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.