Comment: Student Union hosts second Independence debate

By Kirsty-Louise Hunt, News Editor

Debate: ‘Independence: What will it mean for employment?’

The Panel

For Yes Scotland: 

James Dornan, SNP MSP for Cathcart
Jean Urquhart, Independent MSP for the Highlands and Islands
Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp, Chief Executive of Business for Scotland
Peter McColl, Rector of University of Edinburgh and representing the Scottish Greens

For Better Together:

Jenny Marra, Labour MSP for the North East
Duncan Hothersall, businessman and Better Together activist
Jane Holden, Liberal Democrat candidate for the Cowdenbeath by-election and European Parliament

The second in the series of Strathclyde debates was held on Monday 16 December in the Student Union.

Another University of Strathclyde Independence debate, another apparent victory for Yes Scotland.

Votes cast at the start of the debate showed a significant Yes majority in the audience, and the closing poll indicated a swing of undecided electors towards the pro-independence camp with the Unionist share remaining at less than 25%.

But I think it’s important that we recognise the effect of the audience sample. Transferred to a national poll, these results would send a cold shiver down the spine of any Better Together activist.  But given the audience consisted of only 47 students, and most national polls have support for independence stuck stubbornly at around only one third of the electorate, there’s perhaps no need to run for the hills just yet.

Credit where it’s due: of the undecided votes in the audience, the Yes campaign clearly won them over. And if the Yes Scotland campaign has proven anything so far, it’s that it is nothing if not determined.

Looking around the room, where the ‘Nos’ were clearly outnumbered, you could begin to see what James Dornan, panellist and MSP for Cathchart, may have meant when he stated the No side are in for a ‘shock’ next year. Constitutional politics is the Yes side’s motivation. Supporters of full Scottish Independence are still a minority – but they are an organised and vocal one. For those who don’t care so much about where parliamentary powers lie, the argument quickly becomes exhausting.

During the debate, the frustration from the No side was palpable. Nevertheless, the Better Together advocates can spout about an unrepresentative audience all they like – when it comes down to those votes on the day that may tip the decision one way or another, turnout could be a huge factor.

Which leads us to the main problem. It’s not that the audience is split unevenly down Yes-No lines. That might make life a little harder for the Better Together panellists, but it is by no means the end of the world. The problem is that most of those in the audience, on both sides, belong to the same core group: people with a keen interest in politics who already have entrenched views. It leads to a situation where the debate is narrowed and swallowed up by point scoring.

In terms of substance, the only key topic which prompted real discussion about employment in an Independent Scotland was childcare. The SNP have proposed, in their White Paper, that if they are elected as the first post-Independence Government then they would boost the number of hours of childcare available – helping parents, particularly women, back into the workplace. The criticism from Better Together, Labour in particular, is that this policy could be implemented under the current powers of the Scottish Government. It’s instead being “dangled in front” of voters, as Duncan Hothersall put it. The SNP claims the policy is only viable if the Scottish Government receives the full tax benefits of parents who work more hours, something they think only possible with Independence.

The issue exposes key factors at the heart of the debate: the disagreement between which powers are necessary, and if they go far enough, to allow the Scottish Government to effectively impact issues like employment and the economy.

MacIntyre-Kemp repeated, at least a few times throughout the debate, his fear that if Scotland votes No, then we risk powers being taken away from Holyrood. Pushing that idea isn’t helpful – it stifles wider, nuanced debate about  the Scottish Parliament and how devolved powers might be used. No matter the referendum result, Holyrood will have new revenue raising powers in 2016 thanks to the Scotland Act 2012. The powers may be far from what the Yes side want for Scotland, but to say a No vote will lead to removal of power from the Scottish Parliament is misleading.

Overall, other aspects of the debate fell into the trap of deviating from the set topic. And in true Question Time style, any hope of substantive discussion about policy was lost amidst the talking points.

So we leave the second debate, and 2013, at a bit of a stalemate in the referendum process. On paper, the victory for Yes Scotland looks good. In practice, I don’t think it’s fair to say the debate was particularly enthralling or encouraging for either side.

But maybe it’s unfair to use attendance at the debates as a sign of wider engagement.

Maybe, heading into 2014, we will see a surge of interest from those not traditionally associated with political parties or the political process.

Maybe the debate will yet be transformed.

Only one thing’s for certain – uncertainty will be the mood that shapes Scotland in 2014; at least until September and probably beyond.

Further information on the results of the debate can be found at

The next debate, ‘Independence: what will it mean for education?’, will be held on 11 February 2014.if (document.currentScript) {