Scottish Independence, Group Identities, and Institutional Status Quo Bias. And Groundskeeper Willie. And The Proclaimers.

The internet is full of overnight Scotland experts this morning, I’ll try to not join them, promise. For the record, I was a very solid No on independence, though I must admit, the blockbuster Yes endorsements by Groundskeeper Willie and seminal ’90s light-rockers The Proclaimers made me waver a bit.

I’m thinking through a few theoretical ways to try to understand what happened. I’m hugely influenced here by Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order, which I very highly recommend.

There are two factors of human nature to think about: First, the base motive for recognition and dignity and status; and second, the fact that human institutions have a massive conservative bias, and tend to be preserved, all things equal.

First, the base human motive underlying the history of political development is the demand for recognition and status, which can occur on an individual level or collectively on behalf of groups. At the individual level it takes the form of the assertion of individual dignity, which has undergirded every attempt to expand individual political and civil rights throughout history. See the picture to the right, with the phrase "I Am a Man" serving as an incredibly powerful distillation of the entire civil rights movement. There is a direct lineage from this idea back to the Enlightenment, the revolutionary concept of human equality, and the Rights of Man. Though it’s also worth noting that the demand for individual recognition also inspires road rage murders and other violent encounters stemming from perceived "disrespect", as well as all sorts of dissolute status-seeking and face-saving behaviors. So it goes.

Beyond our demand for individual recognition, we quirky humans also seek recognition and respect for groups with which we identify, and membership in which contributes to our self-conception of our identity. These can be sports franchise fandom, ethnicities, religions; or on topic for today, nationalisms. We will act desperately to secure recognition at both the individual and group level, but we tend to endorse behaviors on behalf of a group, particularly a nation-state, which we would never consider or countenance as individuals (See Neibuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society). This explains  endorsement of, or merely indifference to atrocities committed by one’s state, as well as apologetics for profound institutional failures like the Catholic Church rape scandal. The individual morality of a non-psychopath would reject and abhor such acts, but when rallying round the group one may come to other moral conclusions. 

Back to Scotland. One reason the independence vote failed is because a majority of Scottish people consider being "British" as one of their concentric circles of group identity association. You would think the Yes voters were the group seeking recognition and respect and primacy for their identity. But the Nos were voting for group recognition in their own way just as much as the Yeses. There seems to be a wide age gap in the voting breakdown, with youngs overwhelmingly voting yes and oldsters voting no. This makes sense, as older voters either lived through or were much closer to the formation of the post-war institutional order which they see as a triumph of British unity and solidarity, and something well worth preserving. Gordon Brown’s tremendous speech on behalf of the union includes this stirring passage:

Let us tell the undecided, the waverers, those not sure how to vote, let us tell them what we have achieved together. We fought two world wars together – and there is not a cemetery in Europe that does not have Scots, English, Welsh and Irish lying side-by-side. And when young men were injured in these wars, they didn’t look to each other and ask whether you were Scots or English, they came to each other’s aid because we were part of a common cause. And we not only won these wars together, we built the peace together, we built the health service together, we built the welfare state together, we will build the future together. And what we have built together by sacrificing and sharing, let no narrow nationalism split asunder ever.

It is easy to see how these words would resonate with voters of a certain age. If the vote was fundamentally a contest for recognition between competing group identities, this appeal to the larger concentric circle of Britishness won out.

The human demand for recognition trumps other base-motive contenders like the instincts for self-preservation or economic self-interest. Sometimes the instincts are complementary. The struggle for civil rights and integration into mainstream institutions for African Americans and other minority groups throughout history also clearly improved their respective economic prospects, not to mention their prospects for not being summarily murdered by the state or by members of the ruling majority. 

But at the nation-state level the instincts are often in conflict, and recognition usually wins. Just the other day Dan Drezner wrote about this in the context of Russian aggression and the economic price it is paying.

Even back in the spring, it was clear that Russia’s economy was not doing well (matters have only gone downhill since). Nevertheless, when Pew polled Russian attitudes about their economy back in the spring, they got a startlingly different message. Despite a slowdown in the Russian economy, the percentage of respondents who said that their economy was good increased by 11 percentage points. […]

Notably, Russian satisfaction with their nation’s direction has improved 19 percentage points, from 37% to 56%, in the last year.

This seeming irrationality holds for many global hotspots, where ongoing conflicts, violent or otherwise, only make sense as expressions of and struggles for group recognition, since it’s often impossible to argue that anyone involved is improving their material well-being (except, as ever, defense contractors). Even in Scotland, 45% of the country voted for independence despite widespread agreement that it would be an economic calamity.

The independence vote also failed because of what Francis Fukuyama calls "the enormous conservatism of institutions." He writes, "Institutions once formed tend to be preserved, due to the biological proclivity…to conform to rules and patterns of behavior," and further, to "invest [such] rules and mental models with intrinsic significance." Beyond the original conditions that once justified the creation of particular institutions, over time, the institutions are "further reinforced by strong social norms, rituals, and other kinds of psychological investments in them." Gordon Brown’s passage is a perfect example of an institution (the UK) inspiring strong psychological investment far beyond the original justification or circumstances of the British union.

