Dr Andrew Neal blogs from the Festival of Politics 2013
This was an elegant lesson in democratic politics. A few in the audience wanted to heckle and speak out of turn. The rest were having none of it, insisting through a collective murmur that they should follow the unspoken rules. Similarly, the panellists declared their wish to stay above yah-boo politics, which they did. Jim Murphy MP said that TV distorted debate by encouraging barbed drama. He and Angus Robertson MP remained bright eyed and softly spoken. Neither attacked the other. They took the audience with them, despite the nationalist/unionist divide.
But can two opposed politicians really stay above politics? They appealed to the facts. Why is Trident based where it is? Contrary to a heckled suggestion, Jim Murphy said it was nothing to do with London making Scotland bear the risk of a nuclear strike, but simple geography. Faslane has better natural defences than Plymouth. He said that shipbuilding for the Royal Navy keeps Clyde shipyards open, but if Scotland was a foreign country that would end. In turn, Angus Robertson, also 'staying above politics', quoted a Vice Admiral who saw no reason why an independent Scotland could not still build ships for the UK. Ding dong. The problem with facts is that there are always counter-facts.
Staying above politics is still politics. This is especially the case with security, which follows certain conventions: playing politics with security is frowned upon; party politics should be left at the border; the national interest transcends party interest. At Westminster this has effects. Seeking consensus in the name of national security means stifling dissenting voices. Arguably, the British political system is built on opposition (look at the facing benches), and when it is absent or neutered, politics has failed. Remember Iraq. But it feels grubby when politicians approach security opportunistically by scapegoating those who can't easily argue back such as asylum seekers.
The independence debate is different of course. There are few conventions. Unionists and nationalists cannot appeal to a higher common purpose. Nor can they appeal to the facts because the facts are not above politics. Every possible 'fact' about an independent Scotland depends on politics. And not just current politics but future politics that are unknown. A referendum yes vote would only be the beginning of an unprecedented and unspeakably complex political process of separating two advanced capitalist democracies. Every possible outcome would depend on negotiations. For example, the enormous cost of relocating Trident lacks meaning outside the context of every other issue. If relocation was to happen, who would bear the cost and what would they demand in return? What would it mean for the negotiations over dividing up the national debt, ownership of nationalised banks, oil revenues, pension obligations and social security? How much goodwill or bad blood would be involved? We simply don't know.
Twitter - @AndrewWNeal