Sunday 7 September 2014

Thoughts on Scottish Independence

I’m a proud Scot, living outwith* Scotland, and it’s got to the stage now that when people realise you are Scottish, they will just look you in the eye and ask, “Yes or No?” (and whether I am eligible to vote, which I am not).

My answer, is “no”.

The slightly longer answer is “the heart says ‘aye’, the head says ‘dinnae be daft’”.

However I have found even those sage words fail to placate my inquisitive foreign enquirers, so I figured it was about time to put my thoughts down in written form. Disclaimer: this is not a deep political and economic analysis. It’s just my feelings and thoughts.

First, some context around me. I left Scotland at age 21 to do a biology PhD in London. After that I worked in pharmaceutical consulting, then did an MBA at Oxford, then worked for one of the world’s largest Internet companies, first in London, later in Berlin. Most recently I’ve started my own company, based in London, backed by investors from all over Europe. So what I’m saying is, I’m fairly-well educated, got quite a bit of international business experience, and while I’m not an economics expert I get the basic principles. i.e. I’m not a dafty, but I’m no f’ing independence braniac either.

My opinions are based on my own experience, and what I consider “common sense”. I don’t care about “left-wing vs right-wing” and “socialist vs conservative”. I don’t think in those terms, because I think they are mostly bollocks and damaging, preventing people on “one side” from using good ideas just because they are considered from “the other side”. I’m even vaguely tempted to start my own “Common Sense” political party. I’d be like George Galloway, but without an appearance on Celebrity Big Brother.

So before I get stated, I should say that think the independence debate in Scotland has mostly been a model of democracy from which the rest of the world could learn. When you see the good folk of Crimea, “voting” to join Russia in their recent “referendum”, I can’t help but wonder, with political naivety set to 11, if the Ukrainian government could not have got the upper-hand by saying, “ok, we can have this referendum, but this is important so let’s do it like Scotland, planned and debated over the next 4 years”.

Despite Scotland conducting a largely well-behaved and intelligent debate around the independence referendum, I can’t help that nationalism is nothing much more than the politically packaged face of one of mankinds most negative traits: tribalism. The Scottish dislike the English; the West Coast of Scotland is different from the East Coast of Scotland; the folk in Dundee dinnae like the folk in Aberdeen; Kirkton vs Lochee; this street vs that street. Tribalism is a natural, ingrained instinct, but it’s one which is largely overridden by being in a civilised society.

Tribalism is mostly-based on self-preservation and selfishness, whereas a civilised society is meant to promote egalitarianism and selflessness. So when the Yes camp, start talking about “our” oil money that’s been robbed from the Scottish people, it strikes me as ugly selfishness. If we follow that argument, in an independent Scotland, why should the Shetlanders or the folk in Aberdeen share “their” oil revenue with the rest of Scotland? Indeed, why should London stay a part of the rest of the UK? It produces far more tax income per capita than the rest of the country. Why shouldn’t they just keep it all to themselves? Other parts of the country are “robbing” London of its tax money. You see if we keep pandering to tribalism we might as well just break up the country into dozens of separate states. I think that’s called Balkanisation, and I don’t think it’s considered a positive thing.

One of my concerns from watching the independence debate from afar is the dominant profile of the people that seem to be the loudest on either side of the argument. From afar, it seems the the majority of people on the Yes-side are the ones that have lived in Scotland their whole lives, are less-likely to have much international experience, and (I can’t think of any polite way to put this) less well-educated. Of course there are well-educated, internationally-rounded people in the Yes camp too, but it does not seem like they are majority. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with living in Scotland all your life and having less-education. It’s just that it seems to most observers that the “Yes” feeling is mostly driven by the “Braveheart mentality”.

You see, it’s hard to admit, but when you’re brought up in Scotland, you pretty much get brought up to hate England. There’s nothing specific about it, but there is this self-perpetuating animosity towards our neighbours, “the f**king English”. Then when you move to England, you assume that they feel the same way about us. Surely the English hate the “f**king Scots” just as much as we hate the “f**king English”.

