Strathclyde student union hosts debate – ‘Independence: What will it mean for Glasgow?’

By Kirsty-Louise Hunt, News Editor

As it happened

With less than 10 months to go to Scotland’s referendum on Independence, the University of Strathclyde is getting in on the action to promote awareness of the debate amongst students.

The Student Union hosted the first of a series of panel discussions on 18 November, inviting 8 panelists along to debate the proposition ‘Independence: what will it mean for Glasgow?’

Audience members were asked to place a ballot of their preference on the way in to the event and again after the debate to show whether there was any change of opinion.

At the start of the discussion the percentage of the 66 member audience indicating a yes preference was 56.5%, undecided at 17.7% and a no preference of 25.8%.

Panelists for the ‘Yes’ camp included Councillor Graeme Hendry, leader of the SNP group in Glasgow City Council; Yes Scotland supporter, and the sole woman on the panel, Natalie McGarry; John Finnie, ex-SNP  MSP for Highlands and Islands and Patrick Harvie, Green MSP for Glasgow.

The ‘No’ side was represented by Glasgow City Council Labour leader Gordon Matheson, Better Together representative Mike Dailly, Chair of Glasgow City Conservative Association Richard Sullivan and Liberal Democrat South Lanarkshire Councillor Robert Brown.

Chaired by Strathclyde’s own Professor John Curtice, the discussion kicked off with each panel member given 3 minutes to answer the title proposition.

The debate began with the very well tread ground of Labour versus the SNP, the paradigm which has shaped the popular debate so far, with Graeme Hendry starting for the Yes side followed by his city council counterpart Gordon Mathieson.

Hendry began with a script like summary of the benefits of Glasgow and how the city has “much to capitalise on” as Scotland’s economic powerhouse.

Matheson countered by rejecting the notion the referendum was the ‘biggest decision’ Scotland would make in 300 years, in an attempt to shift the debate onto what he dubbed “far more significant issues”. Asserting his politics as “fundamentally not constitutional”, the exchange between the Glasgow City councillors set the tone for the debate and exposed the key tensions between both sides.

Next up to the podium was Natalie McGarry followed by Mike Dailly, whose exchanges were a similar flavour to those who had gone before. But so far, so good – even if a bit predictable. The second half of the panel, however, proved to be more intriguing than the first.

Finnie was refreshing, in his acknowledgment that Independence would offer “opportunities, not promises”, even rejecting to an extent the label of nationalist in favour of internationalist. Claiming to care as much for workers in Liverpool as those in Leith, his justification for supporting Independence is that he’s only in a position to improve the lives of those in Scottish territory.

Conservative Richard Sullivan, after a dubious opening with a quote from Henry the 8th, was eager to point out that the point of the debate was about the institutions and not “social largess”. But given that his later defence of the controversial Bedroom Tax gained groans all round, it’s unsurprising he was keen to steer the discussion away from policy detail.

The stand out speaker of the night appeared to be Patrick Harvie, who launched a passionate attack on the grip of crony capitalism on Glasgow and claimed Independence as the opportunity to wrest back democratic control of the city. The tirade against corporations and low wages struck a chord with the audience, who rewarded the MSP with rapturous applause.

As Robert Brown wrapped up for the ‘No’ team, the debate took another interesting turn when Prof. Curtice moved to take questions, allowing a number of key issues to be brought to the fore.

Stephen Campbell from ‘Yes Strathclyde’ was first up, asking about child poverty and the Bedroom Tax – would things be different in an Independent Scotland?

Finnie responded by arguing Scotland’s “social democratic consensus”  meant Holyrood would never make such a decision. Maybe – but there wasn’t much discussion about the possible resurgence of Scotland’s right wing under a detoxified conservative brand, should Scotland choose to vote Yes. Indeed, one of the key themes of the No argument which kept surfacing throughout was the ‘folly’ to presume Scotland’s natural inclination for progressiveness.

The next question was from first year Better Together supporter Kenneth Watt about BEA job losses on the Clyde and opened the door to some interesting thoughts on defence in general.

Both sides initially fell over themselves to assert that they were the ‘true’ champion of shipbuilding.  In all the rhetoric about diversification and keeping jobs on the Clyde, it was sometimes difficult to distinguish points of difference. But Matheson was well spoken on the subject, targeting the single mindedness of what he dubbed “true believers” of the Independence cause.

McGarry and Harvie were notable dissenting voices – calling for major diversification and “a defence force not an offence force”. Harvie stated boldly he would rather have “more rowing boats than warships” – a statement that won favour with the crowd, though may not match up to the same scrutiny when it comes to wider opinion polls.

From questions such as why devolution is not already enough to what would happen to Scotland’s immigration policy in the event of Independence, the prompts from the audience helped deepen the debate past the artificial issues of presentation.

By the close, the debate was no further forward in terms of a definitive panel consensus – but the audience left hopefully a little more informed, and apparently appeared won over by the Yes argument. After the debate, the yes vote rose by + 4.1%, undecided dropped by -2.5% and the no preference fell by -1.6%. The post-debate results were 60.6% yes, 15.2% undecided and 24.2% opting for no.

The challenge will remain over the  next few months to ensure that the wider student audience is engaged with the debate and that all voices can be heard.

The next debate, focusing on what Independence will mean for employment, will take place in the Student Union on Monday 16 December. You can register to attend at:

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