Until the debate on independence began, I rarely came across the word “Scaremongering.” I knew what it meant, but it was the sort of word that I read once or twice a year usually in some work of history. I doubt that I had ever actually used the word myself. But now this word seems rather popular. Nearly every time people, who are opposed to Scottish independence, put forward arguments for why we think it is not a good idea we are accused of scaremongering. Every time we suggest that Scotland’s future as an independent state might not be quite as the SNP suggest we are again described as scaremongers. But how is someone who supports the UK supposed to argue? To believe that Scotland is better off remaining in the UK is to suppose that there are advantages to the Union. But if there are advantages to remaining within the UK, then consequently there must be disadvantages to leaving. But if pointing out the disadvantages to leaving the UK amounts to scaremongering, then supporting the UK amounts to being a scaremonger. Q.E.D. I am a scaremonger. But is this really what our friends and neighbours in the SNP believe? Do they really want to shut down debate in this way?
One of the interesting things about political debate is the way in which we argue. We like to give the impression that we believe X for Y and Z reasons. This makes us all appear very rational and disinterested. But let’s look at some of these reasons. Imagine if Scotland were to be very slightly worse off economically if we achieved independence. If an SNP supporter knew this to be so, or if having achieved independence he realised that it was so, would this make him change his mind about independence? Of course it would not. People who support independence, who have supported independence for years and years do so because this desire for independence is fundamental to them. But they have to try to persuade the rest of us and therefore they come up with all sorts of reasons why independence will lead to this or that desirable outcome. But it is vital to remember that they are not voting for independence in order to achieve this or that, but because they desire it as an end in itself. It is for this reason that the desirable outcomes sometimes change. For instance, at one point Mr Salmond said that he desired independence in order that Scotland could join the Euro. At another point he said that he wanted independence in order to leave NATO. Now he no longer wants these things, but still wants independence. Really the only thing he wants is independence and he will find whatever reasons he can to persuade the rest of us. Mr Salmond therefore puts forward whatever optimistic scenario he can come up with for the future of Scotland in order to persuade those Scots who do not fundamentally believe in independence in the way that he does. He then accuses his opponents of scaremongering when they question this excess of optimism. But what is excess of optimism but the mirror image of scaremongering? What he is doing is exactly the same as he accuses his opponents of doing only from the opposite perspective.
Let’s look at the definition of what it is to be a scaremonger: According to the Oxford English Dictionary a scaremonger is:
One who occupies himself in spreading alarming reports; an alarmist. Hence as v. intr., to spread alarming reports; scaremongering n. the action of a scaremonger; the spreading of alarming reports; also as adj.
But in order to be a scaremonger it clearly isn’t enough that someone should be simply spreading alarming reports. Imagine that I notice a fire in a building and I run around telling everyone that there is a fire and that they should leave. Would I be a scaremonger in this context? No of course not, because although my report might be alarming it would also be true. The fire would really be dangerous and therefore people would need to leave. What would make me a scaremonger in this context? I would be a scaremonger if and only if I had not noticed a fire, but told everyone that the building was about to burn down. Being a scaremonger then depends crucially on truth.
Now let’s look at an argument between an SNP supporter and someone who believes in the UK. The independence supporter might say that if Scotland becomes independent we will keep the pound, while the UK supporter might say if Scotland becomes independent we will lose the pound. The SNP supporter immediately says that you are scaremongering. But logically the UK supporter can only be scaremongering if what he says is false. But then we immediately see that the SNP supporter’s argument is circular. He is assuming what he is trying to prove. For how else can he immediately assert that his opponent's position is false? The point of course does not depend on an argument about currency. Whenever the SNP accuse us of scaremongering they are assuming that their argument is true and our argument is false. But to assume in this way is self-evidently a logical fallacy. Presenting circular arguments is not to debate, but to attempt to shut off debate.