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.