‘Take back control?’ Why arguments for independence must be simple without being simplistic
Peter Morgan Barnes
Politicians often speak in a way that comes across as confusing and unrelatable, and that needs to change.
The language with which we discuss independence is critical to winning support for it from the sceptical. One characteristic of our times is that conventional broadsheet political discourse has failed to engage people in the way that tabloid slogans have.
Who’d want “the freedoms enshrined in the principles of practical subsidiarity mean there never has been an issue of undemocratic directives” when you could have “take back control”.
Who’d want “equal opportunities and inclusivity in the jobs market” when you can have “British jobs for British workers” instead.
Is it possible for broadsheet arguments to be engaging without becoming trite simplifications? I believe they can. The arguments for independence do not have to fall into the broadsheet/tabloid binary. We can make arguments that are simple to understand without being simplistic.
When politicians address the public or defend their funding decisions in interviews, they tend to use the same terms they employ when working on them.
“We will spend 3.7 bn capital investment for a planting programme and habitat restoration as part of our commitment to the environment…” (Jeremy Corbyn launching Labour’s Green Manifesto in the 2019 election).
“We will enshrine in law our pledge to spend an extra 33.9 billion a year on the NHS within the first 100 days of a Tory government” (Boris Johnson, election pledge on 4th December 2019).
“Plaid Cymru is promising a £15bn Welsh Green Jobs Revolution paid for by the UK government increasing capital investment for 10 years and Wales getting its share of that. It would also ask the Treasury to allow the Welsh Government to borrow £5bn and use both funding sources pay for “tens of thousands” of new green jobs.” (Plaid Cymru election manifesto, 2019).
But what are £3.7bn or £33.9bn or £15bn? Is it a lot or a little? Few of us have ever been responsible for the safe disposal of even £1 million, let alone a billion.
Wales has one billionaire apparently and, for most of us, such figures are literally inconceivable. We have no idea what sort of transformation we can reasonably expect for the money, so we are at the mercy of politicians’ assurances that these sums really will create two billion trees by 2040, that it is more than £20.5bn in ‘real terms’, that tens of thousands of jobs can be afforded from this sum.
But contrast this way of arguing with being told that 5,000 trees will be planted in your borough at a cost of £70,000, that nurses pay will go up by £250 a month, that 20 new jobs will be created in the green sector for each Welsh borough, every year, for 10 years.
These figures are conceivable and we can judge whether it is a realistic promise, whether its value for money, an extravagant promise or a stingy one (not that I’m suggesting the three party’s figures break down to these figures).
To persuade people that independence is viable, I believe we have to change our discourse. It is no good telling sceptics that we could get £5bn for selling our own water which we currently export for nothing. The figure needs to made imaginable by pointing out that it is £1,660 per person per year in Wales, nearly £5,000 for a family of three.
When electricity is added on at around £1.5 bn, the figure rises to £2,166 per person or nearly £6,500 for a family of three. Wales has about 1.4 million residences by the last count, so £4,642 per house.
The reason imaginable sums are not used by politicians, of course, is that the discrepancies between the promise and the delivery are immediately identifiable, and this is less so with the vast figures.
But perhaps the reason so many independence advocates use the same terminologies as Westminster politicians is nothing so Machiavellian. I think it is due to a desire to make the case sound respectable. I believe it is to give it the appearance of authority by using the language of professionals. Doing so makes it ‘fit in’ with the kinds of policy discourse the media respect.
This approach aims to Sturgeonise the argument, showing an intense grasp of detail and ineluctable logic. This would be fine and dandy if Wales had Scotland’s genius stateswoman’s electoral numbers, but we don’t.
Our audience are the sceptics for whom promised billions butter no parsnips. They do, however, respond well to specific figures for the real costs they really meet in real life.
Childcare costs, fuel prices, widow’s pensions, farm subsidies, train and bus fares, utility bills, these are the figures I suggest we need to supply if we wish to persuade.
If we are to persuade people that independence is the right thing for Wales, we need to speak in a way that relates to their day to day lives.