The referendum campaign, we’re told, is an intoxicating revival of our battered democracy. However, for me, deciding how to cast my vote has proved the most agonising decision of my life.
Daily, people are framing the referendum campaign and voters’ decisions as essentially about confidence. The Yes side are filled with confidence and optimism in themselves and their country. The Nos are a bunch of underconfident fearties.
And here’s the source of my agony: I share the values of much of the Yes side but I’m minded to vote No. Given the salience of confidence and optimism to the Yes campaign that might strike you as a preposterous position for the author of ‘The Scots’ Crisis of Confidence’ to adopt.
I’ve known for some time that simply by saying I would vote against independence would put me in grave danger of being denounced as a fool, a hypocrite, or a wimp. Over the course of the campaign my fears of this reaction has led to my own personal Scots’ crisis of confidence. I’ve kept my head down. Not blogged, tweeted or spoken publicly on the topic basically for fear of the reaction I would get. However, I can hold my tongue no longer.
The confidence myth
On twitter in the last few weeks various people have posted the Turnbull cartoon from the 1979 devolution referendum depicting a lion rampant sucking its thumb. ‘I’m feart’ the caption read. Lack of confidence and the Scottish cringe did play a part in that referendum campaign. Even though there was actually little at stake, there was palpable fear that the Scots ‘would make a right arse of it’ as my own uncle put it.
But these views on Scotland have largely been expunged as a result of the Scottish Parliament – particularly the two SNP administrations. These governments have appeared professional and competent, the senior ministers highly articulate and presentable. When we add to this the huge success of Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games it’s easy to see that the vast majority of Scots no longer doubt their nation’s ability to run its own affairs.
What’s interesting is that the notion that ‘Scotland is too wee, too poor and too stupid’ to become independent has mainly featured in this campaign via the Yes side. It’s the likes of Nicola Sturgeon who frequently set this idea up as a straw man to be knocked down.
Nonetheless the objections the No campaign raises to independence are interpreted as a slight on Scotland and the Scots and generally seen as scaremongering. So, for example, when currency problems are raised by the No side, Yes counter with disbelief: look round the world at all these countries with their own currency they’ll say. They’ve all managed it, so you are being needlessly pessimistic and denigrating us as Scots. You are telling us we are too wee etc.
What I’ve found frustrating over the past few months is that the No side is hopeless at providing a context for the problems they’re raising. But this context is vital as it debunks the idea that this vote is a confidence test.
The Scottish independence movement is trying to do something that hasn’t been done in Western Europe since 1944 and no country with a modern welfare state has separated and established its own independent country. Norway became independent in 1905, Finland in 1917.
The problem isn’t just that life and institutions (e.g. membership of the EU) make independence more difficult to achieve but that we are now living in a fairly hostile, economically globalised world. The crash taught us just how vulnerable national economies can be. Indeed the economies of Ireland, Iceland, Spain and Greece almost toppled under the weight of debt and seemed little more than the playthings of international markets.
As I write there are stories in the press that a recent surge for Yes in the polls has led to a concomitant drop in the pound. Goldman Sachs has predicted a euro-style currency crisis within Britain, with the threat of independence providing investors with ‘a strong incentive to sell Scottish-based assets and households with a strong incentive to withdraw deposits from Scottish-based banks’. For Scots to think we’re not going to be severely effected by the vicissitudes of the market is, to use James Stafford’s words, ‘a dangerous combination of chauvinism with naivety’.
What’s more, Scotland has been part of the UK for over 300 years and the economies of its constituent parts have become increasingly intertwined. Separating them inevitably carries risks: finance is our biggest sector yet it is hugely threatened by various currency options. Billions of pension funds have been transferred from Scotland to England in the last few weeks. Oil is 15% of the Scottish economy and it’s widely known to be volatile in volume and price as well as being a finite resource. Scotland currently has healthy levels of trade but 70% of this is with rUK and economists talk about a ‘border effect’ whereby trade between two geographical units is reduced if they become separate countries even if there is not a physical border as such.
