How language is being used in the currency debate

In the televised Salmond-Darling debate, at First Minister questions, and in the newspapers, recent days have seen massive attention on the issue of the currency options for an independent Scotland. To make sense of what has been happening, it is necessary to take account of two different ways in which language can be used. Language can be used to provide information and describe and explain a situation or event. Alternatively, it can be used to instruct, by evoking an emotion or effect in another person, or by seeking to influence or control their actions. For example, a train announcer at a station might provide information, such as “the train from Dundee has been delayed”. Sometimes, however, the announcer might tell passengers to evacuate the station immediately, because a suspicious package has been identified. In a botanical garden, there might be notices that describe the name and origins of different plants. There may also be notices that state “do not walk on the grass”.

Within the currency debate, language is being used in subtle ways to both inform and instruct. From the Unionist side, at one level a rational explanation is being offered in respect of how and why a currency union is not viable. At another level, this message is being conveyed in such a way as to evoke the emotion of fear in Scottish listeners and readers, through the implication that jobs, pensions and mortgages will be threatened. From the outset, the independence campaign has sought to counter both levels of this message, by reiterating the conclusions and recommendations of the Fiscal Commission and other sources, and by pointing out that the ways that the Unionist side was using fear tactics in relation to this issue.

A moment of reflection makes it possible to see how the Unionist use of language around the currency issue is purposefully fear-inducing as well as informative. It would have been quite possible for Osborne, Darling, Milliband and others to adopt the non-emotive and predominantly informative approach displayed by the Governor of Bank of England, Mark Carney, who has in effect acknowledged that there are some problems but that solutions are available. In this spirit, it would have been possible for Alistair Darling to say something along the lines of “the consensus in Westminster is that there are serious political and economic problems associated with the proposal to establish a currency union…however, following a yes vote in the referendum there is also a willingness to find the best possible way to ensure the continuing prosperity of both the rUK and an our friends in an independent Scotland”.

It seems to me that Alex Salmond and others within the yes campaign have been operating a different mix of informative vs. instructive levels of communication. This was particularly evident during the recent televised debate. Alistair Darling persistently demanded that Salmond should “explain plan B” for the currency. Salmond was widely perceived to have ducked this question. In fact, the transcript will reveal that he did explain that there were several alternative currency options, and told viewers where they could read about these proposals. He also reiterated the advantages of a currency union agreement, and explained how and why the Westminster rejection of this idea was a scare tactic intended to frighten voters. What he did not do, however, was accept the premise of the ‘plan B’ question. For many people, this made him look evasive – just another of these politicians who never provide a direct answer. But, at the same time, at a performative or instructive level, he was conveying a number of highly significant messages: “I will not be pushed about, I will fight for what is best for Scotland, I will be a tough negotiator, I am not going to disclose my negotiating position in advance”. These are crucial messages to communicate, for voters who may be uncertain as to whether Scotland can effectively manage its own affairs and can get a fair deal in post-referendum negotiations.

On the night, my sense was that he handled this line of questioning in a rather awkward manner, and at some moments seemed almost frozen. This lapse from his usual relaxed fluency makes sense, given the situation. There has been a lot of research in social psychology and family systems, into what happens when someone is put in a position of being exposed to mixed messages or “double-bind” statements. It is a hard position to be in – how do I do justice to the overt question while at the same time addressing the covert message and being respectful to the questioner and not getting tied up in knots by making things over-complicated and confusing? Very few political figures are able to pull this off when under time pressure and on live television.

Finally – some pro-independence commentators have urged Alex Salmond and other leading yes campaigners to take the gloves off, and be more assertive or aggressive. No doubt this will happen, but it comes at a cost. One of the basic arguments in favour of independence is the desire to build a different type of political culture, which is based on dialogue, collaboration, and inclusiveness. This is not consistent with playing the traditional UK political game.


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