Good News – Labour does have virtues, Bad News – So does the SNP, the Lib Dems and Tories….especially the Tories and that is why they mostly win

Daniel Johnston, in a thoughtful piece on the Scottish Fabian’s Website asks for Labour to understand its virtues and act upon them, seeing this, rather than clever policy formation as a potential route back to power.  In a related piece Duncan Hotherstall wonders whether politics has become “post rational” and that that, perhaps explains how it was a long discredited nationalism such as that offered by the SNP were able to unexpectedly crawl out of the dustbin of history to which humanity, in a fit of progress and nobility had long consigned it.  Daniel is specific; he wants Labour to ascribe to a set of ethics called moral intuitions rather than a crude utilitarian calculus of the greatest happiness of the greatest number.   Duncan observes the tide of emotion upon which the SNP surge has surfed so successfully and despairs of a way to defeat it in rational argument.

I think Duncan is right about the emotional basis of the SNP’s politics but I would argue that Labour’s politics also has an emotional basis.   Daniel is correct in regarding virtuous moral intuitions as superior to utilitarianism; indeed Labour displaced an elite intellectual political Liberalism in the 19th century for this very reason.  Labour offered two moral intuitions back then, two cardinal virtues which sustain it today: Fairness (call it social justice or solidarity or equality) and Harm Reduction (think health and safety, seat belts, breathalysers, smoking bans).    Now there is problem with this magnificent moral purpose – other people can consider social justice immoral.  We call them Conservatives.   Others regards, smoking bans for example as a basic infringement of their basic freedom and immoral for that very reason.  We call them Libertarians, fewer in number than, Conservatives but not less morally outraged.  For Conservatives the transfer of wealth from the industrious to the indigent is moral turpitude, or even that taking earned wealth from one party to give to another is moral hazard.  That is the problem with virtue based politics as moral intuitions, they simultaneously repel and attract.  Labour has something of a monopoly on its particular virtues but the Conservatives, the SNP and the Lib Dems all have moral appeal based on differing senses of what constitutes moral worth.  That is why and how they are political parties, immensely salient and stable over time, and still relevant in their appeal to millions.  Many (possibly most) voters most of the time are not fooled but, on the contrary, actually understand really rather well what politicians stand for.

Does the notion of competing moral intuitions doom Labour to failure and what is the relationship of these moral intuitions to emotion and rationality?  Is there any explanation in any of this, at a deeper moralised level, for Labour being beaten twice (in both Scotland and England) in the one election? And how does policy formation fit into all this? And why do the Tories win all the elections?  Oddly, or perhaps, not oddly, all these questions are interlinked.

First, a word about morality and morals in this context: moral intuitions are not the same as ordinary common or garden morals such as not cheating, not stealing, and not lying and emphatically, not hitting people on the head with beer glasses in pubs.   Politicians all subscribe, publicly at least to this common or garden morality and get into more and more trouble when they transgress against it. It is their job, however,  to transgress against some moral intuitions and support others.  Politics has this entirely moralised character in ironic contrast to the public perception of a “parcel of rogues”. There are then, two different flavours of morality in play, not that they aren’t often confused, but no political party can base its appeal on a claim to virtue defined as personal honesty.  (In other words, honesty may be the best policy but it shouldn’t go into your manifesto).

So why do moral intuitions about right and wrong confuse and confound so much?  Historically ignorant armies would clash by night but now an American Social Psychologist has gone and put the light on in a ground breaking book called the Righteous Mind subtitled How Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Haidt might as well have said that bad people are similarly divided but that is not strictly relevant here, what he means is that people who are personally honest can regard their politics as moral and virtuous and your politics as morally dissolute.  Haidt identifies six moral Foundations that define our politics

  • Fairness
  • Harm Reduction
  • Freedom
  • Loyalty (to your in group)
  • Authority (For and against, think Jeremy Corbyn and George W Bush)
  • Sanctity

If that last one seems a bit odd, consider whether the SNP have sanctified Scotland itself and the Saltire in particular.  Others regard the SNP’s capturing of the Saltire as an outrage.  All the other Foundations work like that, some ascribing to them strongly some weakly, some with approbation, some with hostility.  Take the Fairness Foundation, Labour people have a strong moral intuition that Fairness is right and unFairness is wrong.  Haidt then observes that liberals and socialists consequently experience strong emotions and then reason strategically to support that intuition with arguments, policy papers, manifestos and books.  That deployment of strategic reason is universal, and gives politics it tower of babble character, the endless talking past one and another, with say, moralised pro freedom Libertarians acknowledging some facts, deploying others, inventing some, distorting others.  Who knew that politics worked like that?  Everyone, but Haidt shows how and why:

Moral Intuition of Rightness or Wrongness > Big cloud of emotion > Strategic reasoning

Labour’s central strength is also it weakness, it is founded on a passion for Fairness and Harm Reduction and weak on Freedom, Loyalty and Pro-Authority and Sanctifies virtually nothing with its strong adoption of these two Foundations having the effect of both attracting and repelling support simultaneously.  Labour is like golfer going around the course with a three iron and a putter, technically possible but Conservatives have the advantage of wielding more clubs; they do actually believe in Fairness and Harm Reduction but weakly, the believe in the Nation as a source of moral authority, they believe in In Group Loyalty over out group considerations (we are having a Referendum on our EU membership) and they sanctify things – Church, the Constitution, tradition.  Haidt calls this the Conservative advantage and if politics is a form of moralised psychology primarily, and secondly a contest of ideas then that might just explain the near hegemonic Conservative ascendancy in current European politics.  In May one in seven English voters voted for a new political force based on In Group Loyalty, Pro-Authoritarianism and remarkably and simultaneously anti-authoritarianism, Freedom from the EU and re-establishing the purity (read sanctity) of the UK legislative process and UK society from contaminating individuals from wider Continent seeking our jobs.

