#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

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  • Mick, as a supporter of ‘Yes’, while I very much appreciate your own keen interest in the Scottish referredum and the gererous number of related blog pieces you have been putting up on Slugger – thank you for that, I just wonder what the point of some of them are – like this one? I had never heard of Carol Craig before and this peice tells me next to nother about her and nothing really either about the referendum. I googled Craig to see who she was but apart from finding out that she is a director for an organisation I had also never heard of – the Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing, which told me little more about her. You refer to her ‘much agonising’ before deciding to vote ‘No’. However, I can find no evidence of this agonising in the heavily pro union piece above and I wonder whether she isn’t just another standard Bitter Together unionist ‘No’ voter? There are plenty of them of them coming out of the woodwork now to support their various friends in Westminster – especially as they see the prospect loom large before them of the sinking ship which is the United Kingdom.

  • kensei

    Have Ireland, Iceland, Spain or Greece ceases to be independent nations? Have they succumbed to fascism or other non democratic ideologies? Have they been impoverished beyond hope of recovery?

    Yes, they’ve all paid a high price. But large economies have too. The risk is the differential between the large economies and the small. Europe – big and small isn’t looking too hot right now. Compare Ireland North with Ireland South and, yup the North has by and large avoide much of the worst the South has – with the caveat of a lot of cuts still to come. But the South has a far more vibrant and active economy in general, at least in part due to its independence. In computer software this would be optimising to the worst case.

    Sometimes it is appropriate, sometimes it isn’t. On long timescales I think optimism is justified and risks are overstated (while the EU and access to markets exists at least). That’s the real heart of it.

  • mickfealty

    I chose for two reasons:

    1, she tells us something I didn’t know before

    2, she’s writing for one Scotland’s most thoughtful online outlets.

    I don’t know who she is either. Nor, to be quite straight with you, do I very much care. Slugger’s key watchword in this regard is play the man and not the wo/man.. (http://goo.gl/3wHBR)

  • Okay, I agree that it doesn’t matter who she is, my point was that I wanted to know whether she was just another unionist ‘No’ voter or a real undecided who truely ‘agonised’ over their decision to vote ‘No’. I saw no evidence of this agony in action with the arguments finely balanced bewteen both sides, just another standard list of unionist arguments – none of which I agree with.

  • JPJ2

    Mick Fealty.

    I am utterly amazed that you learnt anything from the orthodox mouthing of unionist platitudes from Carol Craig.

    As for Krugman-why do his views apparently trump those of the TWO Nobel prizewinners for economics that sat of the Scottish Government’s Fiscal commission?

  • JPJ2

    Mr Fealty

    I have now gone to the trouble of reading Carol Craig’s article in full.

    It is utterly clear from the following passage that her “agonising” is NOT, REPEAT NOT, about whether she should vote No or vote Yes but rather the reaction (challenging the coherence of her stance) to her intention to vote No:

    “I’ve known for some time that simply by saying I would vote against independence would put me in grave danger of being denounced as a fool, a hypocrite, or a wimp. Over the course of the campaign my fears of this reaction has led to my own personal Scots’ crisis of confidence. I’ve kept my head down. Not blogged, tweeted or spoken publicly on the topic basically for fear of the reaction I would get. However, I can hold my tongue no longer.”

  • mickfealty


    Sorry, I missed out the link. Will add tomorrow. I don’t know if she agonised for sure. She says she did, and that’s good enough for me.

    The stuff I thought was genuinely interesting and revealing was the relentless positivity stuff. That Yes dominates is because they moved first to frame the arguments.

    But it is also by far the more aggressive in the face of dissent. From a neutral or even soft Yes pov that’s not as attractive a trait as you might think.

    Krugman? Well I did say he has been wrong before. Trouble is Stiglitz does not disclose what he thinks the grounds might be for a stable arrangement for currency union. So there’s no either or between them.

    Krugman may be over interpreting the current mess in the Eurozone and transposing it on to what could prove a more manageable bilateral arrangement.

    But he and others are right to point out that without a fiscal union it could quickly turn to mush, especially if Scotland’s banks get themselves into another bubble.

    That’s a level of economic threat that rUK (BOE) would have to arm itself against. Personally I think its bonkers to bid for independence by giving your former partner such an obvious hostage to fortune.