Just in from this year’s John P. Macintosh memorial lecture in the University of Edinburgh’s magnificent Playfair Library. After Rhodri Morgan’s typically barnstorming lecture last year on Wales as a Celtic Bermuda Triangle again kept the bar high, this year’s less ebullient but measured and erudite contribution from the BBC’s Brian Taylor did not disappoint in providing sound possibilities as options.
Never one to dodge a hot topic, Brian squared up to current affairs with “Scotland’s Referendum: who, what, when, where, why?” and proceeded to address each of the questions posed, though not, as he said, in that order. As an nationalist who survived the brutally lean years of the ‘feeble fifty’ eighties and the walking-dead Tories of the nineties when the press would rather sabotage their presses than write much positive about the cause of independence, those, like Brian who sought to pitch both sides fairly were rare and appreciated. This lecture showed why they still are.
The audience at a Macintosh Lecture is usually the East Lothian/Edinburgh Labour Party at prayer. But, starting in the nineties, local SNP activists also laid claim to a man of principle who stood up for Scotland, arguing his case for devolution fluently at a time when such radical thought was not well received, even in his own party. Since Labour lost East Lothian Council in 2007 and the Haddington House enclave of its Administration given back to the Lamp of Lothian Trust, the big private bashes there after lectures in the magnificent St Mary’s have become a thing of the past.
But that has meant a broader audience as it oscillates between Haddington and the University, where John had also been a much-respected Professor of Politics. Such was the case tonight and Brian pitched it well, first arguing some of the less controversial conclusions, such as the registered voters of Scotland must be the “who” in his title (if Britain had another plebiscite over changing its own EU relation, it would be nonsense to need an EU-wide referendum to endorse it).
Most interesting of all for me—and left to the last, perhaps because of its degree of current controversy—was the “when”. Not just citing the pledge (not, he correctly noted a manifesto pledge) to hold any referendum “in the second half of the term”, he went on to argue that this was actually sensible in that the complexities of reversing the Treaty of Union would need to be both understood and argued out in public for any informed decision to be taken at a referendum. But his understanding did not extend to why a specific date could not be determined. There were plenty of opinions voiced over the subsequent refreshments.
However unwelcome the prospect of a referendum might have been to swathes of the audience, Brian’s contribution was deservedly well received, Until a proper, wider debate is joined, informed and unbiased commentary like his speech will form an essential lubricant to getting public debate going. And, whatever the audience or the public’s opinion on the matter, coming to grips with more detailed pros and cons will be essential for whichever side of the argument you eventually come down on yourself.