Why a No vote is not a vote for certainty: despite what Better Together say!
Watching some of the recent referendum debates, I have been struck by how the No campaign are framing the choice as being between the stable surety of the Union verses the uncertainty of independence. In this BBC Programme, filmed in Kirkcaldy, John Swinney is portrayed as not giving the people a clear vision of what independence means, in terms of currency, joining the EU and oil revenues. It is a really powerful tool that the no campaign is using as; one of the things that we crave most as human beings is a feeling of certainty.
The no campaign have a point here as although the SNP have acted in good faith, by commissioning many reports and seeking out the opinion of experts, the best they can do is set out their most pragmatic vision for the future, as many of the aspects that will make up an Independent Scotland will be decided after months of prolonged and difficult negotiation have been concluded. In short, the SNP can’t guarantee the shape of an Independent Scotland as the power is not completely in their hands. They can only tell you their vision for it.
The drunkards walk shows how people at the top, experts and politicians and business leaders, are often not there due to being particularly skilled or gifted at a given thing. They are often there as a result of randomness.
And what is the probability that a successful chief executive officer or fund manager or sportsman will go on being successful? Less than you might think. Skill and foresight command a premium in the marketplace but performance still seems indistinguishable from chance, and those financiers fabled in Forbes magazine are more likely to have hit a winning streak.
In short, if you have a lot of people trying to achieve a particular goal, the winner in retrospect will appear to have had some significant skill or insight, but often they are just reaping the spoils of uncertainty. We can see how this benefits executives. When things go well they claim massive remuneration and bask in the glory of their own brilliance, as soon as things go wrong they blame unforeseen events and still walk away with massive payoffs. If one accepts a higher role of luck in our success than is widely acknowledged, then the moral thing to do is to take steps to make society fairer.
Where the no side of the argument falls down is that in order for it to be logical, there has to be a presumption that by voting no you will be voting for certainty. I would argue that this is not the case.
In the recent book, The Black Swan: The Impact Of The Highly Improbable, statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes a case for how randomness and probability have a massive impact on our lives. In fact it makes pretty good arguments for how events that are completely unpredictable are pretty common, have great impact and that certainty is just an illusion that we all cling to. In 1997 I was in my first year at university and had my first chance to vote in a General Election. I remember that a lot of my contemporaries took the night off from clubbing and got together in halls of residence, albeit with a carry-out, as we wanted to watch the election results. The vast majority of the congregated, including myself, had cast a vote for New Labour, as we were magnetized by the future that Tony Blair sold to us. I remember that after the votes were counted the room was filled with elation as we imagined how bright our future was going to be under the ‘things can only get better’ regime.
Perhaps it was the naivety of youth to believe in the new labour mantra, but leaving aside the let down of Blair, I don’t think we could ever have predicted many of the events that would occur during the new labour period. Shocks like 9/11, the war in Afghanistan, the house price boom, the war in Iraq, the erosion of our civil liberties, the global financial crisis, the London Subway Bombing, foot and mouth, 7/7 and the SARS pandemic to name a few, had a massive impact on our lives, politics, culture and finances.
If you accept then, that regardless of how you vote, there will be randomness and uncertainty, it nullifies the Better Together argument. Especially in light of things in our future that are to some extent predictable, but still uncertain, such as the severe flooding in the South of England, which is likely to have been caused by climate change, and the proposed vote on whether the UK will leave the European Union.
If the future is naturally uncertain then the question becomes; which society will provide the most stable place to live? Will the current UK model protect us more than, for lack of a better phrase, the Nordic Model that most Yes voters are seeking to move towards.
There may be some credence to the argument that the more diverse, broad shoulders of the UK are best placed to protect us from unforeseen shocks. In theory, a properly functioning UK should be able to better protect us from extreme events by having an economy that is larger, more varied and, hence, more resilient to minor fluctuations in the financial market and global political changes. The problem with this reasoning is that, despite being very rich, the UK is one of the most unequal societies in the world and these differences have widened over the last 40 years. Therefore, while we have survived these crises relatively well as a nation, the pain is felt disproportionately by the poor and the increasing working poor. As pointed out here, more equal societies have more stable economies and are more resilient. Respectable economists have even argued the instability caused by this inequality will destroy us. I can see no movement within UK politics making a serious effort to address this problem. In fact, in voting to Cap Benefits, the main UK parties have shown that they are not just content, but inclined, to allow the inequality trend continue.
In another book I have recently enjoyed, The Drunkards Walk: how randomness rules our life by Leonard Mlodinow, the author suggests that the best way you can protect yourself from variability may be to focus on the ability to react to events rather than relying on the ability to predict them.
This is where an independent Scotland may have an advantage.
It is probably no coincidence that the majority of the 20 richest countries by GDP per capita are small resource rich countries. If we vote yes, we will have a representative consensus led government situated close to the people. The majority of groups supporting a yes vote are promoting shaping policy to be fairer, to reduce income disparity and raise living standards. We will have a written constitution enshrining these values into statute. And we will also have a Sovereign Wealth Fund to cushion our fall in rough times. So while I agree with the No Campaign when they highlight the uncertainties of Independence as I know that we live in an unpredictable world, I would say that there are good reasons to presume that an Independent Scotland that has control over its own economic and political levers, would be better placed to navigate the uncertainty than it is currently able to do.
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