We can't afford a post-truth referendum

In the new edition of the Oxford Dictionary, squeezed between ‘post-Tridentine’ and ‘post-vaccinal’ you will find a word that characterises what passes for debate among too many of our politicians.

After a referendum on Scottish independence, another on membership of the European Union and the US presidential election, ‘post-truth’ is a concept with we have all grown familiar, so much so that it will now appear in our national lexicon.

The age of post-truth politics is upon us, in campaigns where emotional appeals and plausible-but-false assertions are used to overcome objective facts. As we have seen recently with the election of Donald Trump, this atmosphere can produce unexpected results.  We also see the phenomenon internationally, notably in the half-truths and obfuscation of Russia's Sputnik Radio and RT television station, but also in the pronouncements of nationalist politicians in continental Europe.

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People are making decisions in elections and referendums, potentially with far-reaching social and economic consequences, based on competing ‘facts’ and contradictory information, not knowing what to believe. 

Think back to our referendum two years ago: Would we be able to keep the pound? Would we be better off under independence or in the union? Was another oil boom on the horizon? Would the Scottish NHS really be privatised if there was a No vote? Would ‘The Vow’ be delivered? Would a separate Scotland automatically be in the EU?

Both the UK and Scottish Governments, and all the political parties, were participants in the referendum, and denounced each other throughout the campaign. With each passing week, the accusations of fibbing and exaggeration for political advantage grew louder, leaving the voters bemused and uncertain.

The public were left to pick their way through this minefield and make an educated guess on the future of our country based on who they trusted more. Many of these ‘debates’ are still raging on today, more than two years after the vote.  Perhaps the most persistent example is the citing of 'whisky export duty' during attempts to discredit the meticulous work which goes into the Scottish Government's 'GERS' statistics - despite both HMRC and the Scottish Government having confirmed the 'export duty' does not exist. 

If people won't trust politicians, who should we listen to before making these decisions about our future? Even the validity of experts was questioned in the European Union referendum.  People were again left to guess the answers to the questions they were asking: Was the whole of Turkey planning to move en masse to the UK if we stay? Would George Osborne punish us all in his next budget if we defied him? Were our regiments about to be co-opted into a European army? Would we really get £350 million a week extra to spend on the NHS? 

If the European Union referendum was fraught, it looked like a picnic compared to US election, and Donald Trump has come to personify the concept of post-truth politics. During the campaign, Mr Trump even contradicted himself from one interview to the next, very effectively telling people what they wanted to hear.

At least the people who are disappointed by the election of Donald Trump can console themselves with this fact: they will get another chance to put things right in four years. But that luxury is not afforded to those of us taking part in referendums where these decisions can be final and irreversible.

With such high stakes and their political careers on the line, it’s no wonder that politicians and activists push the boundaries of truth with their claims and counter-claims in referendum campaigns. But the accusations of bad faith on both sides in each of our referendums have left far too many on the losing side unable to accept the result and the country divided, whether over the EU or Scottish independence.

Now Nicola Sturgeon is using this sense of grievance to push for a second referendum on Scottish independence. I think she is wrong even to produce a draft bill at this stage. We had a fair and decisive referendum and most Scots don’t want a re-run. I knew there would probably be an EU referendum when I cast my No vote, and although I voted Remain in the EU referendum I accept the result and still want to stay part of the UK, as I believe it is clearly still in the best interests of Scotland and of the UK.

If, however, the majority of Scots are to be dragged into a referendum campaign against our will, perhaps it is worth using this opportunity to see what we can learn from our referendum experiences to ensure people go to the polls in the future, informed and confident. How can we provide the public with indisputable, unvarnished facts which are not tainted by desperate campaigners whose will to win surpasses their sense of fair play or objective analysis?  How can we avoid politicians bending the truth or indulging in scare stories such as Ms Sturgeon's 2014 threats that the Scottish NHS would be privatised if we voted No?

In our submission to the Scottish Government’s consultation on the draft referendum, among other sensible suggestions about the question, the franchise and campaign financing, Scotland in Union has suggested that an independent panel of experts be agreed by both sides to adjudicate on behalf of the Scottish people.

This ‘Truth Commission’, a team of unimpeachable fact-checkers, assembled on the basis of their independence and qualifications and respected by both sides, could be trusted to pick their way through the competing claims by the campaigns and deliberate on who is being accurate and who is mistaken.

Time and time again, people tell us they want the facts. In any future referendums, they should have them, not forced to decide which politician is the most convincing. As someone who campaigns for Scotland to stay in the UK, I don’t fear the facts. I believe they strengthen my argument and I am happy to put them to the test.

If we are ever forced to have another referendum on this issue, I hope the independence campaigners have the confidence of their argument and submit their claims to an agreed panel of experts who can say who is right and who is wrong.

The people of Scotland deserve the truth if they are to be asked to vote again on independence. If we are forced to have another referendum, being able to agree the key facts will perhaps enable us to make the right decision and then move on together.

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