So enormous is the nature of the in-built Conservative Advantage identified and described by Haidt that, not one but two, conservative parties walked over and annihilated Labour in England.

To Daniel’s point that Labour will “not emerge from this crisis through policy and positioning” this is not the case.  Labour still needs to give people reasons to strategically reason back to its moral intuitions of Fairness and Harm Reduction, policy, additionally can also have a critical function beyond its primary purpose (making stuff better) to pointing to other intuitions such as our basic patriotism (In Group Loyalty) , our scepticism of some EU activity (more In Group Loyalty), our contempt for ISIS (moralised pro-authoritarianism) or our objection to ending the Human Rights Act (moralised Freedom and moralised anti-authoritarianism). The trick is to emphasis or even event policies which reference and touch the places that Labour politics doesn’t instinctively go.

To Duncan’s point about living in a “post rational” world is that it was always so, morals first, emotion second and reasoning third.  This is the basic architecture of our evolved human nature, what is probably happening is that under conditions of stress the efficacy of the interplay of competing strategic reasoning breaks down, becomes less effective and the emotional core of our politics is revealed.  Now the UK has just had its worse seven years since that plague of insects in Egypt mentioned in the Bible and this type of notorious stressor is going to increase the emotional cloud as basic moral intuitions are referenced and the quality of strategic reasoning becomes weaker and shriller.  The emotional content was always there it is just rising to the surface.

If the election went badly for Labour in England (blame Jonathan Haidt ) then in Scotland Labour was wiped out by a Party which had a policy of closing down all the primary schools, all the secondary schools, all the colleges and all the universities or alternatively borrowing that additional sums required amount under  a policy of full fiscal autonomy for Scotland.  If politics was about contending values or ideologies or the clash of ideas then that wouldn’t happen, but if you thought that Scotland itself constituted virtue, was a moral incarnation (In Group Loyalty) and you valued Scottish Freedom (Freedom moralised) and supported your Government (pro-Authority) and hated the Tories (moralised anti-authoritarianism) and believed in Fairness (and we do in Scotland but they do not in England), then in that case you might reason strategically, that is you might overlook certain discordant facts (pan UK solidarity is really quite a thing) and stress others (food banks protected by nuclear weapons).

Labour’s wipe out by the SNP is caused by the direct attack on Labour’s central weakness – it only believes in two big things, Fairness and Harm Reduction.  The SNP used to only believe in two gig things as well – the Foundations of In Group Loyalty and Freedom (for Scotland) and after consciously pursuing a strategy of displacing Labour by deliberately, intentionally and determinedly colonising its Fairness and Harm Reduction Foundations over the last 15 years.  In addition to this strategy their political positioning reaped no less than, in Haidtian terms, three other Foundations – they always had the sanctification of the Saltire and Scotland as something sacred, but being in Government they can appeal to moralised pro-authoritarians and their antipathy towards the UK reaps the rich harvest of the hard left’s and Greens moralised anti-authoritarianism (what else causes the Scottish hard left to abandon pan UK solidarity other than a psychological factor?).

It is this conjunction of moral Foundations gives the rise of Nationalism in Scotland the feel of a religious revival and a broad based cultural revolution.  The self-referential hermetically sealed nature of the SNP’s politics is explicable by the pivot nature of In Group Loyalty as once Scotland is the pivot then only the other moral intuitions apply to Scotland, Fairness is Scottish Fairness only and so on.

The referendum process suited the SNP perfectly because they were able to organise an argument from the whole spectrum of the intuitions upon which its politics have come to be based, to the epic cloud of emotion which was everywhere last autumn, to the rational argument of Scotland’s future.  Their Better Together opponents decided to have a rational argument with an emotional one and the result was a formal numerical victory but an epic political defeat.

OK, enough analysis already, what to do?


Authoritarianism Misfires and Misfires

One of the key arguments in this blog is that attitudes to authority represent a key foundation of all politics and political debate.  Authority, it is argued, is a moral foundation whereby individuals tend to find themselves on a spectrum which regards authority as morally worthy per se or morally disreputable per se. For many therefore, authority is virtue by default and for others, evil at birth, however, for many, probably most, the intuition is weak either way. In his book, the Righteous Mind, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt demonstrates that moral intuitions about authority trigger in us a sense of right or wrong and then a cloud of emotion and then the deployment of strategic reasoning (use some facts, ignore others, forget other, twist some) to get to our goal: reason and argue in politics to support our moral intuitions about authority (and fairness, harm reduction, loyalty, freedom and sanctity).

Neither of these intuitions are correct or wrong, they may have served several significant social purposes over many the millennia in which they formed but today the are a form of faulty wiring, a series of confounding cross circuits.  Authority is now neither good no bad or average, it needs to be seen for what it is free of these ancient biases.

