An Independent Scotland? Just Imagine…

scottish flag5

Why has support for a Yes vote in the Scottish referendum risen this year, as difficulties for an independent Scotland become increasingly clear?

My guess is that it’s linked to the way in which people handle difficult-to-answer questions about the future and the difficulty of imagining some of the consequences of independence.

Presented with a difficult question, people tend to replace it with an easier one, according to Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow. He gives the example of the question, “How popular will the President be six months from now?” Because this is impossible to answer, we might substitute the easy-to-answer question, “How popular is the President now?” If he’s popular now, we might answer that he’ll be popular in six months too.

Before an election, we want to answer the question: “What will happen if Party A wins?” So we might substitute the question, “Which parts of its election programme could Party A enact?” That works OK in most elections. Rival parties usually offer different packages of incremental reforms, and it’s easy to make reasonable guesses about the consequences of a victory for Party A or Party B.

In the Scottish independence vote, most people can make reasonable guesses as to the consequences of a No vote. It’s also fairly easy to picture some of the consequences of a Yes vote: things like more control for Scots over their own government and a greater share of North Sea oil revenues – though no more transfer of public money from England.

But some potential consequences of a Yes vote defy the imagination. That makes it easy to produce wildly divergent scenarios.

  • Could an independent Scotland join the EU? It might well be able to. But countries such as Spain would have a strong incentive to veto Scottish membership in order to deter future breakaways by regions such as Catalonia.
  • Scotland would also want to join NATO. But some of its stances – military spending cuts, opposition to nuclear weapons – might make it unwelcome.
  • The Yes campaign wants to keep the pound as Scotland’s currency. But the Westminster parties say they won’t allow this. Scotland couldn’t adopt the euro unless it was in the EU – but sharing the pound might prevent Scottish membership. So it would need its own currency. But this might weaken, making it hard to pay back the sterling-denominated debt Scotland would inherit.

It’s not clear what would happen in any of these cases. So, how do we try to answer the impossible question, “What kind of currency and international relations will Scotland have after independence?”

These arrangements are so fundamental to the functioning of a country – economy, trade and security – that we don’t normally think about them. However, the UK – indeed the whole of Northwest Europe – has been fairly comfortable and stable for the past half-century or more. That makes it hard to conceive of anything really bad happening.

So it feels natural to substitute the question, “What kind of currency and international relations does Scotland have now?” – and to go by the answer to this. Though Kahneman talks about such question substitution as an unconscious reflex, the Yes campaign almost makes this explicit. It talks about Scotland’s “continued membership of the European Union”, even though the EU is a union of member states, one of which is the United Kingdom.

We’ve become used to things working out in Northwest Europe. That makes it only natural to imagine that, somehow, Scotland’s basic underpinnings will continue after independence as before. It’s far harder to picture the worst-case scenarios. So many people don’t.



Photo: flickrtickr2009