Only one in three third sector organisations is engaged with the constitutional debate? More than half are uninspired? And the dominant view is that it has been mundane, alienating, confusing, unilluminating? Can there be any surprise?
To get to the bottom of why things have been so poor, let’s split apart the difference between a debate and a campaign. A debate is a process of engaging in conversation about ideas with the aim of shedding light and possibly even arriving at a good answer. A campaign is a process of seeking to persuade people to follow a certain course of action. These are quite different things and while there may be crossover and cross-fertilisation between a national debate and a national contested campaign, you can easily hang around a campaign forever and still not come across the debate.
The reason the campaign has been uninformative is fairly straightforward – the more effective of the two campaigns has made it that way. If you wish to prevent something from happening, ask its proponents to defend it in its component parts. As soon as big ideas are broken down into small pieces of specific detail they stimulate only boredom and scepticism.
Imagine if you had to sell the high ideal of the NHS to someone undecided, but you had to do it only by explaining the internal accounting methods of NHS trusts. Could you inspire? Slavery wasn’t abolished on the detail of cost-benefit analysis. The European Union wasn’t sold to the peoples of Europe on the basis of the operating features of qualified majority voting. Yes, the devil is in the detail, but the angels can be found only in the idea.
This is not a criticism of the no campaign. My professional background is in political campaigning and had I been asked to offer advice I’d have said “prevent the other side from talking in inspirational terms by reducing everything to a spreadsheet of arcane detail that most people don’t really understand anyway”. Remember, a campaign is about victory, not about light. The yes campaign has been much less effective in framing the debate: it may have expressed the aim of inspiring but it hasn’t delivered the content which would actually inspire.
However, this isn’t about the campaign, it’s about the debate. Were we in a healthy situation, the campaign would be only a political core inside a wider national discussion. People from all walks of life would be thinking about Scotland’s future and what we want from it, and questions of yes and no would be approached in terms of hope and vision.
Instead, the constitutional debate has been curated as a place of danger for the outsider. In this the media and the no campaign have more to answer for – tales of viciousness and vitriol are hyped up to a degree unwarranted by the reality. There is no doubt that the debate has become polarised and sometimes personalised, but the widely-promoted idea that if you engage you’re going to be eaten alive is false.
In this, those who take two or three irrelevant posts at the bottom of some website and grant them the status of national importance do their nation a great disservice. We should not be scaring away those not already in party politics. That just makes the debate small and insular.
We don’t step into the future on the basis of detail but on the basis of stories. A story is a way of taking ideas and details and arranging them into a shape that people can understand – a shape that helps to move the imagination forward from one place and into another. All the great changes in society emerge from a story. None emerge from subclauses.
Whoever told you it wasn’t your place to engage is letting Scotland down. Whoever told you that to express a vision of Scotland’s future is party political is being mendacious. Whoever has tried to warn or scare you off based on fear and mistrust does no-one any favours.
This survey presents the third sector as passive and reticent. I have never before known this sector to sit back and expect others to describe Scotland’s future. I’ve never before known it to expect others to create the inspiration. Don’t wait to be offered someone else’s options for Scotland’s future, get out and offer them yours. You’ve got a year left. After that, those options begin to narrow rapidly.