Doesn’t the Greek crisis provide insight into this process?  How many commentators simply default to either the sins of the Greeks or the sins of the institutions the ECB, IMF and the EU?   The crisis is an interplay of two grave failures, the legacy of Greek misgovernment and the mishandling of the issue by the Institutions.  Fascinatingly, the IMF has conceded incompetence but it is unremarkable how this is ignored by moralised authoritarians and their strategic reasoning which stresses Greek corruption, Greek pensions… Unremarkable if these commentators are employing reasoning in support of moralised pro-authoritarianism….and they are.

An aspect of the crisis is Syriza’s unwillingness to take responsibility to take ownership of a reform process which would satisfy their creditors, and in fact this has deepened the austerity that they potentially face.  Syriza failed in this, in part, because it conceives the issue as the malevolence of authority which had the effect of diminishing the responsibility of the Greeks.

These misfiring Intuitions sometimes manifest themselves in the starkest terms as the moralised pro-authoritarianism at Fox News demonstrated earlier, but Jon Snow of Channel News in the UK recently raised eyebrows by lamenting the death of a key Saddam Hussein ally, Tariq Aziz calling him “a nice guy”.  Counter intuitive to find a good guy at the heart of Saddam’s wars of aggression and multiple repressions but intuitive if you conceive authority as inherently corrupt and the enemy of your (corrupt) enemy can be considered morally benign.

Another stark illustrations was the attitude of the campaigner and comedian Russell Brand to the one minute silence held in the UK to honour the 30 Brits murdered by a terrorist in the seaside resort of Sousse in Tunisia.  Brand thought the minute’s silence “bullshit” and explained to an interlocutor that the massacre of tourists on the beach in Tunisia was created by the UK Government.  Stretching the strategic reason to breaking point he claims that authority is arming the terrorist by arming the governments’ fighting the terrorists.  His interlocutor, a friend of the victims agrees with him.  That shouldn’t be so surprising if the premise here is correct that moralised pro and anti-authoritarianism is pervasive in forming opinions.

Worthless, distorted misapprehensions worsen and deepen the Greek crisis and almost everything else.

Syriza – the Radicals who don’t want to change anything

David Blanchflower a left leaning economist and one of the keenest critics of austerity writes of Greece:

“There has been no reform to speak of. Greece is characterised by endemic tax evasion, a poor tax collection infrastructure, parochial patronage policies, corruption and huge delays in the administrative courts dealing with tax disputes. Greece also has deep structural problems, mostly in product markets with oligopolies in almost every industry, closed professions, administrative and bureaucratic impediments to entrepreneurship alongside barriers to trade and exporting, none of which have been addressed.”

Blanchflower’s exasperation is echoed by the Greek commentator Harry Theoharis, who complains

“These (reforms should) include market liberalisation, business environment simplification, an expanded and better targeted social welfare system, a truly meritocratic public administration, privatisation in sectors dominated by inefficient state monopolies, and pension reform.

As a result of the government’s lack of concrete reform proposals and general intransigence, the creditors have reverted to requesting ambitious fiscal targets and further horizontal austerity measures (ie VAT hikes) that are easily monitored in order to justify further aid to their parliaments, while the structural reforms are pushed back again.”

In this moment of epic importance for the future of Greece the radicals of Syriza propose to change almost nothing, no radicalisation except in rhetoric.  Words can change but the facts on the ground may not.

Now this is the inverse of what was to be expected.  Surely Syrizia would refuse austerity at all costs and push through deep reform in a complete rupture with the failed politics and economics which drove Greece to the edge of catastrophe?  Pasok and New Democracy did not do reform as their entire politics was based on clientelism and patronage and abuse of the public sector.   Any reform could not be countenanced by these two because this would undermine the means, and defeat the ends of their politics.  Enter Syrizia elected on a promise to destroy this old world, a world which they had no difficulty in describing as deeply enervating and corrupt, so scroll forward to the “make or break” negotiations and look at the Syrizia reform structural reform offer.  There is no reform offer.

So why after promising to change everything do the radicals decline to change anythung?  Let’s allow them hostility to reforms which deepen social injustice and cut pensions but where is the proposals to end the cartels, break up the oligopolistic sectors of the economy, make the rich pay their taxes, remove the incompetent Pasok and New Democracy supporters form the public administration and  replace them on merit.  End the corruption, organised criminality, make the tax system work? As Theoharis points out they don’t even have the excuse of being faced by a populist and delusional opposition.

Readers of this blog will not be astonished if at this point a faulty and misfiring moral intuition is adduced as the culprit, and not for the first time in the endless crisis.  Recall the German Finance Minister Schauble regarding debt as a form of moral turpitude as it potentially could have been in the Neolithic which did not have the benefit of capitalist free markets that he actually admires, and the Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis thinks he is in the late Palaeolithic in imaging that wealth is produced collectively but privately purloined.

Fiskian Social Relations misapplied illuminate the errors, applying the wrong social relations, and in the case of Schauble and Varoufakis both using CS as the social relations reference rather than MP, and because these structures can appear like moral truths or equally, moral offences, they both hold their views with a powerful sense of righteousness.

