#IndyRef ‘If the cost of failure is high, optimism is the wrong strategy’

The truth is that most of the commentary around the Scottish referendum is purely speculative, and built on passion and subjective personal belief. Polls merely tell us that the argument is real and has critical resonances in the wider population. They don’t tell us who’s going to win.

One of the most interesting individual ‘takes’ I’ve seen so far comes from Carol Craig who, after much agonising, is planning to vote No. And interestingly she hits what seems to me to be the exact epicentre of Scotland’s profound unease with a London centric Union, its own lost sense of democratic agency.

So, first, the psychosocial context…

On twitter in the last few weeks various people have posted the Turnbull cartoon from the 1979 devolution referendum depicting a lion rampant sucking its thumb. ‘I’m feart’ the caption read. Lack of confidence and the Scottish cringe did play a part in that referendum campaign. Even though there was actually little at stake, there was palpable fear that the Scots ‘would make a right arse of it’ as my own uncle put it.

But these views on Scotland have largely been expunged as a result of the Scottish Parliament – particularly the two SNP administrations. These governments have appeared professional and competent, the senior ministers highly articulate and presentable. When we add to this the huge success of Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games it’s easy to see that the vast majority of Scots no longer doubt their nation’s ability to run its own affairs.

What’s interesting is that the notion that ‘Scotland is too wee, too poor and too stupid’ to become independent has mainly featured in this campaign via the Yes side. It’s the likes of Nicola Sturgeon who frequently set this idea up as a straw man to be knocked down.

Then the real world context, not least the global markets…

The problem isn’t just that life and institutions (e.g. membership of the EU) make independence more difficult to achieve but that we are now living in a fairly hostile, economically globalised world. The crash taught us just how vulnerable national economies can be. Indeed the economies of Ireland, Iceland, Spain and Greece almost toppled under the weight of debt and seemed little more than the playthings of international markets.

She quotes Paul Krugman’s ascerbic column in the New Times yesterday (Kevin Drumm is worth reading too)…

‘I find it mind-boggling that Scotland would consider going down this path after all that has happened in the last few years. If Scottish voters really believe that it’s safe to become a country without a currency, they have been badly misled’.

Well, Krugman’s been wrong before, but as Alex Massie will point out in an Irish Times Inside Politics podcast later today, the sort of Currency Union independent Ireland once had with the UK wasn’t exactly conducive either to good business or good neighbourliness.

Anyhoo, that’s for conjecture. The interesting stuff is the pre campaign preparation the SNP have been doing to make constitutional change (which in Ireland is usually the tougher proposition) into more of a downhill run…

The SNP prides itself on the positivity of their election strategies but this only started before the 2007 election following a workshop with the Really Effective Development Company where, amongst other things, they learned about Martin Seligman’s research on how it’s the most optimistic candidate in American presidential elections who usually wins.

According to Paul Hutcheon, the late SNP MSP Brian Adam revealed a bizarre strategy for ensuring candidates remained upbeat: ‘We were all presented with a bag of pennies. Every time we said anything negative we had to put a penny in the middle of the table. This was to stop us saying negative things. It was a major change in approach’.

The SNP also ran an optimistic upbeat campaign in 2011 and yet again this appears to have contributed to their electoral success, particularly when their main opponent, the Labour Party, went in the opposite direction. The SNP has continued with this type of training in the referendum campaign with Alex Salmond receiving performance coaching by Clare Howell REDCO’s CEO.

Stephen Noon, chief strategist for the Yes campaign, loves the idea of a 100% positive, optimistic campaign. In his blogs he is particularly fond of turning any problem people might raise into an insult to the Scottish people:

The No campaign spend much of their time telling us that Scotland would fail or struggle. That doesn’t show much respect for, or confidence in, the people who live here. Much better the Yes approach, which is based on an absolute belief in the people of Scotland.

We will face ups and downs in the future (that’s life) but, at Yes, we have total confidence that the people of Scotland have got what it takes to overcome the challenges and, most importantly, make more of the many opportunities and advantages we enjoy as a nation. This isn’t a blind optimism, but a realistic assessment of our collective capabilities and capacities.

Craig comments on this approach by referencing Orwell, where he rebukes nationalism (in its wider terms) as …

…a philosophy which is always on the look out for slights and driven by ‘blind zeal and indifference to reality’. Look at Noon’s quote and ask yourself what’s so special about the Scots that every single one of us will be impervious to the financial havoc easily wreaked by the international markets or the restructuring of our economy which will follow independence?

And then Professor Martin Seligman’s work on optimism…

Seligman’s definition of optimism is not whether we see the glass half full or half empty but how we think about the future – our ‘explanatory style’. Do we see bad events as ‘permanent, pervasive and personal’? Optimists don’t tend to whereas pessimists do.

In his book ‘Learned Optimism’ Seligman is quite clear that while optimism has considerable benefits (for example, for health and sporting success as it helps prevent us from giving up) pessimism is also important. It keeps us alive. If we didn’t think the worst might happen and take evasive action we might take unacceptable risks that damage ourselves or our prospects.

Seligman argues that there are times when it makes sense to be optimistic (or use optimism building techniques if you are prone to pessimism) and times when it is better to be pessimistic. He writes: ‘The fundamental guideline for not deploying optimism is to ask what the cost of failure is in the particular situation.

If the cost of failure is high, optimism is the wrong strategy’.

Do read the whole thing

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty