|Inverness - October 2011|
I write this on the day that sees the launch of the Yes Scotland campaign marking the start of the effort to secure a yes vote in the hard-won referendum to decide Scotland's constitutional future. Like the arrival of the minority SNP government in 2007 and the stunning election victory a little over a year ago, today marks a very real milestone in the history of our nation.
As I write my mind goes back to another significant occasion - the SNP Conference in October 2011 when Alex Salmond declared that the SNP would, "campaign full square for independence in the coming referendum". I knew, of course, that there was going to be a referendum. Among the many things signalled by the result of the May 2011 election was the end of the decades-long Labour/Tory/LibDem fight to deny the people of Scotland a say in the matter of their country's constitutional status. But it was at Inverness last October when the reality of the referendum was truly brought home to me.
My first reaction was to assume that this firming-up of the referendum would prompt a widespread debate around the issue of independence and that there would be some demand for online venues in which such debate might be conducted. So I immediately set up a forum for this purpose. The idea was to keep this forum as open as possible with very light-touch moderation and as few impediments as possible to those who wished to participate or merely observe. The hope was that the site would attract a full range of views on the matter of Scotland's constitution, the referendum and related issues. Having run numerous online forums, and participated in many more, I was not naive enough to imagine that the discussion would always stay at an elevated level. Such topics can be emotive and I was prepared to deal with some "robust" debate. In fact, I was looking forward to it.
To cut a long story short, I abandoned the project after threes months. The site had attracted a reasonable following in that time and the membership was growing. But not even one unionist was prepared to engage in this debate. We'd get the occasional "drive-by" comment from some British nationalist fanatic. Typically nothing more constructive than a bit of infantile name-calling directed at Alex Salmond. But no attempt to make any substantive points in favour of the union, and no effort to rebut any of the arguments advanced by pro-independence contributors.
Looking to encourage wider participation I trawled the web for pro-union websites of a similar nature. I was unable to discover any. All I could find were anti-independence sites where no open discussion was permitted; all comments were pre-moderated; and where any pro-independence comments were generally disallowed and the contributor blocked..
What I learned from this experience was that, for all their talk of the need for "proper debate", unionists were quite evidently entirely unprepared and unwilling to participate in such debate on anything other than terms dictated by themselves. And in the weeks and months that have followed I have seen nothing to indicate that this situation has changed.
Today will see the launch of the campaign for a yes vote in the 2014 referendum. But don't expect it to be the start of an informed, honest and meaningful debate. The unionist/anti-independence lobby still aren't ready for that. And I'm beginning to suspect they never will be.