A guest today from Keir Liddle on those infamous 500 questions, as lovingly parodied on Twitter. He read them all, which might save you a lot of time. Thanks Keir!

No CampaignThe state of discourse in Scottish politics is often remarked on poorly. From the bright beginnings of the politics of consensus at Holyrood it was relatively free from the tribalism and point scoring that haunts Westminster spectacles such as Prime Minister’s Questions. Sadly, attitudes have changed, and, as parties contest votes each dearly believes is theirs by right, tribalism and point scoring has become the order of the day.

Though this criticism, as far as I know, does not generally extend to formal critiques of the rhetoric used. With that in mind I thought I would have a wee swatch at the Better Together campaign’s latest offering: “500 Questions”.

Around 2,700 odd words later – and with a general failure to meet my high minded intentions – the sheer weight of the 500 questions, though there are actually quite a lot fewer, caused me to collapse in a frustrated singularity of thwarted academic ambition. So you see before you my second attempt.

I specifically want to look at Better Together’s 500 questions through the lens of the Cooperative Principle. Plundered from the mind of Paul Grice (the philosopher, not Parliament’s Chief Executive) and used in the social sciences generally and linguistics specifically, this principle describes how people interact with one another. It is composed of four maxims (Grice’s Maxims), as follows:

Maxim of Quality: Be Truthful
Do not say what you believe to be false.
Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

Maxim of Quantity : Quantity of Information
Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange).
Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

Maxim of Relation: Relevance
Be relevant.

Maxim of Manner: Be Clear
Avoid obscurity of expression.
Avoid ambiguity.
Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).
Be orderly.

These maxims vary culturally but luckily we inhabit a culture where they, for the most part, are adhered to. Right off the bat you can probably guess that the maxim of quantity is going to be relevant to the 500 Questions document. Asking such a volume of questions in one go breaches this maxim, and, as such, hints that the purpose of the Better Together document may not actually be to seek answers but rather to inexpertly attempt to sow doubt about the case for independence.

Put simply, it is nigh on impossible to take in the sheer volume of information offered in the 500 Questions leaflet. It took me a Herculean effort to parse and process them all earlier today and I had to give up reading the document on at least three separate occasions due to reading fatigue. In this sense arguably the document also breaches the maxim of manner in respect to its prolixity (or if I am to obey the maxim of manner – its tedious length). This fatigue is made worse given much of the information is needless repetition or the breaking down of questions in to unnecessary sub-questions.

So I now put it to Better Together that any pretence that this was a genuine attempt at gathering information or seeking answers for the Scottish electorate was naught but a thinly veiled ruse (and one that plays to the long term electoral strategy of the Labour Party in Scotland by casting doubt on Salmond and the SNP to boot).

There are a couple of questions that assume answers to questions asked previously in the 500 Questions document. A notable example are the questions relating to embassies:

“How many embassies and consuls would and independent Scotland have around the globe?”
The next two questions continue this theme: interestingly though, they note that their question has been answered and has been answered to the best of the current ability of the Scottish Government. This would seem to indicate that the question did not need asked in the first place:

“The Deputy First Minister has said than an independent Scotland would have 100 embassies and consuls compared with 2070 the UK currently has. In what countries would an independent Scotland set up embassies and consuls?”
“How long would it take before those 100 embassies and consuls of an independent Scotland were operational?”

Another point worthy of note is that in this example, and indeed in many, many more littered throughout the document, the two separate questions here could easily have been compounded into one single question. This would have saved Better Together some space and allowed them to ask many more of the burning questions they have about independence (unless of course they don’t actually have any and were getting a bit desperate to hit 500). The most egregious examples of Better Together “getting their money’s worth” from a question are undoubtedly when they ask what will happen with the Scottish military and the Post Office.

In considering the Post Office, Better Together abandon the pretence that their repeated or component questions are separate questions altogether, except in their numbering scheme, by asking:
356. Will a separate Scotland have a Universal Service Obligation (USO) which guarantees:
357. At least one delivery of letters every Monday to Saturday to every address in the UK?
358. At least one collection of letters every Monday to Saturday from every access point in the UK that is used to receive letters and postal packets for onward transmission?
359. Postal services at an affordable, uniform tariff across the UK?
360. A registered items service at an affordable public tariff?
361. An insured items service at an affordable public tariff?
362. A free-of-charge postal service to blind or partially sighted people?
363. And free carriage of legislative petitions and addresses?

