Saturday, 1 November 2014

There’s something rotten in the state of Scotland

There’s a long history in philosophy of discussing possible worlds.  Remember the bit in Candide satirising Leibniz “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”. In more modern times, thinking about possible worlds was given impetus by scientific theories that the universe might be infinite. If so, there are an infinite number of worlds just like ours all of which just had an independence referendum. There are also an infinite number of Alex Salmonds and in some of those possible worlds, indeed, in an infinite number of them, he won the referendum. There is also a possible world where Yes won the Scottish independence referendum by one vote.

This is all very abstract and metaphysical. But stick with me, fellows; I’m the lady you came in with.  The point of possible world theory does not depend on belief in extra-terrestrial life. It’s really just a way of illustrating counterfactuals. Think back a few weeks. I thought Yes had a chance of winning with two weeks to go. Perhaps, I was wrong in this. Maybe I overestimated their chances. I might even have been deceived by a rogue poll. But that poll changed my behaviour. It changed not only the way I campaigned but the way people far more important than me campaigned.  Because I believed Yes had a chance, I gave absolutely everything I had to the No campaign. I lost sleep, I lost weight and I lost friends. I have never been so stressed. The thing that kept me sane was that I could escape into Russian and for at least an hour every day read about the saintly Prince Lev Myshkin who is the most intelligent “Idiot” you could ever find. Why were so many No campaigners so stressed? The answer is obvious. We all knew that this was our only chance. If we lost we would lose forever.

But in that possible world where we woke up on September 19th to find that Yes had won, where would we be now? Counterfactual history is always problematic for the simple reason that the following statement is logically true: “If the Germans had invaded Britain in 1940, the Britons would have escaped on winged horses”. If you don’t believe me, get hold of an introductory book on propositional logic. But it is in the nature of human beings to speculate about what might have been. The point to remember is that nothing about counterfactual worlds can be proved. So don’t let’s get into an “oh no, it wouldn’t, oh yes, it would” type argument.

If Yes had won, there would have been wild celebrations for some days. Some Scots would have left Scotland or would right now be in the process of leaving. Most like me with jobs here would have had a few dark days and then we’d have got on with our lives. I’ve lived in far more difficult political/economic circumstances than anything that would be likely to happen in an independent Scotland. The trick I found was to not let it touch you. Existentialism was my way of dealing with the Soviet Union; it would have been my way of dealing with an independent Scotland.

If Yes had won, it is likely I believe that some at least of their campaign promises would have turned out to be false. We already know that they were overly optimistic about oil. It may well have turned out that George Osborne and Co were not bluffing about a currency union. Perhaps the EU would already by now have said that it would take many years and certain rather onerous conditions for Scotland to become a member. Under these circumstances, of  things turning out otherwise than promised in the campaign, would it have been democratic to overturn the result, especially as Yes only won by one vote? Of course not. I’m not as cynical about politicians as some people are. I believe for instance that if Nick Clegg had remained in opposition, he would have kept his promise of opposing tuition fees. But circumstances changed, he ended up unexpectedly in government, so couldn’t keep every promise in his manifesto because he was in government with a party that also had a manifesto.

It’s November in our possible world, the UK economy is in chaos. There was a huge stock-market crash and the pound has been devalued by 20%. Businesses are leaving Scotland. People are desperately worried about negative equity. Huge numbers of Scots are repenting their decision to vote Yes. How would Yes voters react if Better Together were still campaigning, indeed, that the campaign had grown? Imagine huge demonstrations of No voters telling Cameron that Scotland had been lied to and that he should ignore the result of the referendum. They only won by one vote after all. What would Yes voters be saying under these circumstances? They would rightly be saying that the result of the referendum had to be accepted. The rules were clear. If Cameron even hinted that he would block independence, there would rightly be talk of betrayal, of Britain being an undemocratic country. Yes voters under these circumstances would rightly describe Better Together campaigners as undemocratic and unwilling to follow the will of the majority.