In the present case of Syriza and reform (note that they even want to undo past reforms never mind block new ones) and do so because of moralised hostility to that whole group of social relations which comes under MP.  Although it is called Market Pricing a better name for this group of social relations would be Contract, as it includes non-commercial and non-market based contracts such as the criminal law and the relation of the governed to governors.  Anyways, Syriza don’t like this one, they don’t like social relations based on contracts and prefer those of communal sharing CS or equality matching EM (citizenship, rights, responsibilities).  Moralised anti MP leads them to oppose reform because existing relations are forms of contract which it pains them to even consider.  Contract reform which is what all reform is, requires acknowledgement of the contract and analysis of the terms.  Syriza loathes this type of contemplation and cannot as a consequence do the single most important thing required by Greece in this crisis.  In the absence of this reform the Institutions demand greater austerity in compensation but even this cannot make Syriza think about reform.

You can destroy Greece through clientelism and patronage by regarding public goods and the public sector as something to be shared communally (i.e. in CS), or by failing to challenge that through moralised hostility to MP (Contract) based social relations.


Austerity and reform are both sins, you see.


And so they collapse….

If Scottish Labour found the 2015 General Election a traumatic experience then they might look to result “achieved” by UK Lib Dems for some sort of solace.  Scottish Labour lost 40% of its votes but the UK Lib Dems lost two thirds of its support with some 4 million voters deserting like garden leaves in a strong wind.  The defeat wiped out  all but 8 of its MPs unwinding a generation of political advancement, and so, pushing its support back to where the party was in 1970.  Unlike Scottish Labour which can claim that it lost out to strategy of direct emulation of its polices and values there is no such consolation for the Lib Dems whose vote fled to Labour, Conservative, Green and, to their amazement UKIP.

Why did they do so well?  The answer to that is that the Lib Dems have core vote, a unique reference point in political moral psychology which protected them from achieving 0% of the votes instead of 8% of the votes. More in a moment.

Why did they do so badly?  The got badly lost in moral psychological space as argued here previously.  In the standard model they hooked themselves up to an unpopular Tory government in a time of severely mismanaged austerity and economic recession and were tainted by association.  The difficultly with this analysis is that the Tories won the election with an outright majority and became one of the first governments in a generation to increase its support election upon election.

The Tories are not screwed despite economic mismanagement of the economy because they didn’t cross the moral psychological red lines that Lib Dems crossed so spectacularly and ruinously.  If you are moralised anti-authoritarian voter who voted for the heroically anti-authoritarian Nick Clegg of 2010 with his opposition to tuition fees, detention without trial, the Iraq war the anti-terrorist state (you say security state) and general New Labour authoritarianism and reform (you say privatisation) of public services then you will strategically observe that all of this continued with Nicks’s enthusiastic support post 2010. Also you will strategically reason from your moral intuitions and emotions that the Labour economic policy that he supported in 2008-2010 was abandoned in 2010 by Nick was not a good thing. You saw that and voted UKIP this time.

Conservative voters, their moral intuitions unchallenged don’t strategically reason to not vote Tory, Lib Dem voters experienced cognitive dissonance as moral intuitions were violated, against, what was an identical policy and performance set as the Conservatives.  One goes up the other goes down, really really down actually.

Not everyone is running away, some 10,000 people (30% of the 2015 vote!) have decided to sign up.  A phenomenon also experienced by other defeated Parties.  The Lid Dems fill a distinct political psychological niche, a small one and it is that which they have fallen back to and the people who join now are the fundamentalists who share the same niche (moral psychological) space and want to sustain it.  The existence of this niche is probably some lower bound for the Lib Dems from which they can built out from and recover.

What is that niche?  This blog has referenced two theories of moral psychology, those of Jonathan Haidt with his moral foundations theory and those of Alan Page Fiske with his Social Relations Theory.  Both are work in progress but it is Fiske who explains the Lib Dems.  The Liberal Party of the 19th century stood for liberal values – democracy, legal equality, liberty, fairness as getting back what you contribute.  This Fiske calls EM (Equality Matching) and it is clearly moralised as a form of virtue. In addition 19th century Liberals supported markets and free trade and property rights when that was not the consensuses. Fiske calls this MP (Market Pricing) and some think these things moral necessities.  It is interesting that one of the candidates for the Lib Dem leadership wants to change the name of the party back to “Liberal Party”. There is a record in Government to remember (note the strong EM reference on rights) which needs to be offset a against  the VAT rise but what might be remembered is their bull in a China shop journey across moral psychological space.  Rob Labour in it Governance of millions of votes by invading their space.  Join Government and then shed the anti-authoritarian left votes so gathered to the SNP in Scotland in 2011 to give us the Referendum and Nationalist ignition, shed your anti-authoritarian votes in England to UKIP.  The combination plays to strengthen the Tories whose success threatens a Referendum on Europe and the SNP threaten a Referendum on the UK.  Threatening everything you valued.

What Just Happened?

