Dear Better Together: I was going to vote No to Independence, but you’re pushing me away

When the referendum was announced, I felt quite strongly that Scottish independence was a silly idea.  I’m hardly a fan of the current UK Government, but I believed in the Union as something that, on balance, Scotland benefited from, and contributed positively to.  Yes campaigners may be quick to point out that statistic about how many Westminster election results bore no relation to Scottish voting data, but I’m fairly sure that I could find more than one Scottish-sized sample of voters in the UK who were “irrelevant” in the final tally.  Anyway, with such a poor voter turnout, how can any of us complain that British politics has stopped being representative? And how would an independent Scotland do any better? Would rural communities be in thrall to the Central Belt, as the UK seems to be to the South of England?

So I was moderately certain of my answer: I didn’t want to see a positive relationship binned because of some recent, admittedly moronic decision-making.  As the Scottish Government announced their policies in dribs and drabs, I scoffed along with the Better Together campaign.

Then the Yes campaign’s White Paper, Scotland’s Future, was released.  At over 600 pages, it’s a fairly large time sink to go from cover to cover, but given my major complaint against voting Yes was a lack of facts or answers to policy questions, I felt that I should listen to what they had to say.

Most of the facts in the document refer to the present, and rightly so – facts pertaining to the future violate the laws of physics.  It is easy to criticise it as

a) an SNP manifesto (because parts of it are), and

b) as a “wishlist” for Scotland’s future political framework, predicated on negotiations with bodies like the UK government and the EU, apparently because people seem to have forgotten “wishlist” is another word for manifesto.

All political decisions are based on uncertainty – it seems to me the Better Together voices are hooting about uncertainty after independence, without dealing with the uncertainties about where the UK is going.  I believe that Scotland and the UK as a whole should remain in the EU, but that is potentially subject to an in-out referendum in the future.  Any ballot is embedded in uncertainty, regardless of which way you vote (and even if you don’t vote at all).

The thing that bugs me most about the whole debate so far is its depressingly predictable trajectory of positive and negative campaigning.  The whole situation is admittedly biased from the start (“Yes” being a positive word and “No” being a negative word), but it seems to me like Better Together have accepted their fate, and much of their campaign appears to be deconstructing the Yes campaign’s White Paper.  While the Yes campaign have dedicated pages and pages of positive copy to Scotland’s Future (with a healthy side of negative jabs at Westminster), all I could find from the Better Together side was a few paragraphs on a website.

The White Paper is a vision for the future of Scotland.  You might not like aspects of it (I found parts I wasn’t sure of), some parts may simply not stand up to the evidence, but you may like some parts of it.  One thing I particularly welcomed was the discussion of a written constitution for an independent Scotland.  It’s all well and good to point out where the numbers don’t add up, but the Yes campaign can point to this paper (plus its supporting documents on fiscal and defence policy) and say to the No campaign: “where’s yours?”

At that point, it doesn’t matter if the White Paper is made of congealed pixie dust – its mere existence shows the electorate that one side is more engaged than the other.  Better Together need to produce a vision for the future of Scotland inside the UK.  Given their cross-party membership, they probably need to produce several.

At the beginning of the debate, the electorate were hungry for facts and policies, so that they could make an informed choice.  The Yes campaign have made their case well, couched in the language of hope (and hope used well is a powerful political tool).  There is a growing feeling of malaise and distrust towards politicians, and a sense that any figures can be massaged to look better or worse.  Exchanges like this, between Yes Prime Minister’s PM Jim Hacker and Cabinet Secretary Humphrey Appleby, are practically aphorisms:

Hacker: The statistics are irrefutable…

Humphrey: Statistics? You can prove anything with statistics.

Hacker: Even the truth.

Humphrey: Yes… No!