Even the least eagle-eyed amongst you will notice that this is one multipoint question, at best, and numbering 356 as a question in its own right, or indeed all that follow from it, as separate questions is either bad proof-reading, terrible grammar or downright dishonesty to reach that magic number 500.

The defence, security and foreign affairs section appears to contain 44 questions, but in reality it contains far fewer: for example, questions 30 to 35 are basically all subtle variations on question 29:

“An independent Scotland would no longer be protected by the British Armed Forces, would new Scottish Armed forces units be created?”

The following five questions are simply variations on this theme asking exactly which new units would be created (a similar trick is attempted towards the end of the document referring to military intelligence and other specialist services). It’s fair enough to labour the point, I suppose, but it does make you wonder what questions Better Together deemed less important than asking the same question six times in a row?

The questions following that appear to want the Yes Campaign or Scottish Government (you get the impression that the two are being treated as one and the same as is Unionist tradition) to produce in detail its entire defence budget and deployment plans. Now that only sounds reasonable if you fail to consider that this budget and the subsequent deployment plans are largely contingent on the result of negotiations between a newly formed independent Scotland and the rUK.

As such I would suggest that this question, and again many, many more like it in the document, break the maxim of relevance. Not because it is irrelevant to ask these questions but because they are being asked to the wrong people, or at best they are not being directed at all the right people.

To answer this question on defence (and indeed most if not all of the following questions: 19, 20, 22, 24, 25, 44, 48, 51, 95, 96, 138, 98, 99, 112, 113, 116, 137, 138, 139, 430, 437, 438, 440, 441, 468, 469, 470, 471, 472, 473, 474, 475, 476, 477 – this list is likely not to be comprehensive) the Yes Campaign need to know the likely results of negotiations following a yes vote. The only way to determine that is to enter into pre-negotiation with Westminster over these issues. This is something polls seem to indicate the Scottish people would welcome but understandably it doesn’t appear to be a risk Westminster wants to take. Regardless, it poses an interesting question for Better Together:

“Will Better Together lobby for UK Ministers to sit down with Scottish Ministers and negotiate their position on the issues referenced by the questions above and answer their questions?”

There are a number of questions which indicate that Better Together seems to think such discussions or pre-negotiations should already have taken place, most notably in the pensions section where they, a political campaign backed by both the parties of government at Westminster, ask what discussions have already taken place. However there are many more questions that ask the Yes Campaign, the Scottish Government or the SNP to detail what their stance is on the membership of many and various international and European organisations and this prompts me to ask:

“Do Better Together now support allowing the Scottish Government to approach Europe and seek answers on these issues?”

Would Better together lobby the Westminster government to seek answers on the Scottish Government’s behalf should the EU be unwilling to negotiate? Taking the document at face value, and assuming that Grice’s maxims have been followed, the answer to all of the above three questions (I am being far more charitable to any Better Together readers than they were to anyone who downloaded and read theirs!) must assuredly be “Yes”. Which is a bold move and an interesting gamble, but one that does appear to capture the mood of the Scottish electorate.

As such I think all sides should not just consider this to be a poor piece of ill-thought out spin, a desperate, tiresome and tedious exercise in continuing a massively negative campaign because they couldn’t think of 500 reasons to stay in the union, but rather consider this to be Better Together “grasping the thistle” and demanding answers, not just of the SNP, Scottish government and Yes campaign, but of Westminster, of Europe and of many international organisations.

A bit of a gamble for them, all told. But good on them for this genuine attempt to get Holyrood and Westminster around the same table and to work out just exactly what we will be voting for next year.

(PS. For those in Gretna worried about an international border interfering with their weekly shop – the 79 apparently stops outside the Tesco in Annan and takes about 29 minutes. Failing that it seems to be less than a half hour drive to the superstore in Dumfries)