Tuesday 24 December 2013

Why nationalist accusations of scaremongering are illogical

Until the debate on independence began some time ago 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 in vogue once more. 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 are 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? Not at all. 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. Let’s say 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 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.

Let’s look at some more of the SNP accusations of scaremongering. Frequently in the independence debate there have been two opposing arguments. After a while it becomes very difficult to determine the truth of the matter. Take the debate about whether Scotland would remain a member of the EU after independence. I have heard arguments put forward by the SNP for why we would remain in the EU. I have also heard arguments put forward by the European Commission, the European President and the President of Spain for why we would have to apply from scratch from the point at which we become independent. I have read people who I respect say one thing, I have read people who I respect say the opposite. To be honest, I don’t know what would happen in the event of a vote for independence. Now if I point out to an SNP supporter the possible negative consequences of Scotland not being in the EU, I have frequently been accused of scaremongering. But as we have seen from the above, this is to assume that Scotland will remain part of the EU. But the fact is that this is something that we just don’t know. Only the future will tell us. But to assume as true something that we can’t possibly know is an equally fallacious form of reasoning. It’s like assuming that on September 18th 2014 it will be a sunny day. To accuse someone else of scaremongering for saying that it might rain is to suffer from the delusion that we can control the weather and that it wouldn’t dare rain on our parade.

Much about the future is uncertain. What would happen if Scotland voted for independence is largely unknown. It would depend on the actions of both Scotland, the rest of the UK and others in the wider international community. Neither excessive optimism, nor excessive fear is warranted by the facts. But neither is pointing out possible disadvantages scaremongering. To accuse me of scaremongering when we disagree about how things might turn out is to assume that you alone are in possession of the truth. But this is not to debate in an open and friendly way with your fellow Scot. It is to assume that you are in truth and I am in error. It is to say that I’m running round a building shouting fire when I’ve seen no such thing. It is to question my sincerity. We disagree, but let us at least assume that each of us have honourable intentions.

Sunday 15 December 2013

You don't know what you've got til it's gone

There’s a Joni Mitchell song from the early 70s that I remember rather liking. It has a refrain that goes:

            Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got
            til it’s gone

There are various things that she regrets losing. The song starts off with examples of environmental destruction, but finally we arrive at a devastating personal loss.

Late last night
I heard the screen door slam
And a big yellow taxi
Took away my old man

She’s regretting the loss of a husband or a boyfriend. She’s regretting that she took him for granted and that she only became aware of what she had lost when he had gone for good.

Now naturally this is not the only experience of divorce. Some women know full well that their husband was a brute and don’t regret the loss at all. But I imagine there are also a lot of people following a divorce who reflect on their loss and wish that things had turned out differently.

In Scotland we are also at the moment concerned with a matter of divorce. The important thing for all of us is that we don’t sing the refrain from Big Yellow Taxi.

I don’t know what the proportions are but I have the impression that while there are a good few people who have already decided that they want independence and a good few who have already decided that they want Scotland to remain in the UK, a large number of people are either undecided or indifferent. It’s for this reason that the result could still go either way, no matter what the polls say. 

One of the things that it is vital to remember is that the SNP only need 50% plus 1 vote in order to win. We know from experience that they are well organized. They are good campaigners. Their supporters care very deeply about their cause and are willing to work very hard for the result they want. This could well mean that a disproportionate number of independence supporters actually vote on the day. Imagine if the turnout for the referendum were relatively low. Under these circumstances the Yes camp could win even if the majority of the Scottish population were against independence. They could win because they got their supporters to vote while the majority of Scots, uninterested in politics and taking the UK for granted, stayed at home. That’s the nature of politics and the result would be perfectly fair. But imagine if those Scots complacently thinking that the UK would continue, though too indifferent to vote for it, suddenly woke up on the morning of 19th September to find that the Big Yellow Taxi had already departed. There would be lots of nationalists celebrating, but what if you didn’t really feel like taking part. What if you began to feel regrets and loss? What could be done? The answer is nothing.

