What The Crew Of A Doomed Whaling Boat Can Tell Us About Scottish Independence?
In November 1820, on the Southern Pacific Ocean, a giant Sperm Whale attacked the American whaling ship, the Essex; it is reported that the leviathan, after an initial failed attempt, swam 500 meters out from the vessel, turned and approached at great pace causing a furious swell to rise around it, before ramming its giant head into the Essex, causing a tumultuous impact that split the hull like an eggshell. The ship sank quickly but 20 men survived and managed to get on board three smaller whaleboats, salvaging a limited amount of food, water and navigational equipment. The story of the whale boat up to the time of the attack was a great influence on Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick, however the story of the men after the attack is just as interesting.
The closest known landfall that the survivors could reach was the Marquesas group of Islands which were 1,200 miles away. However, the crew were worried as for weeks before the accident there had been salacious rumours circulating about the savage cannibals who dwelled there, so they outvoted the captain and decided to plot a course for South America, a landmass of which they were more familiar. To avoid the trade winds pushing them in the opposite direction the boat would need to sail 1000 miles south, and then a further 3000 miles to the east in order to reach its destination. Only 8 of the 20 were to survive the decision after a brutal journey which ended up with some of the men resorting to cannibalism themselves. As it turns out, the rumours that prevented them setting sail for the closer island were unfounded. This tale demonstrates the power of fear and its ability to prevent us making rational decisions. The sailors made the wrong choice by unduly elevating the more lurid visceral, yet unlikely, danger above the more obvious certain and slow fate that they actually succumbed to.
On 18.09.2014, for one day, Scotland will be cast adrift from its own Essex for the first time in 300 years. Like the crew of the Essex we all have a big decision to make. On the one side we have the fears brought on by the uncertainties surrounding a Yes vote. A lot of these doubts have been caused by the UK government’s refusal to pre-negotiate and their determination, for political reasons, to rule out certain options before negotiations begin. Many chilling stories have arisen during the debate covering subjects such as currency, pensions, jobs losses, organ donations, having to drive on the wrong side of the road, families being broken up and the world becoming a more dangerous place. Essentially, by the constant emersion in these tales a nightmare has been instilled in people that voting Yes could be a catastrophic and therefore negligent decision.
In my opinion, all of these fears put forth by the No Campaign are more like the cannibal island. They can seem on the face of it terrifying, but if analysed individually each one is either ridiculous, or is a valid conundrum which has several workable solutions. All of these fears can be dismissed by research, by looking at Scotland’s wealth and resources, by comparing Scotland to other similar nations and by realising that all are just manifestations of the bureaucracy that every autonomous country experiences. Most of them are also things that will be problems after a No vote and the ones which are not, the complications related to setting up the new state, should be relished as an opportunity, as part of the dividend of independence, as the way we deal with these uncertainties will serve to define the country that Scotland is to become.
The fear on the Yes side is different, we fear the continuation of trends which have been going on for around 30 years. The erosion of our pensions, the decline of civil liberties, the selling off of state assets, cronyism, the accumulation of wealth by the few, the decline in social mobility, the rise in food banks, the corruption of our institutions and, worst of all, our inability to influence our government due to lack of representation and therefore our helplessness with regards to initiating positive change. When the Essex crew decided to set a course for South America, they chose to heed the primeval horrors, ignoring the less emotive but more daunting fact that they did not have the necessary resources for the journey.
Like the people of Scotland on the day of the referendum, the crew of the Essex had no easy choice. Whatever decision they had made the future was going to bring difficulties. The one positive thing they did was to take the power back as this is a way to conquer fear. However, it is certain that they would have done better if they had made their decision based on evidence rather than irrationality. That said, they had a disadvantage compared to us. We, with modern technology, can research every issue for ourselves in order to make an informed choice about our fears. A quick web search before making their decision could have told them that the Islands were not to be feared and given the precariousness of their situation, I’m sure they would have chosen to head there.
Speaking to many No voters I often get the feeling that some are suffering from a Societal Stockholm Syndrome, a strange affiliation with the system that is oppressing them. The slow observable downward trend in the statistics that Yes voters fear, the erosion of freedom and social mobility, serve to trap the average person in a prison of unfulfilling drudgery in order just to survive from month to month. Occasionally, a spaceport, a ship contract or a railway line to Glasgow Airport will be tossed at us from on high in order to make us grateful for our subservience and to solidify the capture bonding. Most will feel Scottish before British, most will agree that a country should make its own decisions, most will agree that our current democracy doesn’t serve Scotland well, many will be struggling to make ends meet. However, all have a crutch that they are clinging to in order to justify their no vote in September. To salve the cognitive dissonance brought on by the contradiction of knowing that independence is self-evidently the way countries should be, while at the same time espousing an intention to vote against that normality in favour of being controlled by the same system that is holding us back.
Every No voter I speak to has one, it may be that the set up costs are too great despite the fact that these are dwarfed by the cost of the renewal of Trident or the building of HS2. It may be that they don’t like Alex Salmond, despite the fact that he is not immortal and is not even guaranteed to be in power in an independent Scotland. It may be that they are worried about their pension despite them already being guaranteed. It may be that they are worried about currency despite there being four viable currency options laid out by experts in the Fiscal Commission report. It may be they are worried about splitting up families despite half the population leaving the country to find work elsewhere under the current decentralised system. It may be they are worried about mortgages becoming unaffordable when we know there will be interest rate rises on the horizon regardless of the direction one votes. The list goes on, and for every one of these doubts there are, sprawled across the internet, numerous well researched and independently referenced counter arguments, and to be found in all four corners of the globe, examples of small independent countries thriving even though they have all had or continue to have the same issues. This evidence is seldom sought out.
Ignorance may be bliss in these situations, for historically one could not be blamed for making the wrong decision when one did not have any power or information. There is some evidence that people who avoid the truth are in fact happier. People tend to psychologically outsource issues to the government, the more complex an issue the less people want to know about it, as shown by this study. I can see why it would be easier to put faith in the government to control our lives, even if a lack of representation at that level can be seen to be the cause of our problems, as the alternative means internalising the fact that we are partially responsible for our own fate. After voting No, if that is to be the result, then No voters, like the crew of the Essex, will have few places to hide. The downward spiral will continue as by voting No you will be giving the current system legitimacy. Look to the recent proclamations of your future Prime Minister Boris Johnson if you are in any doubt. You have no power to stop him being elected. On the 18th September, for one day, each of us will be sovereign and powerful, we must be informed about the risks and react to the more plausible but less primeval fear. In short, we must vote Yes as all of the problems we will encounter post-independence will be solvable and we will, as a result of that vote, have influence over the people who we will task to solve them.
This blog was inspired by the following Ted Talk on fear.
If you have questions regarding a yes vote and little time to research, the Wee Blue Book is a great read.
Check out page for the things that scare us as Yes voters.