Thirty years later, TV’s most famous Scottish political animal is the foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker, which does not really help matters.  My laboured point is that the electorate don’t care about the details, mostly because they don’t trust them.  They care about the message that the Yes campaign is sending – that an independent Scotland would move away from unpopular policies, stash its vast oil money in an Energy Fund and become an affluent Nordic clone, with mountains of free childcare, bus passes, university degrees and puppies.

The No campaign needs a message of its own.  Do you want a written constitution? Let’s discuss it at UK level, I suspect there are a lot of people who might like the idea.  Tuition fees? Let’s find a better solution.  Rural broadband and 4G distribution are not problems unique to Scotland.  Improvements to the distribution of Common Agricultural Policy rebates? Of course that’s a good idea.

In short? Better Together, stop scoring own goals, and give me some powerful reasons to convince me that the UK is the place to be long-term, not simply reject something that doesn’t yet exist.

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Young Academy of Scotland Launches “Research the Headlines”

Just a quick note to both of my readers that I now blog in more than one place…

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I’m an elected member of The Royal Society of Edinburgh‘s Young Academy of Scotland, a unique collection of scientists, artists, researchers, business leaders and civil servants, working to foster creativity, forge new connections and ultimately influence policy in Scotland.  As part of their working group on Media Relations, I am helping to run a new blog addressing how research is portrayed in the media.  Sometimes, a story appears in the news that doesn’t quite reflect what the researchers did or said, or a story grows legs and becomes horribly distorted as it’s passed around social networks.  As an organisation full of Scotland’s best and brightest in a variety of disciplines, the RSE YAS is ideally placed to educate and inform the public about the truth behind the presses.

If you want to know more, come visit us at researchtheheadlines.org, or follow @ResTheHeadlines (you can find us on facebook and Google+ as well).  Our team of bloggers will be updating the site several times a week with stories that catch our eye, but we want to hear from you too! If you have a news story that you want to know more about (did scientists really implant a false memory in a mouse brain?) or you just want to engage with Scotland’s creme de la creme, then post a comment or message us!

Scotland to have its own Web Domain?

You might have expected me to comment on this week’s faster than light neutrinos story – frankly, I feel it’s a little precipitate to talk about these results (if these are verified by an independent experiment, then I’ll prick up my ears), and besides, there have been plenty of posts by much better qualified people on the subject.

I’ve decided instead to share with you a little nugget of news that might not have gone very far, about Scotland’s internet status.  There have been fresh efforts to lobby for a .scot web domain, led mainly by the Dot Scot Registry, with the backing of the Scottish Government (the UK government is considering whether to support the bid).  The Dot Scot Registry has been lobbying for this since its inception in 2009, and a golden opportunity is fast approaching.

The International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) is a not-for-profit corporation which controls the naming system of websites, in particular controlling the top level domains (such as .com).  In January 2012, they will be hearing suggestions for new top level domains, partly in response to the massive growth of the Internet outside the Anglosphere.  This is no small increase – the current total is 22, and the expectation is that this number will increase to several hundred.

Critics of the campaign have argued that the real issue for Scotland is connectivity, not domains.  There are still large swathes of the country without access to broadband, and improving this is an important milestone for Scottish commerce.  Focusing efforts on a name seems like focusing on the wrong problem.  Having said that, there is still a good case for rebranding – it would certainly lend an air of credibility to the country’s online presence.  After all, if Antarctica and Liechtenstein have their own domains, why not Scotland? A country that generates £4bn a year in tourism revenues needs to have well crafted websites with a memorable name – http://www.tourism.scot does have a nice ring to it.

But it’s not all that simple.  Icann aren’t just giving these things away.  Prospective bidders will have to prove that they are worth the domain – they need to have well-established IT capabilities, a legal system that deals with intellectual property correctly, and sufficient manpower to track down and remove abusive pages (although what abusive means in this context isn’t clear to me).

In the end, I’m not sure how much all this change would really affect me.  It would be quite nice to host this blog on a .scot domain.  That is, if I’ve not forced enough Scottishness down your throat…