Let’s imagine that the SNP had won the referendum, but that in the weeks and months after the result it became clear from polls that the majority of Scots wanted to remain in the UK. What could these people do? What good would this majority be after the result? It would be no good whatsoever. The ballots would already have been counted. It would be anti-democratic not to support the result. Let’s imagine that the divorce negotiations didn’t go as well as the SNP had hoped. Imagine if we began negotiating and that it turned out that we were not going to be able to keep the pound, that entry into the EU was not going to be as easy as the SNP had supposed. Let’s imagine that during this period of negotiating, support for independence were to drop sharply. Would this change the result? No. The Big Yellow Taxi would have already gone. Imagine if we were to go to the rest of the UK (rUK) with the message that actually we had changed our minds. It’s not clear under these circumstances that they would even have us back, wanting nothing to do with such fickleness. But anyway which Scottish politician would be so undemocratic as to go against the result of the referendum? Imagine how nasty things would get in Scotland if there were a campaign to reverse the result of the referendum. There would be cries of betrayal. There would be demonstrations. For the good of order and the future of Scotland, people who voted No would have to accept the result and make the best of it, even if we knew that most people in Scotland were against independence, even if we knew that the result of the referendum had been a fluke.

It is for this reason that it must be made clear that for us the referendum is decisive. People who support the continuance of the UK will only have one chance. If the Big Yellow Taxi departs there will be no bringing it back, no matter how much we regret, no matter how great our sense of loss. But isn’t the result going to be decisive for both sides? Let’s look at the matter from the other side of the fence. Will supporters of independence accept the result? If a very large majority of Scots vote No, we may be able to put them off for 10 or 20 years, but what if the result were close? Would the SNP campaign for another referendum in their next election manifesto? It’s hard to imagine that they would not. So supporters of Britain will have to accept the result come what may, while SNP supporters already know that they will continue until they win. This is like the EU attitude to referendums. They keep asking the question until they get the right result. 

The biggest danger to the UK is complacency and indifference. Most Scots are in the same position as the song. We don’t know what we’ve got til its gone. Most of us like certain things that have developed in Britain over the centuries. Even the nationalists want to keep nearly all of the shared UK institutions, pretty much except the shared parliament in Westminster. Many people in Scotland seem to think that these things will continue as a matter of course no matter what the result. The SNP message is don’t worry. Nothing much will change. All those things that we’ve developed over the course of our 300 year old marriage will survive the divorce. But there’s a perversity in this.  Millions of people the world over see Britain as a place which is free, which has a good standard of living, which has free and fair elections and which has the rule of law largely without corruption. Britain is such an attractive place that thousands of people both from Europe and elsewhere want to come and live here. They must find it rather baffling that a proportion of Scots are so desperate to leave. They must find it still more baffling that those same Scots want to leave the marriage, but keep all the fringe benefits. It’s as if after waving goodbye to the Big Yellow Taxi I expected my husband to still love me and provide me with emotional support. There may be some divorces like that, but they are not, I suspect, the common experience.

It is the fact that so many Scots are indifferent to Britain which allows the nationalists to gain a foothold. Nationalism is always a heady brew. It appeals to the emotions, to the sense of patriotism and group loyalty. Imagine next summer how many Scots will go to the pub to cheer on Uruguay, Costa Rica and Italy, hoping desperately that they will beat England. Some of those people will take that attitude to the ballot box as they vote for divorce. Some of them hopefully will have calmed down as the heady brew wears off. And then there will be the anniversary of Bannockburn. We’re brought up with the idea that our fellow countrymen are the “Old enemy”. No wonder that eventually some of us contemplate divorce. This heady brew of football, ancient history, lies and nonsense means that many of us have little sense of Britishness. It means that our marriage with rUK is treated with complacency and indifference. We take them for granted. We want what they can give us. We want all those nice things that both sides of the independence debate want to continue. But we are ready in an instant to remember old wrongs, ready to blame them both for the present and the past. Many of us, even those who will vote No, are rarely ready to display any real love or affection for our partner of 300 years. It is for this reason above all others that there is a chance that we could see the Big Yellow Taxi depart next September. 

I don’t know for sure what an independent Scotland would be like. No one does. There would, no doubt, be some advantages and there would, no doubt, be some disadvantages. No doubt, the woman looking at her husband departing in the taxi will be able to think of some of the advantages. Just think I get to start looking for a new man! But she also will have regrets and a sense of loss. Much of what the SNP promises about an independent Scotland could come to pass. Then again much of what they promise depends on other people and events that are outwith their control. There are best case scenarios and worse case scenarios. Voters should neither listen to excessive scaremongering nor excessive optimism. Let’s always remember that we are dealing with politicians. Not everything that politicians promise comes true.

