Yes or no?

A visit to my daughter in Edinburgh has made me think about the Scottish independence referendum coming up in September.   Like a lot of English people, I hadn’t paid much attention to it until recently, but am now realising that this is a pretty big thing, not only for Scotland, but for the whole UK.

Every  friend of mine that I’ve discussed this with, English and Scottish, is strongly against Scottish independence, but I’m not so sure.  The strongest argument I’ve heard against voting yes is that independence would cater to a certain narrow, chauvinist anti-Englishness which (or so I’m told by Scottish friends) is one of the less appealing aspects of Scottish life: a parochial, small-town dislike of anything from outside.  I’ve no way of judging how large a part that plays in the current wave of separatism.

That aside, though, I can see several good reasons for voting yes.   The first is simply that the wider the base of a pyramid, the higher is its tip.   A smaller country can be more accountable to its people – you have more say if you’re one of five million voters than if you’re one of sixty million – and should require fewer tiers of hierarchy between top and bottom.   Of course a global economy means that all countries have to participate in supranational institutions, and this creates additional pyramids that rise up above the national level, but I can’t see that it would be to the disadvantage of Scotland to have its own seat at the table in those institutions, rather than to be represented by the government of a nation within which Scotland is only a small constituent part.

The second reason I can see for voting yes lies, oddly enough, in some of the arguments and positions that are put forward for voting no.  Scotland might not be viable on its own (Why not?   It’s similar in population to Denmark or Norway, and is one of the better-off countries in Europe.)  Scotland might not be allowed to join the EU.    (Oh yeah? When the EU has just agreed to admit Croatia, smaller in population than Scotland and with well under half the GDP?)   Scotland cannot have a currency union with the rest of the UK.  (Except that a UK minister has already contradicted this.)  I hear in these messages the tone of a clingy parent who tries to undermine her child’s confidence because she is afraid to let the child go: ‘It’s a nasty difficult world out there.  You’d be much better off at home with mum.’  And it seems to me that a strong argument for ‘yes’ is simply the confidence that Scotland would gain as a country when it discovered that it could manage perfectly well on its own.  (As of course it would: economics is not an exact science and no one can really know the long-term consequences when there are so many variables involved, but it is surely obvious that Scotland would be perfectly viable either way?)

And this brings me to my third argument for a yes vote, one I’ve not heard anyone express before, which is simply that change can be fun.   All countries are works of the imagination.  A disparate bunch of people are included within a more-or-less arbitrary border, and if all goes well, over time they begin to think of themselves as a kind of community.  Isn’t it refreshing sometimes to reimagine things, just as it can be refreshing to redecorate a room, or move house, or end a relationship that has lost its spark?   Does there have to be a practical reason?   An independent Scotland would be an interesting new project for the people of Scotland to take on (and would incidentally create an interesting new project for the rest of the UK).  Doesn’t the question really boil down to whether they fancy it or not, rather than whether it would be ‘good’ or ‘bad’?

A rigged game

monopolyIn my other life (I work part-time as a lecturer), I’ve sometimes used a rigged monopoly game – a game where one person starts off with, say, ten times as much money as the other, as a way of representing the unfairness of life.  I used it in a text book too.   The point I wanted to make was  not only that life is unfair, but that it is so unfair that, if it was a game, most of us would refuse to play.

I only recently found out (thanks to Thure Etzold) that a rigged monopology game has actually been used as the basis of a psychological experiment to explore the effect of wealth on human behaviour.  Paul Piff observed games of monopoly between pairs of players, randomly assigned to advantaged and disadvantated positions.   Even though they knew the game was rigged to make it virtually certain that they would win, advantaged players would start to act in a more arrogant way towards their adversary.  If we are doing better than another person, the experiment seems to suggest, we start to feel superior to them, even if our rational head knows that our success is none of our doing.  Financial success means status, and status means we can push other people around.

This is consistent with other studies by Piff in which he found that, for instance, expensive cars are less likely to stop at pedestrian crossings than cheaper ones, and that better-off people in psychological experiments are more likely than poorer ones to help themselves to sweets that they have been specifically told are there to give to children in another study.   If you haven’t come across this work, there’s a PBS video here, and an article here.

A ridiculous comparison

When Michael Gove, The Education Secretary, states his ambition to make state schools indistinguishable from private ones, he is of course saying that they’re not as good.   Politicians sometimes say some fatuous things, but this pretty much hits the jackpot.

What he’s doing in fact is pointing at the teachers who take on the harder job and unfavourably comparing them with the teachers who have it easy.  It’s as if someone set up a hospital which only ever admitted patients who had an excellent chance of recovery, and its higher recovery rates were then held up as evidence that other hospitals were failing.

I went to private schools.  I got good A levels.  My kids went to state schools.  They got good A levels too.  I dare say my old school gets better overall results than their school , but so it bloody well should, seeing as it has an admission process that allows it to pick and choose which pupils it takes, and, except for a few exceptionally able kids who win scholarships, it can only take pupils anyway from the kinds of family who can pay.

I do worry about young Michael’s thinking skills.