So Scotland continues to fulfil its global function as the Large Hadron Collider of political psychology with the political electrons whizzing around at the speed of light crashing into each other with spectacular results and the creation of entirely new political structures.   If the Large Hadron Collider discovered the existence of the Higgs Boson particle provided vindication for the standard model of sub-atomic physics then is it possible that a new and powerful theory of political psychology called “the Moral Intuist Theory” which challenges the existing standard model of political accounting, can provide credible insight into the political earthquake which struck Scotland and the wider UK in the recent General Election.  In May of this year in Scotland the SNP won 56 out of 59 Scottish seats up from a total of 6 in the 2010 General election on the basis of threefold increase in its votes from 0.5 million to 1.5 million representing 50% of all votes cast in Scotland.  This result shattered a generation of Labour’s dominance in Scotland (vote share down from 42% to 24%) and left the Labour Party in the wider UK, in a crippled position in terms of obtaining an outright majority in the Westminster Parliament and, consequentially given the Conservative dominance in England, Labour’s entire British social democratic project is imperilled.  Additionally and not trivially, there may not be a Britain as the SNP translates its recent success into a call for a second referendum on Scottish Independence which it may win. Consequential indeed.

To add to the general sense of upheaval and revolution the SNP won the election on a clear policy of ending austerity combined with an even clearer policy of full fiscal autonomy for Scotland which would denude the Scots of the ability to pay for nursery education, primary education, secondary education, all the colleges and all the universities.  Source – here or here.  Intrigued?  Consider some political psychology? But first of course all of this earthquake finds explanation on the standard model – Labour complacency, SNP artfulness, Labour artlessness, contingency, fluke, mishap, error, charisma, big unexpected economic crisis, passion.  All essential to explanation of the revolution but incomplete, add in some cutting edge political psychology to discover why 50% of Scottish voters would have done epic harm to Scotland in order to save it.  Answer in a sentence: they have got some old time religion.

The work of the social psychologist Jonahthan Haidt posits a theory (Moral Intuism) and adduces evidence (Moral Foundations Theory) that can add to our understanding of “what just happened” and in his book the Righteous Mind he brings these ideas together under an intriguing subtitle “How good people are divided by Politics and Religion” that subtitle is the key to the argument below.  For Haidt politics and religion are forms of each other as they ground themselves in the same six moral Foundations:

  • Fairness
  • Harm reduction
  • Liberty
  • Authority (anti-authority and pro-authority)
  • Loyalty
  • Sanctity

The SNP did not get where it is today without building on these foundations with an intensity and ignition which now has now given their politics an entirely revivalist religious character as observed by many political commentators e.g. the estimable Alex Massie.

Moral Intuitist Theory (Moral Intuitists should skip this passage)

Two types of morality a. Ordinary common or garden – don’t steal, cheat, or lie or hit anyone.  Not very important in democratic politics b. Morality as far as politics is concerned is based on the Foundations above – the extent to which each moral calling appeals varies greatly.  Many feel one or two very strongly but most feel them weakly most of the time. Of the strong responders there is a clustering with those inclined to feel Fairness and Harm reduction strongly tending to feel the other foundations weakly.  Those hearing the siren call of Loyalty and Liberty tend to feel Fairness and Harm reduction weakly.  This gives us the left/right pattern which is everywhere in global politics. So we have a Moral Intuition and then an emotion about something being right or wrong and then we reason in support of the intuition.  Strategic Reasoning in support of the emotions and the emotions supporting a moralised worldview, some moral foundations resonate strongly other weakly.

In the Scottish context Moral Intuitist Theory provides and answer to central paradox of Scottish politics: formally voting patterns in Scotland track well to the left of England but when social scientists look narrowly and closely at the underlying values such as inequality and attitudes to EU membership the differences dissolve.  That’s what one would expect if politics was rooted in an inherited and truly ancient evolved psychology.

But how did the Haidtian moral psychology of the Scots process events and in turn create events?  That’s a key argument, they feedback loop between events and psychology?

  1. Labour in power for 13 years

The long period of Labour Government was characterised by core delivery on the Fairness and Harm Reduction Foundations but Labour supporters deserted the Party steadily during this period with five million people less voting Labour in 2010 than in 1997.  These were not the five million people the Party claims to have raised out of absolute poverty during that period but it does illustrate a critical weakness of the Left: it has three foundations Fairness and Harm reduction and, ruinously moralised anti-authoritarianism.  The left are all moralised anti-authoritarian some strong and some weak but all opposed absurdly to their own governance to a degree.  Strategic Reasoning of strong anti-authoritarians  – Iraq/PFI/Welfare Reform.  Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats tracked hard to Labour’s left for a decade denuding the Labour party of core support.  As the Lib Dems went into government in 2010 this same dynamic of anti-authoritarianism destroyed the Lib Dems and in Scotland this Labour to Lib Dem support crossed to the ferociously anti-authoritarian SNP (they don’t want the UK so how anti-authoritarian is that?).  An SNP majority in the Scottish Parliamentary elections of 2011 gave them a mandate for a referendum.

There is an interesting footnote here – Ed Miliband hoped that disaffected Lib Dems would return to Labour in 2015 to give him electoral victory in the UK.  Some did, but a sufficient amount went to UKIP in honour of their anti-establishment credentials.  Same process as above.

  1. SNP to Labour displacement Strategy

See here, the SNP pursued a relentless colonisation of Labour’s moral Foundations over 15 years, striking out from their core of In-Group Loyalty and Scottish Freedom (Liberty) to attempt to displace Labour on Fairness and Harm Reduction.  This strategy took a fanatical turn in the recent elections when the SNP waited until Labour had published and then issued the same manifesto.