Yesterday the Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman devoted his New York Times column to Scottish independence. He noted that independence camapigners had ‘managed to reduce the “fear factor”‘ regarding the economics of going it alone but went on to say: ‘Well, I have a message for the Scots: Be afraid, be very afraid. The risks of going it alone are huge… [Scotland] would end up becoming Spain without the sunshine’.
He then explains that a separate currency would have its own difficulties but that using the pound in a currency union or through Sterlingisation would be ‘very dangerous’ adding: ‘I find it mind-boggling that Scotland would consider going down this path after all that has happened in the last few years. If Scottish voters really believe that it’s safe to become a country without a currency, they have been badly misled’.
Quite frankly they are being misled because the leadership of the SNP and the Yes campaign want independence at any price. Secondly they have created an atmosphere where any facts or viewpoints which are ‘negative’ are being ridiculed. But how did a country once respected for its emphasis on reason, common sense, and principles get to the position where healthy scepticism or inconvenient truths are demonised as scaremongering lies? I believe the answer is to be found in the weight the Yes campaign places on optimism.
Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative
The SNP prides itself on the positivity of their election strategies but this only started before the 2007 election following a workshop with the Really Effective Development Company where, amongst other things, they learned about Martin Seligman’s research on how it’s the most optimistic candidate in American presidential elections who usually wins. According to Paul Hutcheon, the late SNP MSP Brian Adam revealed a bizarre strategy for ensuring candidates remained upbeat: ‘We were all presented with a bag of pennies. Every time we said anything negative we had to put a penny in the middle of the table. This was to stop us saying negative things. It was a major change in approach’.
The SNP also ran an optimistic upbeat campaign in 2011 and yet again this appears to have contributed to their electoral success, particularly when their main opponent, the Labour Party, went in the opposite direction. The SNP has continued with this type of training in the referendum campaign with Alex Salmond receiving performance coaching by Clare Howell REDCO’s CEO. Stephen Noon, chief strategist for the Yes campaign, loves the idea of a 100% positive, optimistic campaign. In his blogs he is particularly fond of turning any problem people might raise into an insult to the Scottish people:
The No campaign spend much of their time telling us that Scotland would fail or struggle. That doesn’t show much respect for, or confidence in, the people who live here. Much better the Yes approach, which is based on an absolute belief in the people of Scotland.
We will face ups and downs in the future (that’s life) but, at Yes, we have total confidence that the people of Scotland have got what it takes to overcome the challenges and, most importantly, make more of the many opportunities and advantages we enjoy as a nation. This isn’t a blind optimism, but a realistic assessment of our collective capabilities and capacities.
Some of this upbeat appraisal of Scotland’s capacities fits perfectly with George Orwell’s ascerbic views on nationalism – a philosophy which is always on the look out for slights and driven by ‘blind zeal and indifference to reality’. Look at Noon’s quote and ask yourself what’s so special about the Scots that every single one of us will be impervious to the financial havoc easily wreaked by the international markets or the restructuring of our economy which will follow independence?
Noon’s approach is nationalism laced with a heavy dose of what looks like whacky personal development philosophy. One of REDCO’s ‘Red Tens’ is ‘Invent your own virtual reality’. I have no problem with these mind games when it comes to sports or other performances but how appropriate are they for political leaders? Indeed I suspect that the use of these ‘power of the mind’ approaches helps explain why senior Yes people set out their agenda for Scotland and then simply expect the rest of the world to comply. Indeed they don’t even acknowledge that others (e.g. rUk or EU member states) may have their own agendas or interests as they are only focused on their own.
Some of these approaches claim an academic pedigree, notably the work of Professor Martin Seligman. But there is little in Seligman’s core work on optimism that supports their strategy. Indeed his key ideas reinforce profound questions about the SNP’s use of optimism, questions that should ring an alarm bell for all of us with a vote on the 18th.
