THE debate on independence has become so polarised that it threatens to leave Scotland with a toxic legacy of division, according to the man who was once the country’s most senior civil servant.
Sir John Elvidge also fears the aggressive tone is likely to increase as next year’s referendum draws nearer. And he warns of the dangers of a split society in the wake of the decision, with people at risk of being defined by whether they voted Yes or No.
Some say they don’t recognise the picture Sir John paints, but anyone who follows some of the online exchanges between pro- and anti-independence advocates will know what he is talking about.
The so-called Cybernats get most of the blame for the hatred and vitriol poured on opponents, but the SNP’s “Yes” Minister Nicola Sturgeon counters by saying she has received death threats.
Some have chosen to opt out of the debate simply because of the aggressive, negative nature of the exchanges. One senior figure on the anti-independence side says: “I’ve absolutely no interest in all the mud-slinging, so I’m staying out of it. There are plenty other people who can put the case.”
In one sense it is not surprising that feelings run high on the issue – there is so much at stake.
For Nationalists, this is their chance – possibly the only one in their lifetime – to secure the vision they have dreamed of, campaigned for and worked towards all their political lives.
Many anti-independence campaigners, on the other hand, fear the country they love is about to be torn apart, creating an uncertain and less prosperous future for their children.
But none of that excuses the bile and bitterness so much in evidence. The current “debate”, where abuse seems to have taken the place of argument, is not helping either side and does not augur well for future political life in Scotland.
However, the referendum is thankfully not all about ranting and ridicule. This week there have been two examples of groups trying to look ahead to the kind of Scotland they want to see, almost regardless of the result on September 18 next year.
The Jimmy Reid Foundation’s Common Weal project published a paper setting out how independence or full control of tax powers would allow Scotland to move away from a system of low pay for millions and millionaire salaries for an elite.
It argues that by boosting the number of people in work and encouraging higher-skilled, better-paid jobs, Scotland could raise up to £4 billion extra in income tax.
It challenges the accepted wisdom that taxes nowadays can only be cut and draws on ideas from Nordic countries, as well as calling for a simplified tax system to stop tax avoidance.
Meanwhile, the Electoral Reform Society moved beyond talk of voting systems to unveil a new report on how Scottish democracy could be extended.
Its ideas include “mini-publics”, where local people would help run their own towns and villages, and a citizens’ assembly, a jury-style body to check and challenge elected politicians.
The Democracy Max report, based on the People’s Gathering, which brought 80 people from all over Scotland together in Edinburgh last year, acknowledges people’s distrust of and disengagement from politics and politicians. But it says the referendum debate offers the opportunity to re-examine the political system and make fundamental changes.
Whatever the merits of the ideas, discussion has to be better than abuse.