On 26th March 2013, the University of Stirling hosted a debate on Scottish independence hosted by the University of Stirling Chancellor and BBC Radio 4 presenter, James Naughtie. The debate was a very lively affair and featured salient points made by both Yes and Better Together representatives. Unsparingly the majority of those who were in attendance at the debate intend to vote No in 2014. Head of News, Liam Beattie, caught up with Naughtie where they talked about the debate and the media coverage leading up to the referendum.
After being thoroughly impressed with his chairing of the debate, I was delighted to have secured an interview with James Naughtie who made the headlines last year after a now infamous mispronunciation. On approaching Naughtie I informed him who I was and this was met with a very warm handshake and was politely told to refer to him simply as ‘Jim’. After several failed attempts to find a quiet area in the Logie Lecture Theatre, we decided to sit at the back of the room and begin chatting.
I kicked the questions off by asking what his thoughts were on the debate that had just concluded.
“I thought it was a good debate, I thought what was interesting about it was you got a bit of the colour and the flavour of what we will be hearing over the next 18 months. The interesting thing about it is, on the one hand you get some quite complicated arguments about how the economic figures stack up, what happens to Trident and the arguments about the legal framework under which EU accession talks would take place with an independent Scotland, which is all important stuff. But what we also got, and what I was particularly glad about, was a more gusty argument about the gut feeling about an independent Scotland being able to go its own way. We heard the Yes Scotland campaign arguing that they could create the kind of society, which you know would be smaller, would be less powerful, might even be a little poorer but would in their view be better. And from the Better Together campaign we had the view that, there was really something offensive about believing that in these countries, which have been yanked together for more than three hundred years, you could separate them off and have them doing different things, when in fact we are all in this together. Those are two very different fundamental and quite different points of view, but they are terribly important because they underpin the more practical arguments and I am glad that came out together with all the passion that people showed.”
Even before the referendum date was set, there had already been many high profile debates take place on the issue of Scottish independence. In the next 18 months Scots will be exposed to lots of statistics, rhetoric and passionate arguments from both sides. I was keen to know whether Naughtie thought that people were warming to the debate on independence.
“Well yes, it is almost dangerous to say that people are warming to a debate because then the whole thing dries up and people start going round saying they are fed up of it, of course there will be peaks and troughs. But the truth is this is a debate that has been going on in Scotland in different ways for a very long time. I am old enough to remember the first time of the rise of Scottish nationalism in the early 70s on the back of the discovery of North Sea Oil and then the arguments about proposed devolution in 1979, it is always there. It comes in peaks and troughs. But I do think this time there is a genuine argument about whether, in an independent world it makes sense to have an independent state or whether we are creating a different kind of world where the notion of small 19th century independent states is really outdated. And that is a terribly fundamental argument about the way the world is going to be divided up, the way that parliaments and governments operate in the 21st century. Of course over and above that, does it make any difference if Scotland is independent from the UK because of the forces that are operating across the world – in defence, the economy are perhaps above all that. These are terribly fundamental questions and I do think that people are very concerned about them. My own hope would be that most people vote on a thoughtful approach to these questions and not just because they feel in a Braveheart sort of mood and decide to vote Yes, or in an ‘I hate Alex Salmond’ mood and vote No.”
Finally, as a representative of the UK’s largest media outlet, I wanted to hear Naughtie’s thoughts on the role of the media in the run up to the referendum.
“One of the things that I think is quite interesting and I think slightly depressing, is that sometimes despite the arrival of devolution in 1999, it seems the level of comment and debate in the Scottish press and parts of the Scottish media generally isn’t as high as it should be. There is a parliament operating in Edinburgh, there is all kind of things going on that didn’t used to go on in Edinburgh and it seems to me that the public discourse hasn’t yet lifted itself up to that level. It hasn’t met the seriousness of events and I would hope that the UK media understands Scotland a bit better than most of them do at the moment. But that in Scotland there is a really mature, well informed and informative leadership from the media so that people are getting reflected the complexity of the debate because I think that only a fool would say that it is a simple debate. I hope the Scottish media rise to the challenge and it is really important because if they don’t I think it is a pretty sad day and not a very good advertisement for our country”
The points raised by Naughtie during our brief chat are very important ones, particularly the issues around the media coverage of the independence debate. Many Scots are still very unsure how they intend to vote next year and are looking to the media to provide those answers.