I had the pleasure of attending the latest in Dundee University’s Five Million Questions debate series on the referendum on Thursday. This initiative has convened a range of panels over the last few months to chew over the meat and bones relating to the independence question before a very live audience. I was privileged to take part in one on the role of the media – I was the token female, natch – but it was nonetheless an enjoyable experience. And I always like things that make me think hard. So thanks are due to the university and 5 Million Questions organisers for inviting me to take part and also to come along and listen on Thursday.
And it’s not over yet – the two “In conversations with” Douglas Alexander MP and Nicola Sturgeon MSP in December look fascinating and the team involved is currently exploring what it can do next year with the programme. Taking 5 Million Questions out into the community in Dundee might well feature and that too, would be a very good thing. Reaching the parts the referendum is currently passing by is not just desirable, it’s necessary if we are to claim that this has been a national debate with everyone participating.
This was one of the flaws of Thursday night’s debate. It was packed with largely made-minds-up, and there appeared to be more from the Yes side in the audience. That influenced the mood and the tone and content of the questioning – myself included. With each side cheering their protagonists on, it’s difficult to get a sense of who won, or at least whose points were hitting home. Partisanship is great and helped create a dynamic atmosphere for the debate but if everyone involved in this thing spends all their time talking to each other then we are doing a dis-service to the undecideds of Scotland.
I’m much more interested in hearing what they are thinking and have to say than hearing the same old, same old. There was an element of that evident in how both the Blairs approached the debate. If I had been inclined to play referendum buzzword bingo, I would have had a full house in the first quarter of an hour.
Yet, there were meaty issues batted back and forth – Europe, currency, economic matters, higher education, prosperity, oil, fairness, solidarity, democracy, even fishing all featured. And if you were an undecided, then I’m pretty sure you could have left the lecture theatre agreeing with what both men had to say, such was the forcefulness and indeed, thoughtfulness with which they put forward their cases.
Maybe I’m too close to it but it seemed all a bit sterile. Talking of stuff, rather than people and what all this means for their lives. Or maybe that’s just how I like to hear arguments framed. Certainly, a newbie journalist, for whom this was their first venture into referendum territory, thought it exciting and really enjoyed it. And seeing things like this through other people’s eyes is instructive.
So what of the Blairs – Yes-Blair and No-Blair as Gail Lythgoe deftly tagged them on twitter. (All we need is a Mebbe-Bear and a Goldilocks and National Collective would have a set of characters with which to have a lot of fun).
This is only the third time I’ve encountered No-Blair, better known as Blair McDougall, the heid honcho of Better Together. There is no doubt he is a confident operator, with some smooth soundbites (Rob Shorthouse doing his job admirably) who is relaxed both before live audiences and on TV. He has a remarkable command of facts to drop into his arguments, based – as he never tires of telling us all – on his extensive experience of working in various roles in the EU, at Downing Street and in the Labour party. Well-connected then, which suggests his assertion that the parties will all produce their more-devo proposals “well before the Referendum” is informed and well-founded.
But there’s also a touch of bombast and arrogance. He likes to boss these things. Often, this is through physical tactics, such as when he walked on to the stage of an Edinburgh Book Festival panel event long after the other participants. Such behaviour is all very well, but I can’t help thinking someone somewhere is keeping score and waiting for the opportunity to bring him down a peg or two. Or maybe I’m just hopeful that the Yes camp will be devoting a little time and energy to working out how to get under his skin.
Still, he knows a thing or two and peppers his arguments with a swirl of facts and figures. He says what he knows so commandingly that few appear willing to attempt to dismantle his arguments. On Thursday night, he asserted that the UK got the EU rebate because of our highly productive agriculture sector which as anyone who knows anything about Europe knows, is tripe.
Not that Yes-Blair was prepared to part from his lines to challenge such assertions. Looking tanned and relaxed, the Chief Executive of Yes Scotland is confident before audiences like this, indeed most audiences these days. But I go back to what I said before – this is not natural operating territory for Blair Jenkins and I can’t help thinking this is as good as it gets. Which is a worry.
Also worrisome is how tired those lines sound. They’ve been repeated ad nauseam, the same arguments largely being said the same way and I’m not sure that was the right approach for this audience, which was after all mostly made up of partisans. Nothing either of the Blairs said was likely to change minds: what that audience was there to see was a knock-out blow, of the two leaders of their respective campaigns going toe to toe, with one emerging the winner. There were patches in the proceedings when that began to happen: if I’d been scoring, it would have been points equal.
But if Mr Jenkins wants to win these encounters with his counterpart, he needs to depart from the script and display his knowledge of the detail of some of these disputed areas. Either play No-Blair at his own game to win or play the game differently.
Moreover, trying to frame the Yes arguments constantly within the realm of certainties is not entirely helpful. Taking ownership of some of the Better Together arguments dulls their impact and leaves them looking for new ground – uncertainty and risk would be key ones. And the answers on EU membership seemed way behind events – even the SNP has moved on from the position of our membership wouldn’t end line. In such gladitorial contests, more dismantling of the Better Together arguments is needed: resorting to jibes about Project Fear just jars. There’s a way of undermining their argument without resorting to their low blows.
After the debate, I was reminded by No-Blair of a short discourse we’d had on the idea of city states and that I’d said I would write a complimentary blog on him when he was proved right. And yes, he is right – this would appear to be central to Labour’s more-powers plan and more on that in a separate blog later – and I am more than happy to acknowledge that I heard it from Mr McDougall first.
But if he expects me to gush and simper, dream on. You might think you’re all that, I couldn’t possibly agree. I can’t help thinking that if you come up against the right opponent, you’re ripe for the taking.
In fact, Brian Taylor, BBC Scotland’s political editor, who chaired the debate did an exemplary job, using his considerable knowledge of the political scene in Scotland to keep both Blairs in check and hold them to account. If anyone emerged a winner, it was him.