This article first appeared in The Times (Scotland) 30 August 2016

Aesop can show Scotland the way forward

A positive framing of the debate for a fresh independence vote would be fabulously beneficial


Framing is hugely important in making any argument or case. The context you set and how you couch the terms of conversation matters hugely. Any parent knows that we are far more likely to get our charges to do as we wish if a conversation is framed positively around their potential choices than negatively around their mistakes.

Since Aesop’s fable of The North Wind and the Sun we have known that encouragement trumps hollered direction every time. Being the sun takes patience though, and most of us revert all too often to being the wind, blowing our instruction or invective. It’s quicker that way of course, but sustainable change takes patience; “kindness effects more than severity” as the great Greek fabulist put it himself. Amen to that.

This is all especially true for politics. We discovered the power of the frame to our collective cost in the EU referendum. A discussion on immigration fuelled Leave support, whereas a debate anchored on collective peace or economic self-interest would have helped Remain.

Both the framing and the fable should be borne in mind by the SNP and the Scottish government as they seek to set out their stall for the new government’s programme, navigating the impact of Brexit and remaking the case for Scotland to take on more responsibility, all in the midst of great turmoil and change.

The next Programme for Government is expected within a fortnight. The party’s manifesto creates the room for very substantial policy reform as well as a raft of legislative measures that should keep Holyrood and the civil service very busy. Education, health and the economy will predominate, as they must, and the very architecture of government must be reformed to deliver sustainably and as new responsibilities devolve.

Brexit talks are a clear danger to the well-being of the country

Beyond these macro themes the excellent researchers at News Direct tell us to expect a warm homes bill, a climate change bill, an inshore fisheries bill, a good food nation bill, a circular economy and zero waste bill, a transport bill and a seatbelts bill. Also, possibly a Scottish social security bill, an islands bill, a wild fisheries bill and a potential child poverty bill. Then perhaps a new domestic abuse criminal offence, a bill to devolve local authority functions to communities, a law to modernise crofting and a review of smallholding legislation.

That is quite a lot of eyes on important balls and issues of the bread-and-butter type, is it not?

Meanwhile, the effects of the Brexit talks and pending negotiations for the UK’s departure from the EU are a material, clear and present danger to the economic and social wellbeing of the whole country. Not to focus time and attention on this would be a dereliction of duty.

That Nicola Sturgeon has been able to gather a council of Brexit advisers so significant in expertise, experience and standing and so broad in terms of political persuasion suggests that many good people of greatly diverging views agree.

The Scottish government must engage positively and in detail and keep all options alive as long as possible. Yet by the same token it would be irresponsible for them not to ensure that the evolving choice of independence is available to the people, should they choose it.

There is no doubt in my mind that the first minister will not want such a choice to be put if it is another knife-edge divisive call. She will want such a move to come at a time when the people are ready to choose it in a far more unifying way than before. So this Friday she will set out her stall in Stirling to begin a new conversation with the country, to understand the hopes, fears and ambitions that might determine the longer term position we place ourselves in.

If there is to be another vote on independence we can be sure that the case will be made with greater transparency and clarity than the farce that was the Brexit choice. We can also be sure that the weaknesses of the 2014 case are answered to take account of the realities of the world we now find ourselves in. A time for substance to trump symbols.

Of course the first minister’s critics will round on her every move. That is democracy and an important part of keeping her government held to account. But opposition must also be constructive if it is to be more than opportunistic. This is something that the SNP itself took a long time to learn and then live.

The Scottish Conservatives have the greatest self-interest in talking about a potential independence referendum. This is why they spend the most time talking about it. It allows them to frame opposition as being about defending the Union which, they calculate, allows them to keep their noses in front of a hapless Labour party.

Such a strategy is a necessary but not sufficient condition for becoming an alternative government. They have moved forward but the bridge they must now find is to talk less about what they are against and more about what they are for.

For their part, the SNP and the Scottish government must redouble their reform efforts at Holyrood, taking the strategic calls that will fashion the country for the future. In doing so the whole country will quickly see where the limits of our self-responsibility contain our interests rather than secure them.

As with Brexit, a distinct, positive and purposeful Scottish voice should be heard on all the debates facing Scotland, the UK and Europe. To fail to lift our sights to the realities of the world that surrounds us and to engage positively in every debate from the macroeconomy and security to immigration and energy would be to become bystanders in the story of our own lives.