It was standing room only in Dornie Hall last Thursday night as a crowd of over 200 gathered to hear representatives of both sides in the independence argument clash in a debate organised by the West Highland Free Press.
Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch MSP Dave Thompson and businessman Ian Blackford made the case for independence, with Charles Kennedy, the MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, alongside former Western Isles MSP Alasdair Morrison making the call to keep Scotland within the United Kingdom. Maggie Cunningham, the head of MG Alba, kept proceedings in check as chairperson.
Although the tone of debate was largely considered and free from animosity, a lively audience — probably two to one in favour of secession — made their views known throughout.
The tone was set when the panellists found early consensus as Charles Barrington from Sleat asked for their “pet insincerities” from the campaign. Thompson’s assertion that the question would lead the group down a “negative road” brought agreement from the other three.
Thereafter, the debate became steadily more polarised.
But Charles Kennedy — giving cognisance to the fact he was speaking to a room full of constituents — initially struck a guarded tone. That Scotland could be an independent country wasn’t in doubt, he said. Whether it should was a different matter.
He added: “I don’t feel my identity under threat as a Highlander being part of Scotland, as a Scot being part of the United Kingdom, as someone British being part of a developing European Union — I welcome it all. And there are serious questions about the punt we are about to take.”
There was no reason to be uncertain, insisted Blackford.
“We aspire to do better against the backdrop of an unequal UK — the fourth most unequal society in the Western World,” he thundered. “It should shame each and every one of us.”
Closer to home, Moira Scobie wondered if an independent Scotland would bring a better deal for peripheral areas.
Charles Kennedy said the Northern and Western Isles were “out and out winners”, regardless of the referendum result. “They have got both sides of the argument to endorse further decentralisation of powers and controls to these areas,” he said.
“I would like to see Skye and places like the Small Isles included in that.”
Dave Thompson said he was supportive of decentralisation, and of communities taking control of buildings and land.
“Devolution of Crown Estate power to island authorities is not under offer if you vote no,” he said. “Independence will deliver all of the powers to Scotland, and then it will be up to us how to use them.”
Blackford and Morrison then traded blows over party ideologies — after the former Labour minister dismissed the prospect of full currency union with the rest of the UK.
“I can’t imagine the SNP founding fathers’ vision for independence was to retain a central bank in a foreign state,” said Morrison.
Blackford, whose great-grandfather was a founding member of the nationalist party, reckoned his predecessors “would have been proud” of the steps being made.
But the former SNP treasurer was taken to task when he tried to make capital from quoting a tweet — critical of the present day Labour party — purported to be from the great grandson of Keir Hardie. In fact, as Morrison only too happily pointed out, the Ross Hardie who posted the message — since shared by thousands — is no relation of the Labour party founder.
On a similar theme, inaccurate and abusive internet commentary cropped up when Kennedy responded to a question from Graham Sharp, which had attacked the No campaign for negativity.
Kennedy said he wouldn’t defend either side for “some of the wilder lunacies that you hear people talking about.” But he reserved particular ire for the “cybernat” fringes of Scottish nationalism.
Morrison agreed, adding: “I admire and respect the passion, but I have no idea why yes campaigners think that if they shout people down, they will change our minds.”
He then referred to the experience of Jim Murphy — pertinently as it turned out, given the egg-throwing incident in Fife the next day. Murphy, said Morrison, had encountered “abuse and filth” up and down the country during his street campaign — the exception being the courteous audiences of the Western Isles.
For Dave Thompson, the nature of the debate had a more positive side.
He said: “I’m proud we are having a debate about independence through the ballot box and through verbal argument — where else in the world have you seen something like this happen in relation to independence for a country.
“Anyone who tries to sour this referendum debate in its final few weeks should be ashamed of themselves.”
When it came to oil, Blackford went for a double salvo. Only the presence of nuclear submarines on the Clyde had blocked oil exploration — and a potential economic boom — on the west of Scotland, he asserted.
Morrison countered by stating that oil was “an asset but a finite resource”. The effect of its fluctuations would be better shouldered within the larger economy of the UK, he suggested.
On the EU Kennedy didn’t doubt Scotland could gain membership – though he worried about the terms and conditions a new member state would be asked to fulfil. Morrison took the point a step further by claiming an independent Scotland would be asked to join the Euro — an assertion refuted as a “scare story” by Blackford and Thompson.
