Interest in the Scottish referendum is finally beginning to pick up south of the border. Previously it seemed that many in the South saw it as a little local difficulty in a far off country of which they knew little. Now, it seems, many are beginning to realise that a “Yes” vote will have far-reaching consequences outside Scotland. Like many change programmes, it’s not until it reaches one’s own doorstep that people take notice.
The referendum debate has many interesting dimensions. The question itself continues to cause debate. The original question, prefaced with “Do you agree”, was considered to be angling towards getting a positive response. Even the current question, “Should Scotland be an independent country?” is felt by many to be slanted. Some think that asking a blunt “Should Scotland leave the UK” would get a very different response. As with many things, asking the right question is key.
The nature of the debate itself is also fascinating. Senior pro-union politicians have recently shifted their rhetoric away from telling the Scots how unlikely they are to flourish on their own, to saying how much richer the UK can be with them continuing to be in the fold. This change in language reflects a number of points. The first is that telling a positive story, the carrot, is often far more effective than a negative one, the stick. Secondly, it seemed the pro-Union side was talking rational facts and the other side was thinking emotionally. And because we make decisions with our intuitive faculties and then post-rationalise them, the lure of independence was trouncing any arguments based solely on facts and figures. A romantic story is always more compelling than data. A third point is confirmation bias, where people actively favour information that confirms their pre-existing view. This sort of behaviour is especially prevalent when a debate is hotly contested. As George Orwell put it: “If one harbours anywhere in one’s mind a nationalistic loyalty or hatred, certain facts, though in a sense known to be true, are inadmissible”.
One important issue that comes up time and again in change programmes is ownership. Too often people feel that they are the objects of change rather than the agents of change. The Scottish referendum brings this issue into sharp focus with those living south of the border effectively disenfranchised. As a Welshman I feel that my status as British is under threat. Something as significant as my identity is at risk and there is nothing that I can do about it. However, that is nothing compared with the visceral pain that many of my Scottish friends who live in England feel at being left out. They are passionate Scots, most of whom have been born, bred and educated in Scotland. And now they are excluded from having a say whilst French and Germans, say, living in Scotland do get a vote. Successful change programmes are those that involve all people in the process but, in this case, the majority of those affected have no involvement.
The concept of nationalism, something that events in the Crimea have brought into sharp focus, is another enormous topic. Sometimes the increasingly global nature of world affairs makes national borders seem less relevant. The constant movement of people and money, global religions, the influence of supranational bodies such as the EU, UN, and WTO, and the nature of existential threats such as climate change, all combine to create an overwhelming feeling that national governments are of decreasing significance.
Then again perhaps it is the paralyzing nature of the perils that makes us feel tribal and secure with our own. Whatever we say, however, most of us are tribal. We see things through the eyes of “people like us”. We think that we share common values and outlook as well as heritage. We feel comfortable within our group and threatened by outsiders. It has always been the case. As Kipling put it:
All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And everyone else is They:
And despite being disenfranchised, I fear that I must express an opinion on the Scottish referendum. For me there are two key points. The first suggests that, in order to thrive, a nation must be small politically and large economically. Having only one of those two criteria does not bode well. And my second point is best summed up in the immortal words of Hilaire Belloc: “Always keep a-hold of nurse for fear of finding something worse.”