When the cost of failure is high
Seligman’s definition of optimism is not whether we see the glass half full or half empty but how we think about the future – our ‘explanatory style’. Do we see bad events as ‘permanent, pervasive and personal’? Optimists don’t tend to whereas pessimists do.
In his book ‘Learned Optimism’ Seligman is quite clear that while optimism has considerable benefits (for example, for health and sporting success as it helps prevent us from giving up) pessimism is also important. It keeps us alive. If we didn’t think the worst might happen and take evasive action we might take unacceptable risks that damage ourselves or our prospects.
Seligman argues that there are times when it makes sense to be optimistic (or use optimism building techniques if you are prone to pessimism) and times when it is better to be pessimistic. He writes: ‘The fundamental guideline for not deploying optimism is to ask what the cost of failure is in the particular situation. If the cost of failure is high, optimism is the wrong strategy’.
The examples Seligman gives of appropriate uses of optimism are things like a salesman making another phone call. In short, they are trivial. Elsewhere he says: ‘If your goal is to plan for a risky and uncertain future, do not use optimism’. And that includes taking on debt. When it comes to finance we should err on the side of ‘worst case’ not ‘best case’ scenarios.
In the chapter on optimism at work Seligman is clear that there are some roles that are most suited to optimists or an optimistic style and others which aren’t. The emphases are mine.
Think about a successful large business. It has a diverse set of personalities serving different roles. First, there are the optimists. The researchers and developers, the planners, the marketers – all these need to be visionaries. They have to dream things that don’t exist, to explore boundaries beyond the company’s present reach. If they don’t, the competition will. But imagine a company that consisted only of optimists, all of them fixed upon the exciting possibilities ahead. It would be a disaster.
The company also needs its pessimists, the people who have an accurate knowledge of present realities. They must make sure grim reality continually intrudes upon the optimists. The treasurer, the CPAs, the financial vice-president, the business administrators, the safety engineers – all these need an accurate sense of how much the company can afford, and of danger. Their role is to caution, their banner is the yellow flag.
This is no abstract warning from the world authority on optimism and pessimism. It has a huge significance for all our lives as it was exactly this lethal cocktail of unbridled optimism, and disconnection from reality, which brought down the banks and led to austerity across the Western world. At RBS, for example, CEO Fred Goodwin never wanted to hear about problems until it ran out of money as a result of its aggressive acquisition strategy. And let’s be clear, we’re all still paying the price for bankers’ reckless optimism and for governments worldwide, as regulators, not being pessimistic and fearful enough to restrain them.
The Yes side aren’t just using optimism in their campaign. They’re also using it in their data on Scotland’s finances. The SNP Scottish Government present the best, most optimistic, figures for potential growth and oil revenues, for example, and berate anyone who doesn’t follow suit. Indeed there was some embarrassment for them in recent weeks as a result.
Sir Ian Wood, one of Scotland’s most respected businessmen who made his family fortune in the North Sea, warned that the SNP are inflating oil reserves by 45-60%. The tax take from oil last year was £4.4bn less than the Scottish Government’s forecasts. If we had been independent that would have been a significant hole in Scotland’s budget. Others have come into the debate with higher estimates than Sir Ian Wood’s but the central point remains – with such important issues at stake it is best to err on the side of caution and be pessimistic, not optimistic.
Of course, the Yes side are selectively optimistic. They are pessimistic when it comes to anything to do with the UK – Labour’s prospects for regaining power, the rise of UKIP, exit from the EU, Boris Johnson ousting David Cameron, and the credibility of any Westminster pledge for further leadership devolution of power.
In August with Yes stalled in the polls the campaign clearly veered off in a decidedly pessimistic direction. Relentless positivity was replaced by their own version of Project Fear. ‘Only a Yes vote can protect the NHS in Scotland from privatisation and cuts’. But this turn does not negate the central point I’m making here – blind optimism is at the heart of the Yes campaign and centre stage at this critical time in Scottish politics. If the No side is Project Fear then, for the most part, Yes is Project Pollyanna. Indeed as I’ve written about the relentless emphasis on positivity in this campaign a line from George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ kept ringing in my ears: ‘Four legs good, two legs bad’.