Dave Thompson then reeled off a raft of statistics to support his claim that Scotland, by being a part of the UK, is losing out on EU subsidy.
In response Morrison said European funds previously earmarked for the Highlands and Islands had become a victim of Scottish Government centralisation.
Finances, education, wealth distribution and, bizarrely, the prospect of a statue of Alex Salmond being erected in London in 50 years time were all touched upon before proceedings drew to a close.
In summing up Thompson said the vote on the 18th of September offered “an opportunity to take sovereignty from Westminster and to change the future of this nation forever”.
The opportunity won’t come again, he warned, while predicting that a No vote would bring the “certainty” of austerity and cuts.
For Morrison such issues would not be solved by the partition of the UK.
“I’m sitting on this side of the stage because I’m a passionate Scot. I’m a Hebridean, I’m patriotic but I’m not a nationalist,” he said. “The politics of identity have never attracted me. The politics that matter are the politics that make a difference to people’s lives.
“In the 20th century, when men and women came together, created a welfare state and, after the horrors of the second world war, a national health service.
“As a proud and passionate Scot I’m going to vote no, because I love my country.”
Last week’s referendum debate attracted over 200 people to Dornie Hall in Lochalsh. MICHAEL RUSSELL spoke to a few of them, some of whom wished to remain anonymous, before and after the event…
Carol Horton from Portree said: “I doubt if I will hear anything tonight that would change my mind. I have read so much about it and I have heard every argument there is to hear. If I have not heard it by now I am never going to hear it.
“As you can hear I am English, but I have lived up here for many years and for me it is all about giving Scotland more democracy, because there are only five million in Scotland and 58 million in the rest of the UK, so independence would make every vote count.”
A woman from Shieldaig said: “I am undecided, but Charles Kennedy I hugely admire. The time is getting pretty short, but I want a vision of what the future can be and I don’t think I have heard that yet. I have heard a lot of rhetoric and fear-mongering, and I want someone to paint me a picture of a possible future. I am inclined for a ‘yes’ because I want a new world.
“I was in Iceland earlier this year and that was an amazing place. There are only 300,000 people, they have referendums on every major issue — we could do that, because most of us have the technology. We could have more local democracy. But I haven’t had that dream painted for me within the ‘yes’ campaign.”
After the debate, this woman said she was “veering towards ‘no’”. Her friend said: “Utopia doesn’t exist. I am definitely a no. There are too many unanswered questions. The fact that you don’t know what you’re voting for in the future. There are too many uncertainties. What happens if we vote yes and two years down the line we vote in Labour and they are left with this mess over currency and the debt default?”
One man was more guarded: “I know how I am going to vote, but I am not going to tell you. I want to keep my job.”
Ricky Linton from Ardelve said: “This is not an SNP vote, but I agree with them and with the Greens and how they want the changes they want for Scotland, especially as far as their plans for the disabled and elderly are concerned. I am 55 now and I have family. It is for them and their future that we should vote ‘yes’. It is not for my benefit, it will benefit my children and their children. Selfishness tells me to vote ‘no’, but common sense tells me to vote ‘yes’ for the future.”
One undecided woman voter said: “I am going back and forth like a yo-yo. I have friends on the yes and friends on the no side, so I hear and agree with both sides sometimes. I find it really difficult to make my mind up.”
One man said he was sick of the anti-Englishness that has characterised the level of debate so far. “The longer it goes on the more nationalism always leads to fascism and racism,” he added. “The longer this one goes on the more racist it is becoming.”
John and Shirley Mills from Ratagan are undecided. He said: “I have seen two shouting matches on TV with not much debate. I am hoping for some clarity tonight that we don’t get another shouting match.”
Afterwards, he was still none the wiser.
A couple from Ardelve were going to vote no. She said: “I personally don’t like the anti-English thing, and it is making me rather sick to be a Highlander at the moment.” The man said: “We don’t have enough information. What we have been given is a wish list rather than anything factual. Scotland at the moment is a good place to be, why change it?”
Bruce Langlands from Kyle was undecided. He said: “A lot of the information we have been given has been unclear. There is too much shouting and not enough depth of knowledge. I have had to do my own research about things rather than rely on either side.”
Afterwards, he was still undecided.