Thursday 4 September 2014

Scotland - what to decide? A starting place in the decision making process

 Although this blog is primarily about my thoughts on climbing, I’m aware that the huge decision on Scottish independence is getting close, and I need to think about whether to keep my thoughts to myself, or share them with others. It doesn’t seem to make sense for interested parties to make their decision in a bubble of isolation. Why not discuss it openly? Moreover, why not make clear where the gaps in the arguments aired in the media lie, so that we may have more of the information we need to come to the best possible decision.

Unlike the way the decision is presented by politicians, I don’t feel that anyone can truly come to the right or wrong decision, where right or wrong implies prosperity of the country in the future. Either path carries considerable uncertainty. In my mind, the right decision is the one that people are happy to have made, given the information and feelings we have at the time. Even if it did turn out to make us a tiny bit worse off in the pocket, that won’t make it the wrong decision because either path could have led to that outcome.

Because of these uncertainties, I was undecided for a long time, but as I’ve thought it over repeatedly, I have now decided that a Yes vote is definitely the choice I wish to make. Part of the reason it took me a long time to reach a firm conclusion was the the disappointing level of coverage of the issue in the mass media. In the political field, each side is obliged to try to strengthen it’s case. Realistically, what else could we expect? I hoped to hear more from respected intellectuals who were prepared to offer their thoughts. Thankfully, these have appeared on the internet over the past few months.

If ever there was an issue that is not black and white, it is this. Here are some questions and ideas that have come to my mind to guide me through this decision, which I am so happy to have made. It’s the first time in my life where I’ve been truly excited to receive my ballot paper through the letterbox.

These ideas span several different concepts and issues, and all of them seem relevant to me. I hope they are at least interesting to some of you who may be going through the same difficult process.

Part 1: Power

They say that the one lesson from history is that no one learns anything from history. However, right now we have a future in front of us of being able to make decisions for ourselves. I cannot find a good reason to take a huge gamble in handing this power over to a distant government. The idea that power is never given, only taken comes to mind here. Although I do think there are some major problems with politicians, political system, and the way the media handle it in the UK, on the whole I do think that many politicians are trying to do good work under difficult constraints. However, I have a basic worry that the distance breeds complacency. I am unsure about others worries that Scotland may lose influence internationally. If we replace the ability to interfere in the middle east with a focus on the advancement of education of our own people, we will end up being able to exert global influence in much more effective ways (such as in solving many of the problems that cause wars in the first place).

I just mentioned that I felt Westminster politicians are generally speaking trying to do good work. The British political system is a somewhat archaic arrangement, which creates some  undesirable consequences and sometimes appears to reward the wrong behaviour among politicians. There have been repeated opportunities to change it, but these haven’t been taken. I fear that this will simply continue if we vote to hand our power over to a government in London.

Peoples across the ages right up to the present day have given their lives in a struggle to take their power back from distant government. All those people didn’t fight for nothing. In general, it’s because distant government just doesn’t act in their best interests. It is interested in the resources of the territory, rather than taking care of the people living on it. It’s almost unbelievable that we are being given the opportunity to take the decision without a single bullet fired. 

So why are the polls predicting that we will vote to reject home rule? Surely, it must be down to psychology?

Part 2: Psychology

Consider the scenario that we were voting for or against a union with a government in London if we had been an independent country for the past 300 years. Do you think we would vote for it? Surely, the very idea would be laughed at. Therefore, the psychology of the status quo must play a huge part in our decision making.

The current government is in severe danger from UKIP simply because of the very modest effects of European influence on our government. There is an irony that that they argue that the UK union should stay together. I also wonder how the English would vote in a referendum to move the seat of government to Belfast, Cardiff or Edinburgh.

Is the future status quo not an illusion? Obviously, it’s a leap of faith to vote for setting up a new government (not a country - we are already a country!). But surely it’s also obvious that it’s a huge leap of faith to enter a union with a country which has some frightening looming problems. I’m thinking here about us leaving Europe, spending vast quantities of money and lives on wars that don’t seem to have helped, killing off the NHS, failing to properly address the many issues that contribute to wellbeing of the population.

The status quo in our country is that the leading cause of death among male adults between 21-50 is suicide. I can’t see any reason to vote for a status quo where our children are more likely to wish to end their own lives in their prime than in years gone by. The status quo is not making us happy. I don’t feel that there is much to lose by letting go of risk aversion and voting to take another path.

Part 3: Wealth

Despite the fact that our current wealth (in a world perspective) has not made us happy, the data shows that the short term effects on our financial situation are most likely to swing voters decisions. There are two critical points about this.

Firstly, the predictions about whether we may be slightly better or slightly worse off are totally unreliable. On both sides, they are assumptions, based on assumptions. Economists are famous for being unable to agree on anything. And recent history certainly underlines the lack of ability to predict avoidable economic disasters. To vote based on predicted numbers truly is to take a gamble. 