Imagine if Better Together had decided to merge into a single alliance with the goal of overthrowing the referendum result. What if it was by now clear that the majority of Scots regretted that there had been a Yes vote? What if there was a poll showing that the “No alliance” had a majority of 52%? What if we planned to fight the General Election on the platform of overturning the result of the referendum? Remember Scotland was not due to become independent until March 2016, so we could have fought in May on that platform if we’d wished. How would Yes supporters have reacted to such behaviour? They would, of course, have pointed to the Edinburgh Agreement that everyone signed and would rightly have described such behaviour as undemocratic. After all we had a free, fair decisive referendum and all democrats agreed to abide by the result.

Sorry, Yes friends. This is why you are not democrats. If our positions were reversed, you would be in the streets demonstrating against us if we were now trying to overturn a narrow Yes win. I don’t suppose in our possible world where Yes won Mr Salmond would be allowing “No Alliance” supporters to demonstrate against the result. I suspect we would all be called “Enemies of the people.”

It’s the inability of Yes supporters to see any other position than their own that makes them so dangerous. They have reached the stage where democracy to them only means their side winning and they are unwilling to accept any other result. If they had won the referendum, that would have been the end of the matter. Scotland would have become independent. But losing the referendum likewise makes no difference to the outcome. Scotland still becomes independent. They only have to win once. We have to win perpetually. That’s not democracy, that’s heads I win tails you lose.

Real democrats have no obligation to cooperate with those who wish to use democracy for undemocratic purposes. Rather, we have a duty to use democracy to oppose the undemocratic. That lesson has been learned from history. There’s something rotten in the state of Scotland. UK democracy will survive this. We’ve survived worse. But it’s time for sensible Yes voters to disassociate themselves from this nonsense. Let’s be absolutely clear there is nothing progressive about Yes. They campaign in the name of democracy, but don’t believe in it. 

If you like my writing, please follow the link to my book Scarlet on the Horizon. The first five chapters can be read as a preview.


  1. Good piece. Not sure about putting the Yes campaigners in the same camp as IRA terrorists - the comment about No having to win every time and Yes only once, paraphrases, the IRA after the Brighton bomb!

    I myself posted yesterday on Sturgeon's backdoor tilt at a new referendum, where she is seeking barriers to accepting a UK-wide EU referendum result unless all of the individual countries vote that way, as well. So in her strange view of democracy, the fate of any EU referendum sits not with how the majority of the UK's 45 million people vote but with maybe how as few as 700,000 people in Northern Ireland, vote.

    1. It wasn't my intention to group Yes campaigners with IRA. Hadn't thought of that association to be honest. The point is just to point out the undemocratic nature of what they are doing. Agree with you that Sturgeon's idea about EU referendum are profoundly undemocratic. The whole movement is and needs to get a grip.

    2. I take an opposite view and do consider it to be democratic. Scotland should not be forced to leave the EU if they overwhelmingly vote to stay and the same applies to Wales and NI.
      That's how democracy works in truely federal countries.

  2. Why do you think 45% voted yes in the first place?

    1. They voted yes because they wanted to win. But it turned out they lost and and they lost also any resemblance to democrats

  3. But why did they want to win? What did they think independence would give them?
    After all at the beginning nowhere near 45% of people were going to vote yes.
    What changed?

  4. I'm not sure the logic of your article holds together Effie.

    You say "They only have to win once. We have to win perpetually."

    This was a regular point made by the Better Together campaign - "It's not like a general election - if you vote Yes then you can't change your mind in 5 years time".

    Nobody ever explained why this was true? If being part of a Union of these islands is such a good thing, why would it be impossible to hold a vote in all the countries to agree to rejoin?

    It being unlikely isn't an acceptable argument - indeed it's clearly extremely unlikely based upon the number of countries which have become independent since the second world war (lots), and the number who've then decided to form a union and give up their sovereignty (tiny).

    However your argument would need to be one on why legally it could not happen, and nobody has provided me with that yet.

    As for the constant calls for Yes supporters to accept we were beaten and give up our hope of independence for ever, why on earth should we?