N.B.  Labourites complain of the injustice of the Lib Dems tracking to Labour’s left and gathering votes whereas Labour built schools and hospitals and improved the social condition.  In Scotland there is the same complaint – the first two Scottish Labour governments have record of delivery on Fairness and Harm reduction and the SNP minister could not point to a progressive policy in the 8 years of governance when interviewed.  Moral Intuist theory points to the (long suspected) utterly emotional and irrational nature of political reasoning.  The SNP and Liberal Democrats were able to do epic harm to Labour by pressing the moral foundation buttons harder, more frequently and with more rhetorical passion.  Words are what matter, working families tax credits do not.

  1. Economic Stress from 2009

Haidt’s Loyalty Foundation is not a reference to loyalty to one’s broadband provider but Loyalty to the In-Group.  All civic nationalism and uncivic nationalism is founded here and what in the old days (the fabled environment of evolutionary adaptedness) stressed the in-group, was usually the depredations of the out-group.  The folks from over the hill are invariably the source of our distress.  In England UKIP took an eighth of votes after seven leans years of falling incomes with a two foundation morality Loyalty and Freedom (from the EU).  If virtually no one voted UKIP in Scotland then which Party was the beneficiary of the ancient dynamic of hugging the In-Group in times of stress?

  1. Solidarity isn’t a Moral Intuition

Labourites are aghast at the repudiation of pan-UK solidarity by almost half of their voters in May 2015 but Haidt offers an insight here.  The Fairness foundation in which Labour believes solidarity to reside is not monolithic, different people process Fairness in different ways – Conservatives, he observes agree that Fairness is getting back out what you put in.  The political philosopher George Lakoff has analysed what Fairness can mean:

  • Fairness as redistribution
  • Equality of opportunity
  • Procedural distribution – playing by the rules
  • Rights based fairness  – you get what you have a right to
  • Needs based fairness – the more you need the more you have right to
  • Scalar distribution – the more you work, the more you get
  • Contractual distribution – you get what you agree to
  • Equal distribution of responsibility – we share the burden equally
  • Scalar distribution of responsibility – the greater your abilities the greater your responsibilities
  • Equal distribution of power – one person, one vote

That first definition of Fairness as redistribution means within the in-group.  Our psychologies evolved over millions of years when there were no flows of fish and spears from the folks over the hill and we sure as heck didn’t offer needles sand pots to them.  That makes sense, the United States could not hold if Californians were in a constant state of umbrage over the outflow of fish and spears to Alabama The entire basis of the Labour case for the Union was simultaneously valid, as in 2015-2016 the Scots have their education system courtesy of the UK inflows, but critically there is no psychology underpinning this solidarity as a form of Fairness in respect of a moral worth or moral value which should be venerated.  That is why it was lost.  Pan UK solidarity is for the rational, the higher brain, for the blog or for the seminar or policy paper, it has no underlying emotional support.

5a. Referendum – Labour/Unionists make catastrophic error

The Referendum was the seismic event which reset Scottish politics.  The SNP leader wasn’t wrong to quote Yeats “all is change, all is changed utterly”.   The Unionist Better Together campaign luxuriated in a 70-30% lead in 2012/2013 so decided that the SNP would be more comprehensively beaten by beaten on its own premise – what is good for Scotland.  The welfare of everyone else in the UK and the wider world could be forgotten and the welfare of the Scots was all that mattered.  The effect of this was to collapse the moral basis of the Unionist case and a further undermining occurs when the Unionist had a rational argument with SNP emotional argument on grounds the Unionists themselves didn’t agree with.

At the moral psychological level the Unionists ceded the In-group loyalty to be Scotland and not the UK and this combined with Identity (see below) re-cast the debate in SNP terms psychologically.  The level which matters

5b. Referendum – Identity Question resets loyalty foundation

The Unionist error above was compounded by the central driver of the nationalist upsurge: Scottish Identity versus British Identity.  A blog post here made the case that the voting dispersion in the Referendum is entirely identity based with only two notable exceptions, pensioners worried about their UK pension and long term welfare dependents seeking to escape their poverty by moving to a new country.

As of 2014 one survey found that Scots identity looked like this

Equally Scottish and British 31% More Scottish than British 26%
More British than Scottish 5% Scottish not British 24%
British not Scottish 9%
Other description 5%


This spilt is almost 50/50 but the “More Scottish than British” category is soft in terms of SNP support possibilities.  The referendum required each to vote in terms of this identity, a dynamic deepened by the Better Together campaign authorising “what is good for Scotland” as the only criteria.  Recall that Moral Intuitist theory suggests that voters proceed from the emotion to rationalisations of the emotion and then the vote.

40% of labour voters voted Yes in the Referendum on the basis of identity, shattering pan-unionist Solidarity which as noted above was a weakly held rationalism and not a powerfully underpinned moral foundation such as in-group loyalty.  Those 40% of Labour voters, their in-group loyalty having been reset went on the vote SNP and rationalised this on the basis of the SNP colonisation of Fairness and Harm Foundations.


6.Nationalist Ignition and Religious Revival

If a Haidtian process is underway, that the in-group is reset as Scotland and all other Moral Foundations in turn reference Scotland then it should be expected that emotion follows and then strategic rationalisation of those emotions should follow in turn.  The political researcher Geraldine O’Riordan found exactly this in a series of focus groups for TNS.  She found a tide of emotion around Scottishness: “ the huge growth in SNP support is driven by emotion and identity, rather than dispassionate logic”  in her focus group  “Full fiscal autonomy doesn’t come up once in three hours”  (The awkward fact that Scotland cannot fund its entire education spend).  Not one a hundred people who voted SNP choose to know or understand this: intuition first then emotion then rationalisation and then strategic reason which fits the facts that the support you intuition and ignores those which do not fit.