There’s little doubt that the Yes campaign have been particularly good at communicating to their supporters the importance of vision, optimism, hope, confidence, and can do. Lots of people are using this language. All this has put the Better Together side on the back foot. They have often been stupidly and needlessly pessimistic – jumping the gun on pronouncements which later prove to be false or focusing on trivia such as we’ll not be able to watch Dr Who. But they are in a difficult position since they’re an amalgam of three different political parties and it’s impossible for them to outline a shared vision even if they wanted to. What’s more, they can’t help but be negative. They are asking us to vote No after all.
The Yes campaign has also been tremendously successful thus far in using all the optimism stuff to neutralise the effects of the copious amounts of research and opinion which indicate that serious problems lie ahead. According to Yes all these people are just naysayers and pessimists who are trying to obstruct the Scottish people’s forward march to a great future. Indeed their campaign is doing so well that at the time of writing Yes are now forging ahead in the polls. The Yes side may have run an astonishlngly successful campaign but to vote for them simply on that basis would be the triumph of style over substance.
Part II ‘A leaner, meaner Scotland’?
As George Orwell points out, nationalists typically believe their country will be stronger because of the superiority or their people. What’s more, they’re so convinced of the importance of self-determination that nothing will persuade them otherwise. Even if they have to admit that things might actually be worse, they would still think these sacrifices worthwhile. But that’s not how the non-nationalist Yes voters see the world and they might be in for a shock as the prosperity and fairness promised by the SNP fails to materialise. I have little doubt that some would people would be better off – more of this later – but there will be inevitable casualties from the economic uncertainty and restructuring.
What particularly bothers me is how this could affect young people. They are facing a hard time anyway in the current world – zero hours contracts, low wages and much more restricted opportunities to lead a life independently of their parents. But let’s not kid ourselves – this could be much worse than it is now.
The 2014 UK youth unemployment figure is 18%, the EU average 22%, Spain 54% and Greece 57%. If the economy of a newly independent Scotland goes through a serious shock our youth could suffer hugely. Indeed I’m sure it’s because they intuitively know that their generation could be heavily disadvantaged by independence that a higher proportion of the newly enfranchised 16 and 17 year-olds, than the general population, are minded to vote No.
I identify with the left. I am quite aware of the attractions of voting Yes. At first glance it looks as if we could get rid of the Tories permanently, distance ourselves from UKIP and all that nasty immigration stuff and have a more socially just Scotland. The left-wing independence vision which more people are adopting is of a Scotland which is similar to what we have now only much nicer.
Much of the debate on whether this is likely has focused on the myth of left-leaning Scotland and whether the SNP has either the track record, analysis or strategy to tackle structural inequality. My own view is that no matter who governs Scotland post-independence the country will become harsher and more right-wing – or ‘leaner and meaner’ in Simon Jenkins’s words. Scotland has a large public sector which is likely to face significant cuts whatever currency option we pursue.
If you are sceptical of my claim that Scotland is more likely to become a vehicle for the right’s policy rather than the left’s just look at some of the most ardent supporters of independence. Some of the big hitters of the SNP’s independence campaign are among Scotland’s most ruthless, money-oriented business people: Monaco domiciled tax exile Jim McColl is a key player and economic adviser; Brian Souter, of Stagecoach fame is well-known for his illiberal views and cutthroat business practices; and George Mathewson, former CEO of RBS, laid the foundation for Fred Goodwin’s leadership of the bank.
Rupert Murdoch, an old pal of Alex Salmond’s, is also a supporter of independence, sending out a series of positive tweets as Yes gained ground in the polls. One of them read: ‘Scottish independence means huge black eye for whole political establishment…’ and he evidently wasn’t including himself. He also tweeted ‘everything [is] up for grabs’. Could this mean Scotland’s economy and media? An Scottish offshoot of Fox Media perhaps?