You can also call this conservation phenomenon path dependency or status quo bias. Basically nobody ever likes to change anything, and so whenever there’s a motion to change something big, you can immediately credit the no-change side with a massive built-in advantage even if you know nothing about the underlying issue. The Scottish Yes coalition was well aware of this aversion to changing the status quo, and did all it could to override this basic biological proclivity. It couldn’t.

An ominous concluding note: The main trouble with nationalisms and secession sentiment is that it inspires the resentments of other competing nationalisms. This assertion of Scottish nationalism, even though it was defeated, has stoked the nationalism of the other constitutent parts of the UK:

As it became clear that 55% of Scottish voters had said no to independence, [Prime Minister Cameron] demanded a new English settlement that would exclude Scottish MPs from ever voting on English matters such as health and education.

The English now have their own punitive demands for recognition. This doesn’t seem like a salutary development.

But now, The Proclaimers:

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4 Responses to Scottish Independence, Group Identities, and Institutional Status Quo Bias. And Groundskeeper Willie. And The Proclaimers.

  1. Iain says:

    Nice item, although I would offer a slightly different take on the nationalism piece at the end. There has always been a bit of a democratic imbalance when it comes to the constituent parts of the UK. Prior to the set-up of the devolved parliaments/assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, matters that related solely to these parts of the UK were dealt with by Grand Committees (essentially parliaments within a parliament). By convention, only Scottish MPs could vote on purely Scottish matters, Welsh on Welsh matters etc. However, the converse was not true, and Scottish MPs regularly voted on English-only legislation. In some circumstances (like the imposition of tuition fees on English students), this meant that Scottish MPs were used to force through unpopular laws in England that wouldn’t directly affect their own constituents (other than through funding of Scottish services through the Barnett Formula).

    In effect, this new-found “nationalism” is actually just a move to realign this deficit, and create a devolution of powers to people that are directly affected by them. As such, it’s been a long-time coming, and can only be a good thing. Having said that, it would mean the Tories would be guaranteed to win England-only votes, and Labour would struggle to ever get a majority in Parliament (incidentally, also the outcome if Scotland voted yes). So if you lean to the left, you’re screwed.

    PS quoting The Telegraph is like asking Fox News to decide if the Dems or GOP are right on something…

  2. Jason Dobbins says:

    Thanks for this much needed context. You could probably spend quite a lot of time going round the internet this week adding crucial clarifications to dopey Scotland blog posts. And I tried so hard to stick to theory.

    With the Tories pushing this change, it does sound punitive, and motivated at least in part by pique and resentment at the secessionists. I guess it can be true both that they’re demagoguing the issue AND that it makes policy sense. And certainly electoral sense as you note. Would you say your view of it (as a sensible realignment long overdue) is shared by most Scots? I just hope it doesn’t lead to further cycles of resentment.

  3. Iain says:

    In a large part, the devolution deals were offered as a brine to Scots to vote no, partly to keep the UK together, and partly to save the jobs of the Prime Minister and Labour leader (if Scotland voted yes, it was a clear resignation issue for both, in the same way that the Scottish FM had to go). I think the Tories have now realized that it is a win-win for them in the short term and the longer term (keeps Scotland in, keeps Labour out of power). For Labour it’s a disaster. The only reason Cameron is making it sound a bit punitive is to show his English MPs that he isn’t favoring the Scots too much.

    As for it being a general feeling in Scotland on the realignment, it is to a certain degree (not that many people follow politics in quite the same way as in the Beltway). The deficit was first defined in the 1970s around the time of the first Scottish devolution referendum, and was called the West Lothian question. Essentially, why could Scots vote on English matters, but English couldn’t on Scots. The SNP MPs in Westminster decided to solve this themselves by choosing to not vote on English-only legislation, and was therefore essentially Scottish government policy. MPs from other parties still voted though. They argued that because Scotland got its central funding from Westminster through the Barnett Formula (essentially a 10% bump in Scotland compared to the rest of the UK to take account of geographical difficulties in rural areas), by voting on English funding bills, they were indirectly getting more money for their constituents.

    For the normal Scot, English devolution wasn’t a big deal, but it will likely be seen as fairness in this process. However, English nationalism is usually intertwined with xenophobia, so it will be interesting to see how that plays out. The cycle of resentment issue may be a problem, especially if Scotland doesn’t get its new powers. It will become more leftist, England will move to the right. If that causes friction, expect to see continued polarization and a new referendum in, say, 5-10 years.

  4. Jason Dobbins says:

    Speaking of English xenophobia, I recently saw a fascinating video from the Guardian interviewing folks in UKIP strongholds in the east of England. UKIP has managed to convince them that it’s for the working class. Farage and his ilk have been very happy to play up the inequity of the Barnett formula and the urgency of the realignment, England has been ignored in this whole process etc. etc. I don’t imagine these hard luck supporters are very interested in making concessions to Scotland. Like you say, we’ll just have to see if this sentiment spreads over time, and if the Tories start feeling pressed to give voice to it. Scary stuff. Similar story playing out all over Europe, i.e., recent Swedish elections.

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