The argument about Scottish independence which, it should be said, is not a new one is best understood in terms of the Overton Window. James Overton, an American political scientist, suggested that the general public is only prepared to contemplate a relatively narrow range of political opinions and policies. Those that fall outwith this window of plausibility are discounted; the task for politicians and other advocates is to shift the window so that ideas once considered heretical now appear orthodox common-sense.
Overton suggested there were six phases to this process. A idea would move from being unthinkable to radical to acceptable to sensible to popular before, finally, becoming policy.
Scottish independence is currently somewhere between acceptable and sensible. Acceptable in the sense that most sensible Unionist critics concede there’s no hideous reason why Scotland couldn’t be a perfectly sensible or even successful independent country. The opinion polls continue to suggest, however, that, at least for now, a majority of voters are not impressed that this is a sensible future for Caledonia, stern and wild.
That may change. The publication of the Scottish government’s White Paper on independence today is designed to shift the Overton Window. An idea once unthinkable is utterly thinkable. The lack of drama – the merciful absence of bagpipes-and-Braveheart-bullshit – at the paper’s launch was quite deliberate. This, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon insisted, is a sober, sensible calculation of the national interest. It’s not a romantic romp in the heather or a doomed Jacobite jolly.
Of course there is a good deal of assertion within the White Paper’s 670 pages. And of course many of the issues it highlights – childcare provision and education among many others – could be addressed by the Scottish government now and without any recourse to independence. And of course – contra Alistair Darling – some of the questions asked by Better Together can’t be answered now because they are, essentially, unknowable.