In the aftermath of last week’s momentous announcements by Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May one interview in particular stuck in my mind.
As usual it was “balanced” by having two supporters of the Union (one Labour and one Tory) and one independence supporter - myself. As Meat Loaf never said, “one out of three ain’t bad.”
Anyway, what made it memorable was the presenter’s pay-off line; “I’m sure we’ll hear these arguments again ad nauseam in the months and years ahead.” Really? Ad nauseam?
It’s become fashionable for interviewers to regard these tumultuous times with a degree of ennui and weariness. Like victims of a constitutional Groundhog Day that constantly reruns the events and arguments of 2014 - but over a much longer timescale. Of course one change is regularly commented upon. The oil price has fallen considerably since the last referendum.
But actually, there are many probable differences between indyrefs one and two, and it’s the job of the media to explore them with enthusiasm, curiosity and commitment. After all, whether Scots vote yes or no next time, we will all inhabit the chosen destination.
Firstly, this time round it’s clear independence and remaining in the Union are two uncertain paths – the latter cannot be regarded as automatically safer or the sensible default. This time round, both propositions should be subject to equal scrutiny. And that does mean genuinely equal airtime.
Just because Labour and the Tories won’t work together this time round, there’s no excuse for having both represented on panels with just one independence supporter. Why not have a Gogglebox style format or a panel of genuine don’t knows or perhaps two programmes where each side examines what’s weak about their own case. I think the indyref feature most Scots dread re-living is the TV debate complete with posturing, sound-bites, cross party shouting, shallow arguments and petty point scoring. There would be a communal cheer if BBC and STV kept the live debates to a minimum this time and fulfilled their obligations to educate, inform and entertain by working harder on other formats. In 2014 BBC Alba made “built” programmes on various themes asking, for example, whether our renewable energy industry would be safer in UK or Scottish hands? Viewers heard arguments from industry experts and both political camps in compelling half hour films on a range of subjects.
More of that this time on the main channels – and it’s not too late for BBC Scotland to surprise everyone with a current affairs offering before the new Channel kicks in.
The second big difference – last time round the case for independence was triggered by the SNP’s overall majority and carried forward by their energies. Indyref2 has an impetus beyond the SNP – even without an SNP/Green working majority at Holyrood many Scots would be demanding another chance to vote for independence to escape the impending disaster of Brexit. The second referendum will be played out against the unraveling of Britain’s ties with Europe and the growing evidence of deals for special interest groups like the car industry, the city of London, Ireland, Gibraltar and soft fruit farmers in England. It will be energized by developments in Brussels and will respond to an ever-changing international situation - making indyref2 more unpredictable and interesting for analysts and voters alike.
Thirdly, attitudes in Europe towards Scotland have changed. Britain’s departure puts a premium on the continuing membership of the loyal, Europhile and energy-rich Scots. Jacqueline Minor, the European Commission’s head of representation in the UK, recently said an independent Scotland would already be aligned with EU requirements and is therefore in a different starting position from other countries applying for membership.
Previously Ms Minor had put an iScotland in line with Montenegro, Serbia and Bosnia.
On Valentine’s Day this year, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt sent a “lovebomb” message to Scots saying - “Europe hasn’t forgotten that a large majority of the Scottish people voted to remain. We need the Scottish people and their firm European beliefs.”
Many commentators are intent on playing the old, broken record of European hostility to Scotland’s case. Radically different attitudes revealed during the Brexit process will hopefully refresh outdated perspectives.
Fourthly, the “one singer - one song” approach to strategy on the Yes side is changing. It’s no secret the official Yes campaign last time round was found lacking by many non-SNP members and local groups – so grassroot organisations were formed which are still active. Common Weal is constructing an alternative white paper, the Scottish Independence Convention is up and running as an umbrella group for all Yes groups and folk like myself and the late Paddy Bort have been raising questions about the best long-term European destination for Scotland - the EU or the halfway house of EFTA. With the likelihood of a long game, the SNP could let a thousand policy flowers blossom at this early stage before making final decisions about their platform.
Fifthly, EU nationals were scared to vote Yes in 2014 in case it jeopardised their status. I’d imagine that position will change completely during indyref2 for the 182,000 EU citizens in Scotland. Unless, of course they are forced to leave or Westminster tries to restrict the franchise.
Sixthly, the actors have changed quite dramatically – indeed the lack of response to Gordon Brown’s attempted intervention suggests the Scottish press at least have finally accepted he is yesterday’s man. Women will be leading this debate on almost all sides and from the Yes camp anyway there is a determination to adopt a non-hectoring tone.
Seventh point – with no prospect of an Edinburgh Agreement, the length of the race this time is uncertain. That makes it hard for pro independence campaigners to hit the start button not knowing if the referendum is 18 months or 4 years away. But at least the distinctiveness of Scottish political culture is not in question this time round, thanks to the dramatic nature of the Brexit vote. And of course the polls put both sides roughly even. That’s a very different starting point to the 23 per cent support registered in 2012, when the starting pistol was last fired.
Undoubtedly there are many more differences. Enough to fire up the professionals charged with making indyref2 more authentic, more ground-breaking and a lot less shouty than the last.