    In a response to a previous post of yours, well before the referendum, I explained that I accepted the 'for a generation' idea, with a number of caveats. These included evidence of major electoral fraud, major constitutional change, such as the UK voting to leave the EU against Scotland's will or a complete failure of the UK to fulfil any promises it gave in the runup to the referendum. As I remember, at the time you agreed with my reasoning.

    I accept there has not been major electoral fraud, but the polls make it clear that the UK parties have yet to convince the majority in Scotland that they are fulfilling their promises, and an EU referendum looms over us.

    I don't know how you reconcile your agreement with me then with your current arguments that there can never be another independence referendum, and that there is no other legal mechanism for independence to happen.

    To me it's quite simple - if it becomes the clear will of the Scottish people in the future that independence should happen, then one way or another it will.

    1. You ask why reunification is impossible, which is a fair and legitimate question, but one based on lopsided logic.

      I agree it is not impossible, but it is so unlikely as to make almost so. Remember independence and reunification require the say-so of BOTH parties. Westminster honoured that as part of the Edinburgh Agreement and so if Scotland had voted for independence both parties would have consented to it.

      You are correct in saying it is logically/legally possible that we COULD rejoin the UK if we left. However it is hugely unlikely that the rest of the UK would agree to that, and that is why it is so unlikely it would be almost impossible.

      It is hugely unlikely because of three possible ways an independent Scotland could go:

      1. If Scotland became independent and turned more prosperous than the UK there would obviously be little or no desire to rejoin it.

      2. If it was equally prosperous there might be a minority sentimental support for rejoining, but not enough to force a referendum on it, let alone to wind that vote.

      3. The only situation in which 50%+ of an independent Scotland would want to rejoin the UK would be if we were significantly poorer than the UK, and obviously in that event the UK population would hardly welcome back a neighbour that left it but some years later is saying "we'd like to come back". Independence would have caused major disruption to the UK remember – and they would not have been quick to forget that.

      Basically, your argument neglects the fact that, just like the decision to leave, the one to rejoin would not be Scotland’s decision alone…

      …but then again seeing as some of the SNP think a Unilateral Declaration of Independence is sufficient for divorce, perhaps in their world a “Unilateral Declaration of Reunification” is sufficient for coming back.

      If it is I say we unify with Norway or Switzerland immediately!

  5. The argument does not depend on it being impossible to have a campaign for reunification after independence. This is clearly possible. Reunification happened when the two Germany's joined. More controversially recently when Crimea rejoined Russia. My argument is simply that if No had lost the referendum and people like me were campaigning to prevent independence happening, e.g. by using the General Election in May, that would be undemocratic. The reverse I believe is true also.

    Everyone knew that there was likely to be a vote on the EU. That was factored into people's minds when they voted. Sorry Scotland is part of the UK. If the UK votes to leave,, then Scotland would leave too. Scotland would have to leave anyway even if independent. The EU is a trading block. You have to be in the same block as the country with which you do 70% of your trade.

    I can see the point of someone who does not wish to rule out independence forever. It is not the norm for democracies to grant parts the right to secede. Neither Germany, the USA, France, nor Spain will grant formerly independent parts the right to leave. I believe having the referendum put us within that norm. I may be wrong. But at the very least it is necessary to wait 15-20 years. If the SNP and Yes supporters said that, there would be no need for people like me to campaign further. Moreover there would be a chance for some of the wounds to heal. If the nonsense that is going on in Scotland continues I will simply be counting the days until I can retire and go elsewhere.

    Thanks for your response. As always I find your comments worthy of attention.

  6. Just discovered this blog and will have to catch up on your posts, but I can't disagree with this one.

    Oh, and thanks for your work as part of Better Together: be in no doubt as to the gratitude of the silent majority.

  7. Your point about counterfactual history is something I’ve thought about quite a lot since the referendum. I’m increasingly thinking that it actually would have been the best thing for Yes to win (bear with me).

