I’ve read and written enough to know when I see a masterclass in not saying anything, while appearing to say a lot. Documents show the conditions of their creation – the way they are stitched together from different drafts, sometimes by different authors, tells you a lot about how they were made. PhDs are great examples of that because they accreate over a long time, and often include parts that were written years before other parts. You can see how the writer’s voice changes and adapts over time.
There has been some commentary on the Scottish Government’s economic case for independence, Building a New Scotland: A stronger economy with independence mainly focused around its comparative lack of numbers. Even the cherry picked data is limited. Reading it, it is hard to get a picture of the kind of society and economy Scotland is now, why it looks the way it does, and what it could be. Here I focus on how the document is written rather what is said. This kind of analysis can be useful because every piece of writing is signalling why and how it was assembled. The main feeling from reading the paper is that it does not feel like the product of 8 years’ work and thought by the highest level civil servants and spads in the country. It does not sit atop a mountain of data. It feels like something written by someone who does not very much want to be writing it.
The features of the text that suggest that: there is a lot of focus on process rather than outcomes. When people do not want to say anything or commit to a specific path, they talk about process:
‘With independence, the fiscal outlook for Scotland would be determined by policy decisions and the performance of the Scottish economy’
Generally the fiscal outlook of a state is determined by the economy, and by policy decisions, true.
‘On day one of independence, the Scottish Government would have full autonomy to take decisions over tax, spending and borrowing to meet Scottish needs, supported by key fiscal institutions and the necessary governance framework.’
Normally sovereign nations do indeed have some autonomy over these dimensions of policy, also true. At least we are not expected to become Denmark overnight.
There is also a great deal of space spent explaining what things are, like what monetary policy involves, or what a border looks like, and a lot of repetition. Anything to avoid saying what you are going to do. That is what I do when trying to avoid having to say anything.
The Scottish Government’s view is that the main characteristic of Scotland is that we are a small country, like Ireland. But not a small country like, say, Moldova. We hear a little about Ireland, a country with a very different welfare settlement, but nothing about what matches Scotland in terms of its current social and welfare model. Not much about the domain of the real.
Anyway I come here not to join any pile on but to point out that policy documents do a lot of signalling beyond what they are explicitly arguing, and so you can use that to avoid these dead-ends in your own writing. Some of the limits in the way the document is written are surprisingly like the errors academics make when writing for public engagement. If you are working with civil servants for example do not spend a huge amount of time on the definition of the topic. Look for work they can use in their role, which generally means saying clearly what the situation is, how it could be different, and how you can get there.