By David Torrance
It was Ko-Ko in Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado who sang about having 'a little list', on which were 'statesmen of a compromising kind', such as 'What d'ye call him - Thing'em-bob, and likewise - Never-mind'. This week saw statesmen and women on both sides of the constitutional debate produce their own little (or not so little) lists, summarising - or so they believed - compelling arguments for and against independence.
First off the mark was Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael, who instead of listing 'society offenders who might well be underground', set out twenty reasons why Scotland is better off as part of the UK.
Some of these were fair enough, others were a little tenuous, and some even a bit weird, but it betrayed a certain defensiveness on the part of Better Together and the UK Government; a realisation that they have to be a little more proactive when it comes to 'selling' the status quo.
In response, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon (The Mikado might have had her praising, 'with enthusiastic tone…every country but [her] own'), issued a list of fifty questions for Unionists to answer, and as with Carmichael's these were a combination of reasonable, tenuous and downright hypothetical. A lot were predicated on successive Westminster governments persecuting Scotland in the event of a 'no' vote, which rather demonstrated that so-called 'scaremongering' is not confined to Better Together.
Nevertheless, both lists said something interesting about either side of the independence debate, an attempt to be more positive from the Unionists, and arguably a more negative approach from the Nationalists, roughly speaking a reversal of where the two camps were at for most of last year. I guess it's the Buzz Feed approach to the #indyref – our politicians are so, well, with it.
The two lists are, however, very different: Carmichael's focus on demonstrable benefits of Scotland (as he sees it) from the Union, while Sturgeon's peer into a crystal ball and see bad things befalling the northern half of the UK, something she challenges the incumbent Coalition government to refute. Given that Parliaments cannot bind their successors, this is difficult for them to do, but then that's the point, and also why Unionists often seek similarly quixotic assurances from Nationalists.
But I digress. The Scottish Secretary's list was accompanied by a speech at Stirling University, his first of 2014, again pitched as a 'positive' case for the Union. Although there was little new in terms of content, there was an implicit admission of not having risen to the occasion thus far. 'For too long', acknowledged Carmichael, 'we have allowed to go unspoken the contribution that Scotland makes to the UK – and we have been equally silent on the benefits that we get from being part of it.'
He and his colleagues, he went on, had started to put that right during 2013, with the publication of a series of papers under the 'Scotland Analysis' banner, the closest thing the UK Government has to its own version of the Scottish Government's White Paper, although the generally comprehensive papers are more descriptive than visionary, in contrast to 'Scotland's Future' which at points resembled more of an aspirational manifesto than a statement of fact.
As for making a more 'positive' case, I'm not altogether convinced the Scottish Secretary added very much to the sum of referendum knowledge, beyond utilising the usual language about the UK being a 'family of nations' and 'greater than the sum of its parts'. 'We all put something in and we are all getting something out,' he posited in Stirling, going on to mention higher per capita public spending north of the border (that being, presumably, what Scotland gets 'out').
Carmichael went on to detail a few of his favourite things (another list) about the United Kingdom, chiefly the NHS, BBC and what he called a 'formidable sporting culture'. Again, this is old territory, although the Scottish Secretary took care to emphasise that as 'in so many sports, the nations of our UK family have different traditions, different strengths and different teams', not just competing against one another (as the Home Nations will do in this summer's Commonwealth Games) but also together, via the British Lions and Winter Olympics.
Carmichael also made a point of contrasting his rationale for the Union with that of his Nationalist opponents for independence. 'You'll find no grandiose flights of fancy here – only the very facts of our United Kingdom,' he said. 'The list can – and does – go on. Together these facts to make a positive case for Scotland in the United Kingdom.' The Scottish Government's White Paper, he argued, was 'not a vision; it is a mirage', and like 'all mirages, the closer you get the less real it becomes'.
The Scottish Secretary concluded his speech, in case his audience missed the point, by using the word 'positive' a lot. In 2014, he said, it was the job of all Unionists to 'make the strong positive case for the UK and to make it loudly and proudly…the positive choice to stay part of the United Kingdom family…the positive choice for a bright Scottish future as part of the United Kingdom.'
Of course, using the word 'positive' does not mean an argument actually is positive (a similar critique applies to pro-independence arguments, which are often very negative), but it's all about tone, an important aspect of any political debate. The most effective campaigns are a mixture of positive and negative, appealing to voters' aspirational instincts while also playing to basic fears. Both Better Together and Yes Scotland realise this, but apply each in different proportions.
But one thing Unionists still aren't prepared to do is champion Britishness in the way that many do Scottishness. While Prime Minister, Gordon Brown had a go but quickly realised defining it was going to be quite difficult. Interesting then that this week an article in the Scottish Daily Mail (also carried, in edited form, by the Guardian) got quite a bit of attention online. 'There is one place in the 21st century where it is particularly unfashionable to be British,' wrote the former journalist Chris Deerin. 'That place is, of course, Britain.'
Bravely (not, I think, an unreasonable word), Deerin went on to write that 'the argument for the continued existence of our United Kingdom is first and foremost a moral one' (my italics). 'We have a big choice to make this year,' he concluded. 'Undoubtedly, Britain will be traduced in every way possible by those who wish to destroy it. But perhaps it is also an opportunity to rediscover what we have, what we have done, and what we might still do.' For Deerin, a world without Britain was 'almost unthinkable'.
Is that also true for Scots? Well, it depends who you speak to. Perhaps around 20 per cent of the electorate don't much like Britain and would not lament its passing, but the rest – to varying degrees – like at least some aspects of 'Britain' and want to retain them, as of course do the SNP. And that's the point of all these lists: Unionists want to remind voters about the best of British, while Nationalists want to flag up the negatives, past, present and future. I suspect there will be quite a few more little lists as 2014 progresses.
David Torrance is a writer, journalist and broadcaster.
He is also author of 'Salmond - Against The Odds' a biography of Scotland's First Minister