    Because they lost they can blame the traitorous no voters, the dishonest Better Together campaign, the hollow Vow, the biased media etc. Basically the loss has made them martyrs. They are still the underdog fighting the establishment. However if they had won they would, by definition, be the establishment. Not only would that have perplexed the many that voted yes because they were anti-establishment but it would mean that the onus is on them to prove their promises were well-founded. And we know they weren’t.

    A Labour activist remarked during the campaign how unbalanced the debate was because the pro-UK side were defending a tangible, demonstrable track record. The Yes side however could say what they wanted and because they were referring to future events there was little we could do to definitively prove them wrong. Essentially the campaign was the real versus the hypothetical. This scenario fed some of the delusion amongst the Yes side.

    A yes vote however would have turned this situation on its head and the SNP would have been under immense pressure to prove that the hypothetical was in fact real, in the sense of it being deliverable. We knew it wasn’t though. If there was a Yes vote we would have seen the economic impacts, that there wouldn’t be a currency union, that the projections for oil were overstated, that EU membership by Spring 2016 wasn’t realistic, and so on. The no victory let them off the hook however, and in that way it’s the best scenario for them as they can still claim to be the anti-establishment underdog and still use the dismissive talk of “scaremongering”.

    Perhaps this is me just playing reverse psychology on myself, but in a way it would have been the best thing for there to have been a yes vote. We’d have seen the resulting chaos and the nationalists would have been exposed: ironically, the best thing to kill off the independence movement is independence.
    Of course that wouldn’t solve the situation of Scotland being ruined. However I was speaking to an academic whose specialism was political science and they said what may well have happened in the event of a yes vote was that there would have been a second referendum on the final settlement of the split (the outcome of the negotiations). At this point Scotland could have stepped back from the brink and the realisation that the “scaremongering” was anything but would have killed the SNP. This is a high risk approach, as it’s possible that there wouldn't be a second vote or that the nationalists would win it and of course there would be the disruption of the limbo that Scotland would be in between the votes, but I think it’s the most sustainable long-term solution.

    Convincing a yes voter that independence carries massive risks is like trying to tell someone not to play with fire: it’s maybe for the best to let them discover for themselves that it burns. You just hope that they don’t torch your 307 year old house during their enlightenment.

    1. I think Scots would have learned their lesson the hard way. But it's not an experiment I would have liked to try. Perhaps some people were exaggerating, but I think there was every chance Scottish independence would have been very dangerous to UK/Euro/World economy. When I told people this they just laughed. Such folly.

      Thanks again for another great comment.

  8. To make a couple of complementary but sweeping observations, I would say neither nationalists nor unionists at heart saw the referendum as a choice between two viable options. Yet that viable choice is what a democratic referendum needs to be.

    At heart, nationalists saw the referendum only as a necessary step towards independence and can't understand why any sincere person would vote No. So they deligitimise a vote for No by claiming the voter was motivated by fear, or even more ridiculously that they were all old folks doing the young out of their inheritance to save their pensions.

    On the other hand unionists never wanted the referendum in the first place. So the exercise itself is deligitimised.

    1. These are good points well made. Obviously true when stated, but not necessarily thought of before. It leaves us a very divided country with no real prospect for coming together.

    2. Many thanks for your kind words.

      I think a large part of the problem is that there is no consensus in Scotland - neither for independence nor for the Union. Eventually the issue will resolve itself. Either Scotland will eventually become independent or we will collectively give up and accept our place in the Union.

      The latter may have happened in Quebec thirty five years after the first referendum, if the latest election is definitive. The tragedy for Scotland is that it will mean decades of debilitating uncertainty, followed possibly by the disruption of independence itself. And people like yourself will have to continue campaigning when, no doubt, you would much rather get on with life,

    3. I don't think there's a legal route for nationalists to obtain independence. No democratic nation is obliged to continually fight separatists. Most simply don't allow them. I believe that's where we are in the UK. I campaign therefore to avoid the unpleasantness that we will have to go through if nationalists continue to act undemocratically. In the end though when there's no political solution you have to find an individual solution. The solution to the problems of the Soviet Union was to leave. It may well get to the stage where the same solution applies to Scotland.


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