Ian Swanson: Emotion in debate muddies waters

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POLITICIANS are about to become more emotional in the independence debate. Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael has promised – or should that be warned? – that the Better Together campaign will adopt a more heartfelt approach when the official 16-week countdown to the referendum begins at the end of the month.

“There will be more emotion and passion coming into the arguments from here on in,” he said in comments interpreted as a move away from the negativity for which the No side has been heavily criticised.

But is emotion really what voters are looking for when they are trying to make up their minds on Scotland’s future?

There has been much talk about the competing claims of head and heart as people wrestle with the question of independence. For many people, it is likely to be some combination of the two which decides how they cast their vote.

But given the widespread claims that people do not yet have enough information to make a definite decision, it might reasonably be argued they should be furnished with facts rather being urged to vote on their feelings.

There are opportunities in the offing for both sides to indulge in appeals to voters’ emotions if they believe that is going to be effective.

The Better Together camp may try to enlist the First World War commemorations to serve as a reminder of a time of joint endeavour and shared sacrifice by people across all parts of the United Kingdom.

The Commonwealth Games offer the Yes campaign the opportunity to capitalise on national pride at hosting a major sporting event – and possibly winning medals too – with the prospect of the Ryder Cup later in the year as confirmation of Scotland’s importance in the world of sport.

And, of course, there’s the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn to set nationalist blood coursing.

But drawing out the emotional implications of any of these events seems more likely to confirm people in views they already hold than change their perspective.

And there must be a serious risk that politicians who are seen to be exploiting such occasions – each important in its own right – for their own ends will just appear cheap and their efforts will prove counter-productive.

A Braveheart appeal may be tempting for those of a strong nationalist spirit and an evocation of 300 years of the Union will no doubt do something for some people on the other side.

But for those trying honestly to weigh up the pros and cons of independence, these tactics may well just be off-putting.

Plans for a big flag-waving pro-independence rally in Edinburgh shortly before the referendum, following a similar event on Calton Hill last year, when kilts and saltires were much in evidence, seem to have been quietly dropped.

And there has already been a fair degree of scepticism at some of the so-called emotional appeals so far in the campaign – like David Cameron’s call for people in the rest of the UK to love bomb Scots with “please stay” messages.

Perhaps politicians just don’t do emotion very well and should lay off. Their appeals to patriotism risk being seen as cynical and threaten to devalue the debate.