The importance of truth in political debate
First Minister's speech at Political Studies Association annual conference
It is a huge pleasure for me to have the opportunity to speak to you this evening. Scottish Universities, of course, have been involved in the Political Studies Association from its foundation back in 1950, and I know that Scotland has hosted this annual conference on several occasions – most recently in 2010 during your 60th anniversary year. So I’m really delighted that you have again returned to Scotland, and it is, sincerely a huge pleasure, to welcome you all to Glasgow.
It’s a particular pleasure because the scale and reach of this conference is truly impressive. You have been discussing issues from environmentalism, to gender and politics – a subject quite close to my heart - to the design of parliaments and how they affect politics. Sessions are being held on political developments in different regions across the world – from North America to South East Asia.
In many ways – and I say this absolutely sincerely – I am sorry that I haven’t been able to attend some of these sessions. Because you are, without a shadow of a doubt, addressing issues that are of direct relevance to all politicians – not just in Scotland and the UK, but in Europe and across the world. But more importantly, you have been addressing issues that are of hugely important relevance to citizens right across our work.
And I think one of the things which that demonstrates – as all of us reflect on, what I think I can safely describe with any fear of being accused of exaggeration, as a pretty tumultuous 12 months in politics, and right across the world – is that the work of political studies specialists is perhaps more important and more valuable now than it has ever been before.
And I think it’s quite important to stress that point from the outset, because, in the last year, I'm not sure you will always have felt that your work is appreciated by all politicians. One of the most notorious comments of the EU referendum was of course that statement that the public "have had enough of experts". And there has been a sense – fuelled by that referendum and also, I think, by the US election – that evidence-based arguments have somehow stopped being important in political campaigns and in public discourse.
But actually, as all of us know, experts do make an important and positive difference – not just to the academic understanding of political issues, but also to wider public debate and to the very health of our democracy.
And I think that Scotland in many ways in recent years provides a good example of that.
There are some very high profile examples of teams who have made it part of their mission to help the public and the media to understand issues better – for example the Centre on Constitutional Change, or the work on polling at Strathclyde University and through What Scotland Thinks. All of these have had a real public impact. In fact, I often think that sometimes Professor John Curtice appears on television far more often than I do! Actually – Professor John Curtice does appear on television far more often than I do.
But of course there is excellence in all of the political studies teams in Scotland, and that’s something that has been reflected in their contributions to this conference.
Their work – and I’m sure this is also true of schools across the UK and around the world – doesn’t simply meet rigorous academic standards. It also makes a real difference to the quality of our public discourse.
All of that is important and encouraging when we think about the current constitutional position here in Scotland, and the prospect of a further referendum on Scottish independence. Something that I know, is of interest much further afield than just here in Scotland.
As most of you know, in 2014, when we debated and voted on the issue of Scottish independence, the European Union was a significant issue in that debate.
And many of those who opposed Scotland becoming an independent country – including the UK Government, it has to be said – argued that leaving the UK was a risk, and said that it would threaten Scotland’s place in the European Union. So it is somewhat ironic that the opposite has turned out to be true. Scotland, despite the arguments that were made in 2014 and indeed, how we voted in 2016 when 62% of those who voted opted to remain in the European Union, it is therefore ironic that Scotland now faces being forced to leave the EU against our will.
And, of course, we face not just being forced to leave, but being forced out in a deeply damaging manner – by a UK Government that seems determined to prioritise control of migration over membership of the free market, thereby making a hard Brexit, all but inevitable.
And of course, that presents Scotland with something of a dilemma. Some people in Scotland – entirely understandably – are reluctant to have another referendum on independence in the next two years.
However if we don’t have a referendum – if we don’t give people of Scotland a choice – we will be accepting a course of action determined by a UK Government that most people in Scotland don’t vote for. And for a course of action that most people in Scotland didn’t vote for. It is a course which may be deeply damaging to our economy and our society perhaps for decades, possibly for generations to come.
In my view, that is democratically unacceptable. That is why the Scottish Parliament, just two weeks ago, agreed to seek consent from the UK Government for a further referendum on independence, once the final terms of Brexit are known. To ensure that our future as a country, whatever that future turns out to be, is decided by us, not decided for us.
So Scotland once again faces a time of intense political debate. And there are two points that I want to make about that this evening.
Although I make these points in a Scottish context, I think they are applicable to elections and to referendums the world over. And perhaps given the climate that we currently live in, fuelled sometimes by the polarising effect of social media, where opinions often matter much more than facts, these points, I think, are worth underlining.
The first of those points is this: that it’s important, in a Scottish context, but in any context, that people asked to make a choice are able to make an informed choice.
And in that respect it’s possibly worth comparing the 2014 referendum on independence with the 2016 referendum on EU membership.
A key difference was that in 2014, the Scottish Government set out a detailed prospectus for how Scotland would become independent. Now – that plan was scrutinised, analysed – and often criticised – by political opponents, by the media, by business groups and wider civic society, and of course by academics.
That analysis wasn’t always comfortable for the government – and for those of us advocating independence, of course it wasn’t – but it was incredibly valuable. And it fed into a much wider public debate about what kind of a country Scotland wanted to be, a debate that became extremely well-informed.