If the SNP wins we’ll all find that something that we took for granted will have gone and there will be no getting it back again. What’s more we would deserve this result. We would have been gulled by the politics of football and ancient history. The nationalists would have made us drunk with their heady brew.  The result of every snide remark we’d ever made about the English, every time we’d denied our Britishness, everything that all of had done to damage the marriage would be there for all of us to see. While some of us would be dancing in the street and getting drunk, some others of us would be sitting watching that Big Yellow Taxi depart for ever. Some of us would be reflecting that we didn’t know what we’d got til it had gone. And there would be nothing that we could do. It would already have gone.

Saturday 7 December 2013

An appeal to our fellow Brits

Quebec had a referendum on secession from the rest of Canada in 1995. Fortunately thousands and thousands of Canadians from the rest of the country demonstrated. They had a simple message.  One hundred thousand people attended a “Unity rally” making a plea to the Québécois. It amounted to the following: “Please don’t go. We want you to stay.” The result of the referendum was close. 50.58% voted no to secession while 49.42% voted yes for independence. One of the reasons that the result was so close was because the yes campaign had promised things that were not in their gift such as the retention of the the Canadian Dollar and the maintenance of an economic and political partnership with the other Canadian provinces. Even though the rest of Canada had made it clear that they were unlikely to agree to Quebec’s wish list, a significant number of Québécois believed that they could have their secessionist cake and eat it no matter what their fellow Canadians thought. The secessionists nearly won. What prevented their victory may well have been the response of their fellow Canadians. The support for unity may well have made the difference. The mood in the rest of Canada was decisive. 

Imagine if there were a lunch club. Four people meet once a month to chat and share a meal together. Imagine if one member of the club was getting tired of it all, perhaps concerned at the expense and thought she would be better off eating alone. What would happen if the other three said something like “Good riddance, we didn’t much like you anyway”? Would this make it more or less likely that the person thinking of leaving would go? On the other hand, what if the others all presented a united view saying “Please don’t go, we would miss you so”?

Up until now the English, Welsh and Northern Irish haven’t played much of a role in the debate about Scottish independence. But we in Scotland who support the UK really need the support of our fellow citizens. Just like in Canada it could make the difference.

Of course, politicians in the other parts of the UK have generally shown that they are in favour of the Union. But it’s not so much the support of politicians that we need as the support of ordinary people. Unfortunately some of our fellow countrymen appear to welcome the secession of Scotland. I don’t know how representative they are, but I do know that they harm the case for the UK. Naturally, it’s an understandable reaction to the threat of divorce. When a husband says he wants a divorce it hurts and the natural response is to say “Good riddance, I never much loved you anyway”. But what if the wife were to say “Please don’t go I would miss you so.”? Would such a response make it more or less likely that the husband would stay?

But how can we in Scotland persuade the other parts of the UK that divorce is not the answer? One way might be to appeal not only to their patriotism as our fellow Brits, but also to their reason in terms of what is best for Britain including what is best for themselves..

We’re just beginning to come out of the worst recession since the 1930s. The UK has a single market, which is the result of our being in a union for hundreds of years. Gradually the fact that we have all lived in the same state has brought about harmonization. More or less the same laws apply to all of us. Business practices are similar. The experience of living in one part of the UK is not that different from living in another, which means that people move about freely and easily. Having a single market is of enormous economic benefit. It is one reason why the United States is so successful economically. Scottish independence is bound to have a disruptive effect on the UK single market and gradually as Scottish laws and practices diverged from the rest of the UK (rUK) the disruption would increase. The one argument that convinces me that it may be in our interest to remain in the EU is the existence of the EU single market. If the UK were to leave we would not have all of the benefits of membership of that market. But even those benefits are not nearly as great as the benefits of a single country’s single market. The single market within Germany is much closer and more harmonious than the single market between Germany and France. So while an independent Scotland would no doubt maintain a close economic relationship with rUK, it would not be as close as at present. It would be more like the relationship between Germany and France than the relationship between Bavaria and Saxony.