Only a couple of weeks ago the ultra right-wing think tank, the Adam Smith Institute, published a paper extolling the virtues of Alex Salmond’s plan B – Sterlingisation. Google wealthynation.org and you’ll see that right-wing thinkers and investors support independence and are already getting organised. They want Scotland to become a free market country, with more liberty and self-reliance, and much smaller government and public sector. Hong Kong is their model, not Scandinavia. Their founder, the journalist Michael Fry, published a piece in the Scotsman recently extolling the virtues of zero hours contracts.
If Scotland is financially challenged in the first years of independence, and this looks inevitable, then these are the people who will be influential in the new Scotland. It is a hard fact of life that it’s right-wing money men rather than folk involved in dreaming and visioning at Yestival who are most likely to create the nation in their image.
The limitations of hope
Lest you think I have found deciding to vote No easy, I haven’t. I’m feeling uncomfortable about it. When I hear many Yes folk speak they are talking my language: extremely critical of the Westminster regime and the politics currently on offer. My values chime with theirs. What’s more there’s a tremendous creativity in their campaign. They seem to have all the best tunes. Of course, I’d rather be on the same side as radicals like Andy Wightman, young activists like Zara Kitson and cultural figures like Janice Galloway and David Greig whose work I admire hugely. Instead I’m on the same side as the bowling clubs, old footballers and the British Legion. Though it is also true to say that the majority of women of my age I know – including lots of former left-wing activists and feminists – are also voting No, so I’m definitely not alone.
But this doesn’t make my No vote easy. I looked at the twitter feed of one young man who is currently working full-time for a Yes campaign. As I read his idealistic tweets I found myself bursting into tears. Like countless others, he simply wanted hope – hope that a better world is possible. I was a child of the 60s and we had hope that politics could lead to a better future. How can I vote No and deprive others of this, I sometimes ask myself?
But hope and vision are not on their own enough to deliver good results for people and they can end up, not just disappointed, but disadvantaged. (Remember that old adage ‘be careful what you wish for’.) Hope needs to be accompanied by analysis, foresight and scepticism. In recent times people’s hopes that politicians will deliver good results have not been warranted. Remember the wave of optimism and hope which brought New Labour to power or Barack Obama and his ‘yes we can’ mantra? With the independence referendum the risks are much greater as we’re not talking about voting for a four-five year term of office.
A new politics
One of the tragic ironies is that if we vote for independence the new Scotland will be born into a world where national governments are increasingly unable to protect their citizens’ interests from global corporate power. Ordinary people everywhere are losing out. We are living through what the academic Wolfgang Streeck calls ‘the crisis of democratic capitalism’. Across Europe governments’ failure to address the issues confronting people is leading to the politics of disunity and division.
If Scotland gains independence then for decades most of its political and intellectual resources will be channelled into becoming another, largely inadequate, European state. As Manfredi La Manna pointed out in Scottish Review last week what the SNP is offering is ‘a managerialist “alternative”‘ to Whitehall. It’s standard issue with tartan packaging. Creating all that new machinery of state could even get in the way of vital changes that are urgently needed – altering the structure of local government to make it more democratic and involving, reforming land ownership and establishing proper control of an overbearing police authority.
Paradoxically a No vote might lead to more radical politics. After all, the economic restructuring and instability which would follow independence is likely to lead to divisive rather than progressive politics. When people’s security is threatened they become more materialistic, not less. Since concerted action is required to deal with global forces, the less we are caught up in our own affairs, the more keen we may be to join up with progressives in the rest of the UK (and other countries) and to support initiatives to devolve power throughout the land. What’s more, if we can’t count on politicians to deliver hoped-for change then we have no choice but to start doing it for ourselves – grassroots activity, citizens’ movements and consumers holding companies to account.
One undoubted positive of the whole campaign is that it has encouraged political discussion. If there is a No vote, there’s still hope that all that energy can be used to help create the better world that many of us – Yes and No voters – long for.