Secondly, what is wealth? The most exciting piece of discussion I’ve heard in the mass media relating to the independence debate was back in May and wasn’t even being discussed in the context of independence. It’s well known that above a basic level, more money doesn’t mean more happiness and wellbeing. I’m simplifying and recommend some good reading that explores the complex picture. The media constantly encourages us to worry about GDP, despite the ever greater understanding that it doesn’t relate to quality of life. Back in 1968 Bobby Kennedy said GDP “measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile”. Although it doesn’t make such an easy headline for mass media, the social progress index has over recent years shed much more light on what is important. It puts GDP in it’s place as one among many factors we should be concerned about. The findings, and the league table of countries makes interesting reading. Note that the UK is a lot lower on the list than some other countries that have much in common with Scotland.

I’m not saying money isn’t important. But since the numbers war averages out at a few hundred quid either side of the recent past and it’s clear that this sort of difference has only limited effects on wellbeing (that may well be countered in other ways), it doesn’t seem right to take the gamble along these lines. Moreover, an Independent Scotland, even in tough times is likely to be more left leaning than the current government and pay closer attention to those with least opportunity. For these reasons, surely the best lines across which to thrash out a decision are cultural.

Part 4: Culture

Niall Ferguson (a conservative) described in 2012’s BBC Reith* lectures why countries prosper first and foremost from their institutions rather than simply their industries. He was referring to legal and educational institutions. In both of these fields, Scotland has institutions which are looked up to around the world. He also pointed out that the accumulation of national debt is now undermining democracy since successive generations inherit the debt without having voted to accumulate it. Whether you choose to love or hate the SNP, they have been clear about their intention and proposed methods to reverse the current direction of the UK of accumulating vast quantities of debt. Although our current austerity programme is reducing our national deficit, the debt is still rising.

Very few Scots seriously question whether we ‘could’ be independent. I would urge the few that do to have more confidence! So to decide whether we should, surely we should think about what would give us a greater sense of being part of a community, greater sense of purpose and a feeling that our voice as individuals or may be heard.

This aspect has been my strongest lever towards voting yes. We are already a country, in all but government. Completing that missing piece by deciding to govern ourselves would allow us to shape our circumstances to better reflect our needs. Sure, we have absorbed so much of culture from the rest of the UK and the rest of the world. There is a McDonalds in every town. We eat full Scottish breakfasts, which are basically full English breakfasts plus Irn Bru. Etc. But it seems pretty clear to me that we are different from the rest of the UK. Suitably different to benefit from having a sovereign government. That was also the view of the UK's outgoing permanent representative to NATO, expressed while she was pointing out that NATO would have no reason to interrupt Scotland's membership.

Where England is one of the most densely populated countries in Europe, Scotland is one of the least. Rather than worrying about the influx of foreign talent, we realise that we need it. Where England repeatedly votes for a Tory government with a far right chaser, we have always leaned a little more to the left.

I just don’t feel the government represents us. In fact, I don’t think we are even on their radar. The independence referendum neatly illustrates this. So many in England are barely even aware that the UK is a few points away from breaking up.

It ought to go without saying that I have no axe to grind against the UK. None whatsoever. I feel that the situation we are in is just human nature. We are a tiny part of the UK, population wise, with quite different needs and ideals. And so it has come about that we have been given the chance to represent ourselves, but remain connected in the wider European Union. At a very basic level, it makes sense. I still want to do business with, travel to and consume culture from the rest of the UK, just as I do from the the rest of Europe which I regularly spend time in and have friends in. 

I do feel that taking the step to independence will do Scotland a massive amount of good. If there is one piece of Scottish culture that I feel still exists and is not our best asset, it’s lack of confidence. I think that it will make it more focused, more flexible, and especially more confident. 

So I’m voting Yes.

*Footnote: John Reith, of Stonehaven, developed the concept of public service broadcasting for the education of the people and created the modern BBC as its first director general. I doubt he would have any confidence issues with the idea of establishing a Scottish broadcasting service. He admitted that he felt he had the skills to “manage any company”. He put his money where his mouth was.


  1. Great post Dave. Very well presented. We dont need to be scared of doing what we feel is right.

  2. Nice piece, Dave... so much more thoughtful than the interminable mudslinging!

  3. Well writ and reasoned, Dave. I will share massively, if you don't mind.


    Dayton (formerly of Tiso!)

