Scots want the facts. The status quo, a reformed UK, and independence should all be exposed to expert, parliamentary, and public scrutiny
Speak to Scots these days about the big constitutional questions facing our country, and there is one big thing all of us do agree on: we don’t have the facts.
Whether people are No, Yes, or Undecided on independence and the Union, almost everybody says they need more information. They are burnt by the experience of the 2014 referendum and the Brexit vote. Wild promises on the side of a bus, false claims on lurid posters and fake news on the internet have made them more sceptical than ever.
With our economics of our world now so different from pre-Covid certainties, that demand for facts and evidence is now more pressing than ever. It would be a travesty of democracy if the most important question – the very existence of the United Kingdom – is to be subject to such minimal scrutiny before any irreversible decision is made.
Yet despite everything we have gone through over the last few years, and despite entire forests having been levelled to report on the complex politics of Scotland, scrutiny of the economic and social consequences of the constitutional options we have on offer is scant.
When it comes to the costs or benefits of independence, the detail is missing entirely. Instead, there is a huge information gap. In the exact same way that the Vote Leave campaign deliberately decided not to set out any detail on the reality of post-Brexit Britain, so there is now an eerie nationalist silence on what independence really means. Key questions lie unanswered: what is the plan for our currency if and when we dump the UK pound? Given our deficit is now the largest in Europe, far higher than set out in the SNP’s now out- of- date Wilson report, how can they deliver on their promises on pension health and welfare ? What happens to our border with England and to our trade? The SNP says leaving the EU, which accounts for 15% of our exports, was a disaster: if that is the case, what is the loss of jobs if we leave the UK which accounts for nearly 60 per cent ?
But it isn’t just the nationalists: we also need deep dive scrutiny of the status quo too and into what Boris Johnson’s’ so- called ‘muscular unionism’means for a post-Brexit, post-Covid Scotland. This should include the implications of his Internal Market Bill, his Shared Prosperity Fund and his view that devolution is a ‘disaster’.
We also need to examine the merits of change within the UK that is now the subject of investigation by a Labour Party Commission on the Constitution and which I am happy to see put to the test.
In the post Covid world we must expose all these options to the sunlight of scrutiny, and I suggest three key platforms for doing so.
We need a trial of the evidence with independent think tanks, research organisations and academic institutions encouraged to assess the claims made by all parties and subject them to close examination.
This is not just a demand to ‘open the books’: it is a call to subject all the arguments and claims about the future government of Scotland to an open process of investigation.
Secondly, and crucially, I believe we should also agree a trial by parliamentary scrutiny. We should ask our parliamentary democracy to step up to its task of ensuring proper transparency and accountability , and to hold to account those who govern us. All the options open to us -independence, the status quo and reform within the UK- should be subject to parliamentary hearings, looking at all the evidence.
The Scottish Parliament and the two Houses of Parliament in the UK- the House of Commons and the House of Lords- should each set up investigative committees made up of senior MSPs and MPs from all sides. These select committees should call and interrogate witnesses on the impact of all options on the currency, economics, the EU, pensions, welfare, climate change and defence and security and then report on their analysis of the facts.
Parliamentary hearings can pave the way for the third test: an open examination by the public – with new Citizens Assemblies convened and given the chance to test, stretch and dissect the evidence in front of them. Here we can learn lessons not only from the recent experience of a Citizens Assemblies in Scotland but from Ireland where a Citizens Assembly helped the country negotiate potentially its most divisive debates ever -on legalising abortion- without the bitterness many predicted. A representative group of 100 – half initially pro-abortion, half against – came together and talked the issues through, exploring differences, asking questions of experts and interacting with each other on their fears and hopes. Remarkably, but encouragingly, people of devout faith and resolute feminists found common ground. I’d support a series of such assemblies right around the country, and if we can free ourselves from the rancor of past debates, a similar outcome might be possible in Scotland.
Quite simply, Scots deserve the facts, not fiction scrawled on a bus, or slogans that twist the facts.
And in that spirit, I am happy for any ideas I have to be put to the test, and interrogated, challenged, and subjected to the grilling of politicians and the public. Let us now see if both no-change Conservatives and no-compromise Nationalists are as happy to see their own proposals scrutinised in the same detail and put to the sword.
So let us put forward our ideas. Let us put them to the test in our parliaments. Let us expose them to the light of public scrutiny and see whether they blossom in the open air, or wilt under the sun.
This article originally appeared in The Times under the title “We Must Fill the Independence Information Gap”.