Nope. They don’t. They really don’t. And it’s kind of embarrassing when you realise you’ve been holed up in Scotland for 21 years thinking that you occupy as much-mind share in their heads as they do in yours, but you really don’t. That’s when you become painfully aware that as a nation we have a collective chip on our shoulder about England. I think it’s that chip on the shoulder that fuels the tribalism that drives most of the Yes voters, and seeing as most of the Yes voters have lived in Scotland their whole lives, they’ve never had the chance to brush that chip off their shoulder and look at things objectively.

There seems to be some perception that we have it bad in Scotland, and that we would be a rich country if only we were independent. Eh? As part of the UK we’re already one of the richest countries in the world with an exceptionally high-standard of living. Alright, we’re no Norway or Luxembourg, but do we need to be? Maybe we can be realistic here?

We are part of perhaps the most successful union in the world - the United Kingdom. Why on earth would we want to break something that has already been so massively successful and rewarding for us? Wanting to break up from one successful union - the UK, whilst staying part of another successful one - the European Union, makes no sense to me.

Can we think of any other successful unions? Yeah I can think of a couple of examples. The United States of America for one. Does anyone think that the US would be a richer place if they started splitting up? California on its own would be on of the richest countries in the world, why don’t they split off? Because most people realise that they are successful because they are part of a successful union, not despite it. When you read about crazy San Francisco types who think their city should be a separate state or country because it is so rich with technology companies, does anyone sensible really think that is a good idea, or just selfishness?

Closer to home, look at Germany. Germany is the combination of dozens of states with just as much history as Scotland and England. But do you see them fighting to breakaway from Germany? No, because they realise that their union has made them one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Sensible Germans.

OK, so that’s my general “independence is a daft idea fuelled by selfish tribalism” angle. I’m getting a bit bored of writing this, so here’s a few practical points.

Oil revenue - please let’s stop going on about this. It’s going to run out eventually. It might go up or down in the short term, but we sound like total-f**kwits going on about it.

Replication of services - if we were independent we would have to duplicate a whole bunch of governmental services that are provided by the UK. What a waste of money. Notice how in the business world companies tend to merge exactly so they can do the opposite? It’s because they know merging makes them stronger, more powerful and means they can eliminate over-lapping functions. Doing the opposite makes no sense.

Currency and debt - this seems to be the most dafty part of the whole Yes angle. Of course we can’t keep the pound and of course we have to take our share of the national debt. I don’t think we get to have our own way with those just because Alex Salmond is a better orator than Alistair Darling. If we go independent our credit rating will certainly drop and Scotland’s cost of borrowing would increase. Can’t see how that is a good thing.

Nuclear - please can we keep nuclear power and Trident? Hatred of nuclear power is irrational.

Lastly, what worries me about independence is that if we vote for the biggest structural change our country has known for hundreds of years, it will be by a very slim margin. It doesn’t seem like a good thing that we could have independence based on 50.1% people voting Yes versus 49.9% voting No. It feels like the sort of thing that needs a clear 60:40 majority. But hey, I guess that’s just the way democracy works.

I don’t support No because of any specific economic argument, but just because overall it is pretty much pointless. The Yes camp say that at the end of the day it’s not about economics, it’s about self-determination, but just seems like a fancier way to describe tribalism to me.


Arjan Tupan said...

Hmm, I recently met a Scot, and I have to admit: I'm guilty of exactly that behaviour you describe in the first paragraph. Really. Exactly.

Anyway, great, thoughtful post. I like your view on tribalism, and how it is damaging. Especially when you make it a street-by-street topic. Don't forget Celtic v Rangers (still?) etcetera. I believe, by the way, that this also goes for the EU, but that is another matter.

I've learned a lot from reading this. And next time I meet a Scot, I will ask them about whisky again ;)

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