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Warning about a corrosive debate

Voters in the Highlands do not want the debate about Scotland's choice in September's independence referendum to be characterised by "shrill exaggeration", Charles Kennedy says.

His comments, made at a Better Together campaign training meeting, should be heard by both camps in the referendum debate. For they could equally apply to voters in Dumfries and Galloway, the Western Isles, Tayside or South Ayrshire. The former Liberal Democrat leader and MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber calls for a specific tone to the campaign in the Highlands, contrasting this with the tenor of the debate in the Central Belt.

Mr Kennedy, as an opponent of independence, is keen to highlight the perceived centralising tendency of the Scottish Government and the way this works to the detriment of those living further from urban centres.

It is true that voices and issues from Glasgow, Edinburgh, and nearby towns have tended to dominate debate. It is important for both camps to look beyond the larger population centres and address the potential impact of independence in more rural areas, as well as in cities such as Aberdeen, Dundee and Inverness.

There is a need for the referendum campaign to expand away from its current narrow focus and engage voters in ways that are more relevant to their own experience.

That might be in terms of geographically salient issues such as crofting, housing and enterprise. Or it could be, as Mr Kennedy also suggests, by looking for the more constructive, positive approach he feels is in tune with the culture of the voters he represents.

That culture may be more widespread than he thinks. Many voters desire a more constructive debate. The campaign on both sides needs to find a way to move away from the alienating party-politicised rut it risks settling in to.

With a little over seven months to go, Mr Kennedy is correct to observe that much of the time the conflict appears too much like a Labour/SNP battle. This is not healthy and obscures the true issues about Scotland's constitutional future.

Party allegiances and hostilities, long entrenched on the hustings of previous campaigns, have played far too prominent a role in the discussion.

These parties will continue after the result, whatever the outcome and can resume their hostilities then. But most voters understand, even if the Yes campaign and Better Together do not, that at this point it isn't all about bitter party rivalries.

Mr Kennedy, who remains a well-respected politician both locally and nationally, has an agenda himself, of course. His party has its own concerns electorally. But the referendum debate should engage as many people as possible and is currently failing to connect with far too many.

So Mr Kennedy is right, but only partially. Voters in the heart of urban Scotland, as well as in the Highlands, are also turned off by the "shrill" tenor of debate so far. Campaigners on both sides must take note.

Contextual targeting label: 
Local government

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