  4. Great piece Dave...good on you!

    John Appleby

  5. Hi Dave,
    I posted the following to some friends and one lead me to your posting. I agree very much with your rationale,will and sentiment. Here's an English perspective that surprise surprise has little air time:
    For me: a Brit, an English Man, A European or a world citizen the vote on who represents you should always be about who represents you most fairly and justly. The argument for the most part has been framed by the English establishment in terms of economic sensibility because they thought they could rig that boxing ring. If the Scots have the confidence to better represent themselves, good on them. This referendum represents a miraculous opportunity born from the fact that your enemies will always make a mistake; so long as you wait patiently and are ready to act. The debate has finally turned to the realisation that this now represents a unique opportunity to divorce Scotland from the opulent and corrupt nature of the Tories vision for the UK. The focusing of the discussion was achieved not by what Salmon or Darling brought to the table, in the last debate, but by what the speakers from the audience had to say. They spoke in isolation but they spoke as one; and they were spot on. If they vote 'yes', I won't stop being a Brit and neither will they. The powers that be use notions that Scotland will become a foreign land to whip up our clasping hand. For most of us our sense of who we are, in relation to where we are, is born of our experience. My interaction with the lands that extend north and theirs south will be no less free than those that extend throughout Europe, in fact more so because our land is one. Instead of turning away from Europe, which we are all too often encouraged to do, shouldn't we be looking at it as the positive force that it was designed to be; providing an equitable structure which frames local decision making. // The Scots know how much Labour turned to the right in '97. Darling acknowledged this; he literally shook and his voice quivered in response to the attacks from the audience. Yes the rest of the UK will lose many Labour seats; but the Labour seats in Scotland that will have to face a new political consensus that rejects corporate greed and the destruction of our compassionate structures. The consciences of north and south have always been intertwined with or without political overlord. Scotland's independence could prove a critical juncture in terms of revitalising the intelligent and compassionate agenda in the south. // Paths need to be walked down to exist. For the strength and liberty of the Albion, go for it. But don't forget, that the battle has not been won with a victorious 'Yes'; it's what you do next that counts, it always does after a decision has been made. And it counts as much for us the people in the southern lands as it does for yours in the north. If the answer is "No", be sure of one thing, the political establishment in Westminster will never be so foolish to present this opportunity again.

  6. Not sure that Scottish ideals are that different from the rest of the UK, see:

  7. Not sure of the relevance of suicide rates to the argument. The higher incidence of suicide seems to be more to do with poorer access/attitudes towards appropriate mental health services than in other parts of the UK, see: Mental illness in Scotland is no higher than in the rest of the UK. Of course, the fact that this is the biggest cause of death in the age group you mention partly reflects the success in reducing other causes; the incidence is still low (and comparable with Norway, Sweden).

  8. Also not sure what makes you think that this will create a more representative and progressive society? The SNP is proposing a 3% cut in corporation tax to lure large companies. It also opposed a 50% top rate of tax, bankers’ bonus tax, the mansion tax. Alex Salmond has a close relationship with Rupert Murdoch. You will lose a democratic imput on decisions made by the rest of the UK, despite the fact that they will have a massive impact (and that you are planning to be in a currency union with them).

  9. Many of the problems you mention are significant and real, but I am not convinced the answer is the divisiveness of divorce. Scottish people do not seem to lack an identity, and there are positive strengths to the Union. Membership of Union did not prevent the Scottish Enlightenment happening. Already Scotland has much more control over its own affairs as a result of its membership of the Scottish Parliament (which endorsed the government's actions over the Iraq War). There was widespread opposition from across the UK to the Iraq War, and of course Westminster Parliament blocked Cameron over action in Syria. Not persuaded that the Scottish Parliament is less likely to get involved in wars; Salmond has already said that Scotland will join NATO.

  10. I think that the notion that Scotland will be left-leaning is not inevitable. Current and proposed SNP policies are not at all left-leaning (freeze council tax, lower business taxes) and it is quite likely that Scottish Labour will disintegrate after a 'yes' vote, leaving space for a Tory revival. My guess is that not much will change but if it does it will be to the right rather than the left.

  11. Ian, I agree it's not inevitable. I'm not sure how that changes the argument, since it is still much more likely than in the UK. I'm not sure about Scottish Labour disintegrating after a Yes vote. Surely it would have a chance to make a comeback since it wouldn't have to be Tory anymore. And even if it doesn't, a demise of a party doesn't alter the feelings of the people - a new political landscape will emerge.

  12. John, the relevance of suicides is the success of the political system in promoting wellbeing of the people. And it's failing. The fact that the suicide rate is high across the UK is by the by - it's the high rate that makes us want to change something, at a deep level.

    The policies of Alex Salmond aren't relevant - we will have a Scottish general election to choose the appropriate government after the referendum. The point is, we have an opportunity to cut away the dead wood of an archaic political system of the UK and reset many of the unhealthy aspects of the way the UK is going. I am not planning any currency union (yet). I am deciding whether I want to live in Britain or Scotland. Once all the political bluffing ahead of the referendum is passed, we can start to make choices about specifics. The currency, while not unimportant, it not the be all and end all of life. Is it really what you would decide on given that business and politics is there to use it as a tool to scare us to death into avoiding having to change.

    In response to your last point - again, it's not just about the level of representation (although it is one ingredient in a big picture). The entire political and societal system needs reformed. We may not lack an identity but so many of us feel that we cannot fully express it. And we also feel that the many strengths of the Union are outweighed by it's drawbacks. The relationship would be much healthier as equals in a European Union.