is no real counterweight to ‘Noonism’. Anyone with any power and control fundamentally believes that we can win independence with no real information and no argument, just a series of aspirational-sounding catchphrases and perhaps a few bar graphs.

This is why, when asked how to persuade more people to support independence, Nicola Sturgeon’s precise words were “It’s about trying to, I suppose, make the argument for independence on the basis of what it is as opposed to how people characterise it”, which she interpreted as her talking about how British she was.

This really should have sounded major alarm bells. At this stage we shouldn’t be ‘supposing’ anything, we should have a solid and actionable plan. It’s just that when your ‘plan’ is a shower of content-free aspirational soundbites and you’re asked about it, you can’t actually say it.

The cause of independence finds itself at a pivotal moment and currently it does not seem to be a moment to which we are capable of rising. We have no argument, no path along which we can lead undecided voters at the end of which is support for independence. Instead we peddle slogans, wait for them to arrive where we are and wonder why we’re making no progress.

As this happens at least part of the unionist side is at least potentially developing arguments that might do us serious damage. The belief is that we can have as many shots at this as we want and only have to land one of them. The reality is that it is desperately easy to see how events could spiral right out of our control.

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