On September the 18th some 4 million Scottish voters will go to the polls to say whether they would like Scotland to become an Independent country and effectively secede from Her Britannic Majesty’s United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. As Joe Biden would put it “that’s a very big….a big deal indeed”. Intriguingly the secession debate is framed in such a way as to compose a platonic ideal of pure rationalism – the Unionist parties (Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat) in a fit of liberalism have conceded the right of secession to Scotland should it choose to opt for it. A right, hitherto unheard of, but that is one of the strengths of an unwritten constitution: you can make things up as you go along and do so quickly when interests converge.
So the debate proceeds, the nationalist SNP arguing that Independence is good for the people of Scotland, and the Unionists argue the contrary in spirit of reasoned rational enquiry and debate. One question, one examination, one issue – the welfare of the Scots. Truly miserable conditions for moral political psychology it would seem. The campaigns line up under the banner YES Scotland and Better Together. They each publish mountainous amounts of detailed argument, which in a pre-Internet age would have had a measurable adverse environmental impact.
So the Unionists parties offer the “right of secession” deal for tactical reasons, 2 to 1 ahead in the opinion polls they believe that the beloved Union is not in danger and that a powerful and potent political opponents’ strongest card, indeed its raison d’etre can be neutralised and undermined for a generation by its deserved defeat. And then the relative generosity of Scotland’s treatment in the UK can, if necessary, be addressed in shall we say, a more considered light post victory for the Union.
Anyways, after a year or more of campaigning under this liberal secessionist frame the opinion polls have shifted, according to the You Gov polling organisation, from from 29% YES in Aug 2013 to an astonishing 47% YES on the 1st September 2014. This is 62% increase in the YES vote over the course of the period in which the Unionist parties conceded the right of secession to the SNP and more importantly conceded the terms of the debate – rational, unemotive, reasoned discussion on the future of Scotland. Now, with the publication of the latest poll the Unionist parties are in a state of panic as the YES vote climbs to within touching distance of victory.
One obvious explanation for the rise in the YES vote is that they are winning the argument pure and fair: now there are dozens of newspapers and blogs debating that question without (as you can imagine) any unanimous conclusion and whilst intellectual triumph for the SNP is perfectly possible in principal; it is also the case that if politics is more about emotion, values and intuitions than rational debate as per the thesis in Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind and an argument approved of here, then the decision of the Unionist parties to allow the nationalist frame “what is good for Scotland” was to crucially and critically denude their argument of its moralised emotional basis. It also had the effect of allowing the YES side of the argument complete ownership of emotions and intuitions which underpin its arguments.
The senior Labour politician Douglas Alexander sensed the emotional component in the YES argument and expressed his frustration in The Guardian. Now all politicians believe that they are the repository of enlightened reason and their opponents merely vessels for ancient and discredited emotions. Alexander though, senses that the YES campaign has emotional traction and No campaign hasn’t. That was the price the NO/Unionist campaign paid for agreeing to rational argument on your opponents terms. Their terms are emotionally underpinned your emotional leavers have just been abandoned in favour of a debate of extra competencies in respect of a parliament whose competencies aren’t even generally understood in the first place.
Which emotions and intuitions are in play in the Scottish referendum debate and how have they benefited the YES campaign? Haidt argues and provides evidence that there are these several moral foundations from which we process our emotions, move to intuitions and then onto post hoc rationalisation. Consider them in the context of the Scottish Independence YES/NO campaign:
Now this foundation shouldn’t be playing at all in the referendum since the existing Scottish devolution settlement covers this area expressly: social services, health and safety, the criminal law, transport, health, and education. Formally there is no additional benefit to the Scots from Independence however, the SNP and YES campaign have said that one of the prime benefits of Independence would be improved child care. As a rational argument this doesn’t make sense, if the SNP wanted improved child care they could do it tomorrow given their majority in Scottish Parliament but when they tested this policy in their focus groups it obviously had strong emotional resonance so they decided to put it as the centrepiece of the campaign.
Haidt argues that Hare/Care moral foundation is rooted in childcare so the SNP score a direct emotional hit. The NO campaign is left with the weak debating point about legal competencies – no emotion there.
Central to the YES campaign has the been the claim that an Independent Scotland would be a fairer one (they mean fairness as redistribution), central to the NO campaign has been the claim that this objective is undermined by he economic uncertainty of the YES case. Now economics isn’t a moral foundation and economic arguments resonate weakly due to their complex and arcane nature. The simple claim about greater fairness in an Independent Scotland goes directly to a moral foundation of politics and resonates in favour of YES.
Haidt means by this some people have strong moralised affinity to their In-Group and this is the entire basis of patriotism and nationalist politics. Now, oddly in Scotland there are three national affinities Scottish, British and Scottish British. The Unionists cripplingly gave the right to repudiate Britishness to the YES campaign allowing them to hold onto their (Scottish) moral foundation of In Group loyalty. From that moment on the polls rose in favour of YES with the NO campaign saying that reasons to remain British are not love of country but are rather to do with the efficaciousness of North Sea tax policy. This patriotism card plays out to only one side of the argument dripping, as it is, with emotional salience and resonance.
This moral foundation plays two ways in Haidtian political psychology both to the benefit of the YES and to the detriment of NO. Some people revere and respect authority, they do what the are told. The YES campaign is the Scottish government, it issues the White Paper, instructs the vote, gives the out the formal information leaflets, that will play strongly with some. The opposite dynamic is here – moralised anti-authoritarianism seen powerfully as motivating the far left and guess where the Scottish far left is – one the side, the YES side, where they can most effectively stick it the UK government, this can be as much as 5% of the whole electorate.
The NO campaign registers absolutely zero here and YES again score the purest direct hit since what is the campaign about if not for Scottish FREEDOM?
In the rich West this moral foundation continues to play weakly but one manifestation of still remains and that is the national flag. In the Referendum campaign the YES campaign uses the Saltire whilst the NO campaign hides the Union Flag behind its position paper on Environmental regulation. Again advantage YES.
Another non Haitdain point about political psychology needs to be made and this is taken from Our Political Nature by Avi Tuschman. There are four types of voters, uncontroversialy there are ideologues of left and right and centre, identity voters (probably referencing Haidt’s loyalty foundation), wallet voters who vote for the government when their living standards increase and the last group, about 25-30% who almost never vote. With this last group the key point is “almost never”, they will vote if the issue is simple and salient; now, no issue was ever so simple and salient and binary as Independence for Scotland, the YES campaign can fish in this pool and the NO campaign, conceding that the Union can be abandoned, can hardly catch any fish in this pool.
If the YES campaign had an emotional edge in its appeal to patriotism that would be widely accepted but what in fact has happened that YES campaign has had monumental emotional advantage by playing across the entire band (all six) of intuitions about right and wrong, rooted in the moralised psychology which inform our politics. It was the compete misfortune of the NO campaign to cede this moral basis of politics, by agreeing to rational debate.
Next on Politics is Moral Psychology what a psychologically literate NO campaign should have done……….