An Uncomfortable Truth for Nats and Kippers

24/08/2015 14:37 BST | Updated 23/08/2016 10:59 BST

One of the essential skills of the successful wit, raconteur or justified gadfly is to know when you are asked a leading question. This takes time, experience and - I assume - age to properly develop but I like to think I would pass at least a foundation level course in the subject. Knowing when you are being asked a question purely so that your opponent can use your answer as part of an attack they are planning to mount is of the upmost importance in any serious debate. Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes, indeed.

This lesson in rhetorical craftsmanship is particularly evident in our modern politics, where strategy places alongside principle in importance, and is nicely illustrated by two arguments used by two distinct parties - both of whom will most likely be outraged at being mentioned in the same article as the other.

I submit that if you strip away the party trappings and focus on the arguments employed by the two parties under discussion you will find that it does pay to know when one's questioner is asking you to construct your own rhetorical gallows from which he plans to hang you. In this niche construction industry, the SNP and UKIP are joiners par excellence.

I start with the historical example.

During the Scottish independence referendum I was frequently asked what form the further devolution promised would take with the emphasis placed on explicit, minute, even absurd detail. I was asked all sorts of bizarre questions and, once and once only, I fell into the trap of attempting to provide an answer, which treated the question as a serious one rather than the cheap trick of the debating huckster. My answer was immediately, and without compunction, turned into an example of my opponent's point. The smile on his face was that of the fraud that had finally gotten his mark to do what he intended him to all along.

For, you see, it would not have mattered what I said, no matter how much detail I provided or how lengthy and complete the response - it would not have been enough for my nationalist opponent. They had, by the very nature of their sitting on the opposite side of the panel, already decided that the Union was beyond saving and that all attempts at constitutional settlement that stopped short of full independence would be futile.

For evidence of this, see the response to the Smith Commission and the subsequent Scotland Act. It would have been possible for Holyrood to have been given power over everything apart from the number of bristles required on a toothbrush and that still would not be enough. It is the tragic result of our, at times inevitable, habit of zero-sum thinking.

Why raise this point now?

Well, because it is about to come roaring back into our broader national debate - this time on the subject of the European Union. No matter how much the Nationalists in Scotland and UKIP (and the rest) protest to their differences, the arguments against EU membership take a familiar form. Any argument of this type will usually be a pick-and-mix of the following, by no means exhaustive, list of propositions: Sovereignty, 'the people best placed to decide the future of x, are the x-ish people', stop talking x down, we believe in x, part of the international community ... etc. etc. ad nauseam.

However, in a neat mirroring of what happened prior to the independence referendum there is also talk of political action amounting to a renegotiation. Where the further devolution enacted by the UK Government was put in to practice after the white-hot heat of the referendum had finished, the renegotiations planned by the Prime Minister are taking place before the referendum itself. The timing is largely unimportant and, I suspect, is purely a matter of procedure and circumstance more than any other factor. Much as the delivered further devolution package was, at least partially, intended to democratically address concerns about the power imbalance in the UK the same will be true of the Prime Minister's renegotiation with the European Union.

Mr. Cameron is quite right to want to renegotiate Britain's terms - much as the UK Government were quite right to move more power from London to Edinburgh; it reflects the general feeling as well as his democratic mandate. He should go to Brussels and use his considerable influence, as well as the general feeling of discontent with centralization within other EU member states to instigate a shift of power back from Brussels to the UK which, with any luck (and a little bit of compliance), could see decentralization en masse from Brussels back to the capitals of the member states and result, eventually, in a broader, more democratic, less centralised, more friendly and collegiate European Union with the flexibility required to face its modern challenges. The prize is worth the price of disappointing those who would be disappointed anyway.

However, as was the case with the nationalists, he ought not to expect the Outies to be happy with any of it. When they are finished telling him that renegotiation cannot happen - an absurd contention when considering Britain's place in the EU in realist terms - they will ask him to define exactly what he will do in negotiations which is, by definition, impossible. Once Mr. Cameron does return from Brussels with a renegotiated deal for Britain the Outies will, inevitably tell him that it is insufficient and they will continue to vote for Britain to leave the EU anyway, quelle surprise! Or is it more deja-vu for us Scots?

The Nationalists and their co-thinkers made a big deal about the rise of UKIP, certainly in some of the events to which I was invited as a speaker, to make their point. How humbling it must be for them now to see that very party and its co-thinkers preparing to adopt the same rhetorical position.

But hey, when flattery is off the table, imitation will do.