Does this matter? Well actually it does. The UK’s economic recovery is fragile. There is a lot to do before the economy will be on a really firm footing. The one thing none of us need is disruption to the UK single market, even if that disruption were to be relatively slight. Markets hate uncertainty. Businesses like to be able to plan. But what would divorce proceedings bring if not uncertainty. Suddenly a three hundred year old marriage that everyone the world over took for granted would be about to end. Other separatist movements in Spain or Belgium would take heart. Perhaps the Québécois would try again. Would these divorce proceedings make the recovery in Britain, more or less likely to continue? Would the world economy be grateful to the Scottish nationalists for their contribution to stability and confidence? It seems unlikely.

Because we have lived in one country for so many years, we’re all rather mixed up together. So are our businesses and services. What’s more there are three hundred years of law and practice to disentangle. What do you think our politicians would be doing in the event of Scottish independence? On both sides of the border they would be spending nearly all of their time on the divorce proceedings. Think about how difficult it has been for successive Governments to change longstanding institutions like the House of Lords or to bring improvement or reform to public services. Sometimes successive Governments of different parties have tried, often in vain, to make, for instance, the Civil service more efficient. We know that it is difficult and time consuming to bring about change. Does anyone then think that dissolving a three hundred year relationship will be straightforward?

The reason why this is important is that what we really need is for our politicians to be focussing on bringing growth to our country. Instead they would be involved in arcane constitutional matters concerning Scottish independence, the division of assets and liabilities and trying to find a way to disentangle three hundred years of living together like a family. Does anyone think that if our politicians focus on these matters rather than the economy, this will be of benefit to any of us in terms of prosperity? No one knows how the independence negotiations would go.  No one knows whether they will be easy and harmonious or hard and acrimonious. But everyone can agree that to some extent at least they will be disruptive and this will have an effect on all of us wherever we live in the UK at present. They are just what none of us need while our fragile economic recovery is beginning.

I would ask my friends in the other parts of the UK the following question. Do you think we will be more or less secure if our armed forces and security services are divided? The Royal Navy would no longer be patrolling our northern shores. So your northern flank would depend on armed forces which you no longer controlled. MI5 and MI6 would no longer be responsible for security in Scotland. Would this make it more or less likely that terrorists might find a way past our defences? Even if the rUK and Scottish armed forces and security services were to get on especially well, and it would clearly be in their interest to do so, we know from history that the weakest point is always where two allied armies meet.

I would also like to ask my friends in the other parts of the UK. Do you really want to lose what must be about a third of your territory? In addition you would lose who knows what fraction of your coastline. Most British people feel strongly about our fellow Brits even if they live overseas. We’d fight for Gibraltar. We fought for the Falklands. Yet while you care about a far away place in the South Atlantic of which you know nothing, many of you could not care less about the loss of a part of your own country to which you are joined both physically and with shared ties that stretch back centuries. Anti-Scottish banter is all very well, but you do realise that you would be losing a part of Britain forever? Would you be equally happy to lose Cornwall?

What it amounts to is this. Do you really want a foreign power north of the border? This foreign power could immediately act in ways which would be contrary to rUK’s interest. That means contrary to your interest. This foreign power would be a competitor. It would try to attract business away from rUK, perhaps by setting rates of corporation tax in such a way as to attract business away from England, Wales and Northern Ireland, perhaps by making alliances and deals with other foreign powers. Do you really think that this is in your own interest?

The nationalists want your hostility. Do you really want to play into their hands by saying good riddance to your fellow countrymen, your fellow Brits? They want a disunited UK. That’s why they sow discord with university tuition fees that only your kids pay. That’s why they try to treat people from different parts of the UK differently. They want you to resent any special treatment that is given to us Scots. But most Scots are not nationalists. We don’t see any real difference between us and our friends, neighbours and relations in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, beyond a slight difference in accent. Most of can find an ancestor born where you come from, even if our surname begins with Mac. The English speaking peoples of this island are as mixed up as the Italian speaking people of that peninsula. It makes as much sense to divide us as it would be to divide them.

In the long run we would all lose out by this division. Who knows when, but there will come a time when we will really need each other. Wellington famously said that Waterloo was a close run thing. The battle may have been lost without the Highland divisions standing firm without the Scots Greys charging shouting “Scotland forever”. Our common purpose made the difference when it looked for a moment as if the Germans would win in 1918. Thank God that Scotland was not a foreign power in 1940 as that would have made the few still fewer. There will come a time no doubt when you will need us again as we will need you. History has a way of repeating itself. This is why it is in your interest too that we all follow the lead of that great man who said “Let us go forward together.”