And it meant that in the summer of 2014, genuinely detailed issues – issues like, for example, who would be the lender of last resort for financial institutions in an independent Scotland – were not just being debated in the chamber of our Parliament or on the television by politicians and commentators and pundits, these issues were being discussed and debated in great detail in pubs and cafes; in hairdressers and bus stops; in workplaces and homes; in every part of the country.
The Scottish population became engaged, educated and informed like never before. And that included young people, a legacy that lives on today, given the lowering of the voting age in the referendum to 16, and something that in passing I would say, if it happened in the EU referendum, the result would have gone the other way.
In 2016, on the other hand, people were asked to vote for a change, without ever really being told what that change involved. A slogan on the side of a bus was as detailed as it ever got. And that detail on the side of a bus of course should never ever be confused with the truth. Nobody who wanted – and I think this is a key point of difference with the Scottish referendum where the Scottish Government was one of the key proponents for change – in the EU referendum, nobody who wanted to leave the EU had any real responsibility for setting out how that might be achieved, or what the implications were. Many big issues – for example the difference between single market membership, customs union membership and World Trade Organisation rules – these issues are only being discussed and debated widely now, when they should have been at the heart of public discussion before the vote took place.
Now – I don’t pretend for one moment that the 2014 referendum was perfect. Of course, it wasn’t. But I do think it was a far better process for debate and decision than the 2016 vote on the EU was.
And so we want to ensure that the next referendum on independence again gives people the information that they need to come to an informed and considered judgement.
Indeed, that’s why nobody wants the referendum to take place immediately. Instead, I believe it should happen once the details of the final Brexit agreement with the EU are known. And based on what the Prime Minister says currently, that is likely to be in late 2018 or early 2019.
And of course, well before the referendum debate, the Scottish Government will also set out our proposals for what an independent Scotland would look like. We will address issues such as the currency, our plans for fiscal stability and the process of securing our relationship with Europe in future. And we will do all of that with as much detail and clarity as possible.
The second point I want to make relates to the tone of the debate. Again, I make this in the context of a Scottish referendum, but it has wider applicability. By and large, and on the whole, I think that the 2014 referendum was a very positive experience for Scotland. But I know that it didn’t feel that way for everybody in Scotland.
In my view, a referendum is the only way of resolving Scotland’s future constitutional status. However one consequence of a referendum, wherever it takes place, is that it requires a binary choice – a yes or a no – from people who often have nuanced or even conflicting views about something that matters very deeply to them.
Everyone in Scotland knows – from our own experiences in 2014, although this is a point that is usually completely lost – that there was often very little difference between a no voter who was tempted by the ability to take a new path, but who had anxieties about the future; and a yes voter who felt solidarity with the rest of the UK, but who felt that ultimately Scotland would be better off if we were able to take decisions for ourselves. The polarisation that often seems to exist between politicians rarely exists within the public at large. And fundamentally, all voters simply want the best for their own families, for their own communities and for their countries. They just come to their own conclusions on how best to achieve that.
So the campaign around Scottish independence needs always to respect that fact. We need to recognise the honesty and the validity of people’s anxieties, doubts and differences of opinion.
As First Minister, I have the responsibility to lead by example. After all, the Scottish Government has a special responsibility to build consensus where we can. So I will do my best to ensure that at all times we make our case – not just with passion and conviction – but with courtesy, empathy and respect. And I hope very much that all politicians will do the same.
There is a lot of talk in Scotland right now about how an independence referendum would be divisive. But as the Church of Scotland said just a couple of weeks ago, there is nothing inevitable about this campaign or any campaign being divisive. Campaigns and politics are only divisive if we make them so. And we should be determined – all of us – not to make it so.
And as part of that, we should, of course, welcome rather than dismiss the contributions of experts. Independent academic expertise – along with a free and vigorous media and strong civic institutions – form part of the lifeblood of a strong political community, part of the lifeblood of a healthy, vibrant democracy. And that’s something all politicians – regardless of our different views and opinions – should cherish and support, rather than seek to denigrate, even when it’s not always comfortable for us.
I mentioned at the outset of my remarks that this has been a tumultuous year.
Uncertain and challenging times, I think, demand the very best from politicians, and we don’t always live up to that, but all of us have a duty to strive to do so. Times like those we’re going through right now also demand the very best of those whose job it is to try to understand and explain the events that are happening all around us. That’s certainly true for the media, but I think it’s also true for academics.
In many ways this must be a fascinating and invigorating time to work in political studies; but I’m sure it’s also a pretty challenging time to do so as well.
And so I hope that this conference has played some part in helping you to rise to the challenges that you face in your day-to-day working lives – I hope that it has helped you as you scrutinise, analyse, inform and enlighten. Because when you do that, when you do it well as you so often do, you are enriching public life and you are strengthening democratic debate.
So that’s why I am so genuinely delighted to see so many of you here this evening. I hope you have had a great time in Glasgow, I hope you learned a lot about the political situation here in Scotland, just as you will have taught us much about the political events elsewhere that you know best. So I wish all of you the very best for the remainder of the conference.