The SNP surge is explicable in Haidtian terms, in its colonisation of Moral Foundations of politics for that one half of Scotland who accept its definition of the In-Group.  The religious revivalist nature of the surge (100,000 new members in 2014) is due to capture of the high moral ground.  Look again at the Foundations

  • Fairness – captured from Labour
  • Harm reduction – captured from Labour
  • Liberty – ownership of Scottish Freedom
  • Authority – SNP reaps all moralised anti-authoritarian votes in Scotland and from its position of being the Scottish government it reaps moralised pro-authoritarian votes
  • Loyalty – in group loyalty Scotland not UK
  • Sanctity – wrap oneself in the Saltire and repeat the word Scotland 30 times per day as a daily incantation,

Additionally the SNP is able to posit a secular Heaven: the new Scotland will combine Nordic Social Welfare with Singaporean economic dynamism.  The religious revival is complete.

After the election the UK Prime Minister refused the policy of full fiscal autonomy as it consequences would be too harsh, even catastrophic.  He knew that the Scots didn’t mean to harm themselves and insisted upon their receipt of the unknown UK solidarity flows. This was exactly the inverse of what the surge the revolution was supposed to achieve.

Politics in Scotland is now stripped back to its emotional core, more disconnected from rationality and more attentive to identity than perhaps anywhere else in the world.  How can it end well?


Pending……A Political Displacement Event in Scottish Politics?

Profound political events afford us an intriguing insight into more fundamental political processes at the psychological level.   One such event appears to be underway currently in Scottish Politics with the SNP predicted to completely dislodge Labour from its dominant position in Scottish politics at the May 2015 UK General Election.  The polling evidence suggests that the election (conducted under First-Past-The-Post) will see the SNP convert a vote share of 46% to 46 seats up from 6 in 2010 with Scottish Labour falling from 41 seats in 2010 to dozen or so in May 2015.

An event on this scale would be a political earthquake measuring 9.1 on the political Richter scale.  The 2015 General Election would be followed by the 2016 Scottish Parliamentary elections, where the polls also suggest a major win for the SNP.  It would be hard to deny that the conjunction of these two events would amount to anything other than a displacement event.

Displacement events have a recent track record in British politics when following the Good Friday Agreement which ended the civil conflict in Northern Ireland, the two political parties which led the peace process have been completely eclipsed by fundamentalist parties who did not initially wish to by party to the process.  The catholic/Nationalist SDLP initiated the peace progress and were joined by the Ulster Unionists on the Unionist/protestant side of the divide.  Now some 16 years later the Ulster Unionists (who brought peace to Ireland) struggle to exist having been eclipsed the more fundamentally Unionist and hard-line– Democratic Unionists.  With the SDLP fighting for survival in the nationalist community against a dominant Sinn Fein (who brought war to Ireland).  Two allied but contemporary displacement events which evince absolutely no prospect of reversal any time soon.

The trigger for these two displacements was trauma of the peace progress and the abandonment on behalf of SDLP and Sinn Fein of the immediate objective of Irish Unity and decision of the Unionist side to break with “democratic” principle and share power with a minority, some of whom had clearly been in arms against democratic politics.   The SDLP had four foundation basis in Haidtian terms In Group Loyalty (Ireland), Freedom (Irish Freedom), Harm reduction and fairness in its Social Democratic politics.  Sinn Fein had only the first two of those in its long history but learnt from its participation in democratic politics to inhabit the same Haidtian space as the SDLP, that combined with trauma of peace making resulted in a displacement of their SDLP competitors.  On the Unionist side the Ulster Unionists had two foundations – Authority and In Group Loyalty, but the peace-making trauma led to the selection of the Democratic Unionist whose identical two foundation morality was held more deeply, more viscerally.

Is the same thing happening in Scottish Politics?  Few would dispute that the Referendum was a process of monumental political import which shook Scottish society (not to mention the UK political elite) to its very core.  The defeat of the SNP’s Independence proposal and the loss of its defining political objective might be considered politically ruinous but in fact the SNP emerges from the defeat as the strongest force in Scottish politics and is poised to become the third biggest party in the British state playing the role of political kingmaker and preventing the Labour Party from ever forming a majority government ever again at the UK level.  The similarities between Sinn Fein’s and the Democratic Unionist ascendancy in the face of the defeat of their political programmes is striking.

The sheer scale of the SNP support suggest that they are winning in both the ways in which Sinn Fein displaced the SDLP and the Democratic Unionists displaced the Ulster Unionists.

From the birth of the SNP until the early 2000s it had a typical nationalist two foundation Haidtian profile – In Group Loyalty and Freedom (national freedom).  However, since early 2000 in response to poor electoral results there was a determined and purposeful push into Labour territory when the SNP took on a distinctly Social Democratic hue.  See how this move into Labour space changes and impacts Scottish Labour

Labour to SNP Comparison to 2003

Labour to SNP Comparison to 2003 (2)

Labour to SNP Comparison from 2003

Labour to SNP Comparison from 2003

This colonial manoeuvre  has reaped rich rewards ever since.

The surge in SNP activism and morale is the equivalent of the Democratic Unionist displacement of the Ulster Unionists.  Scots who believed in Independence or voted Yes in the Referendum or feel Scottish and not British are re-stating and deepening their In Group Loyalty and belief in Scottish Freedom because of the Referendum and shock and their dismay at their defeat.   Politics works at the level of intuition and emotion, not rationalism and we reason in support of the emotions.  The origin of the 45% lies in part (as previously argued here) that the No campaign offered a rational argument against an emotional one (rationalised of course).

The SNP surge is so pronounced because multiple Haidtian dynamics are taking place at the same time.  But as if things weren’t bad enough for Scottish Labour a core component of left wing moral psychology explodes in their face as the hard left, full of moralised anti-authoritarianism defects to the position which would most alienate in group authority – Independence for Scotland.   What is the relation of anti-authoritarianism to Fairness and Care/Harm?  Events in Scotland suggest something like this:

Moralised Anti-Athoritarianism

Three political anti-authoritarian  movements have taken place simultaneously.  Firstly, theLib Dems implosion as previously noted, the detachment of the anti-authoritarians disaffected from Labour by its recent stint in Government, to the Lib Dems and then in turn the inevitable disillusionment with the Lib Dems in Government to support for the SNP.  The SNP are in Government in Scotland but hostile to UK In Group Authority by definition.  Adding to this movement are the Greens and the newly energised Hard Left of the rampant Radical Independence movement.    The formal repudiation of UK level solidarity, community and responsibility by so many on the left is more evidence for the above diagram with Fairness and Care/Harm as values being not independent (to coin a phrase) of moralised anti-authoritarianism.  T


Trying not to cross the line from political psychology to politics proper but it is fascinating to note the contradiction between SNP’s advocacy of Independence, and the potentially catastrophic effects of a Yes vote in the Referendum and the fall in oil price in early 2015 combined with the costs of building a new State along with the loss of Union related jobs in defence and the civil service and the rise in the SNP support to stratospheric levels.  Now the central claim of the SNP that with Oil revenues greater than $100 an Independent Scotland was fiscally viable is correct – ask the BBC ,but also note that Oil revenues account for 10-20% of Scottish tax revenue.  The fall in the price of Oil to $60 denudes Scotland of £5 billion according to the Office for Budget Responsibility  but this loss has to be added to the loss in Union jobs from UK institutions and the cost of setting up a new army, social security system, welfare system and so on…estimated at £2.7 billion by the LSE.   This accumulation of costs would have amounted to an £8.7 billion bill to the Scotland which was estimated to become Independent next year.  See the graph to get sense of the catastrophe that would have been underway if there had been a Yes vote

Graph (1)

The hit would have been greater than the hospital, pensions or education budget, greater than the social services budget and defence budget combined.  Any assessment of these numbers would be incomplete if there was no factoring in of the economic panic wave caused by these numbers.  An epic of social distress would have ensued.

“SNP set to win 56 out 59 Scottish Seats” because politics is moral psychology, the alliance of moralised In Group Loyalty and moralised anti-authoritarianism sees the complete inversion of the standard political model: support for parties is a function of policy success or the intellectual vanquishing of their opponents ideas.

A Clash of Sacralities in Paris

The horrific terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebo and a Jewish shop in January provoked a remarkable and notable response from the people of Paris and the wider French population,  in towns and cities all across France, as they took to the streets in their millions to express their condemnation and revulsion (ordinary common or garden morality rather than Haidtian morality) at the attacks.  Also evident in their response was a determination to re-state some values which at some important level are considered sacred in France – liberty and freedom of speech and expression.

That second dynamic is interesting as it mimics the professed motivation of the killers of the journalists – that Charlie Hebo’s satire had insulted the Prophet Mohammed in a literally sacrilegious way.

Of the several moral foundations which Haidt identifies Sanctity is the one which appears to play the least in the politics of developed countries.  A notable exception to this notion of sanctification might be the national flags of countries which is illustrated by the practice of flag burning, actually the almost total absence of flag burning.  Burn your nation’s flag in public and you almost certainly risk assault and arrest.   The sanctification of the national flag and its roots in our moralised psychologies where it appears to enjoy its own separate foundation (Sanctity) and as such appears to justify some exceptions to the scope of our freedom of expression.  (If you are burning your countries Flag some may congratulate you but they are likely to be like you, at the far end of moralised anti-authoritarianism). In developing countries and states based on explicit religious objectives – Israel, Saudi Arabia or Pakistan for example the moral foundation of sanctity is overtly expressed in law and constitution.

The glorious response to the attacks in France saw the reassertion of the Republic’s values of liberty, equality and fraternity or in Haidtian moral foundations theory terms, Freedom, Fairness and In-Group loyalty.  Haidt believes that these values can be held so dearly that they can be sacralised in themselves and that was evident in the commentary and the mass demonstrations.  The re-assertion of Liberty (freedom) was particularly marked in the public reaction.

Some commentators expressed disquiet though about whether the terms of Charlie Hebo’s satire had crossed the line into racism and Islamophobia.  If that was the case the transgression can only take place under the cover of the sacred.  The Moral Foundations of our reasoning can have perverse outcomes and not just in militant Islam.