Sunday, 23 July 2017

The Emotional Case for Union: Articulating an Implicit Moral Contract

Whether you’re still mourning the result of the EU referendum or are one of those who sees Brexit as some brave new dawn (I know you’re out there), if you’d rather not see the break up of the UK then take a moment to consider this: Brexit is an illustration of the price we pay if we neglect to counter relentless grievance-mongering against a long-standing Union.

Alternatively, if you’re against Brexit but in favour of Scottish independence based on some emotional or “democratic deficit” based argument, I hope what follows may at least give you some pause for thought.

If however you’re in favour both of Brexit and Scotland leaving the UK ... well I’m afraid I can’t help you, best you stop reading now.


It’s probably fair to suggest that what we saw with the EU referendum was the rational economic arguments against Brexit losing out to the emotional “taking back control” arguments in favour. Conversely, the Scottish Independence referendum was won by many voting No because their head was convinced by the economic arguments against, despite their heart being tempted by the emotional case for.

That’s partly because the economic arguments against Scottish Independence were an order of magnitude more compelling that those against Brexit: however bad you think Brexit is for the UK, exiting the UK would be so much worse for Scotland.

But what I want to focus on here is the nature of the emotional arguments in favour of Union, and the fact that far from being distinct or conflicting, the economic and emotional cases are inextricably intertwined. The economic case only exists because of the emotional case, it’s just that the emotional case is so deeply ingrained in most of us that we struggle to articulate it.

This debate matters and it matters now. If we wait until the imminent threat of another referendum before bothering to make the positive emotional case for the UK, we risk seeing Scotland’s relationship with the UK following the same path as the UK’s with the EU. Relationships suffer if emotions are neglected; a good marriage needs to be worked at.


Let’s start by looking at the SNP’s core - and superficially compelling - emotional argument:
"The SNP believes that decisions about Scotland’s future – about our economy and society – are best taken by the people of Scotland: the more powers we have in Scotland the more we can achieve for the people who live here" - SNP 2015 Manifesto
In part this formulation simply relies on the reader’s sense of identity meaning that “we” and “Scotland” are emotionally synonymous. Of course those who are happy to think of “we” as the people of the UK can simply substitute “the UK” for “Scotland” in the phrase above and - if you’re so minded - this phrase then becomes an articulation of why we should leave the EU. There’s an obvious irony to the fact that the SNP’s core argument for independence is effectively the same as UKIP’s “take back control” argument for the Brexit the SNP so vehemently oppose.

But what of those who intuitively have a primarily Scottish sense of identity? For those people, the fundamental issue should be that the implied logical connection between the SNP’s statement and the conclusion that Scotland should be independent doesn’t actually exist; you can agree that “decisions about Scotland’s future should be taken by the people of Scotland” without concluding that Scotland should be an independent country.

Representative democracy allows us to decide how best to define which group of “us” should make what decisions. We decide that some issues make sense controlled at local council level, some by the constituent nations within the UK, some by the UK as a whole. Of course many also believe that some are better taken at an EU level or by the United Nations. So what some lazily term a “democratic deficit” others see as simply the result of deciding to participate in a democratic hierarchy that allows some decisions to be taken as part of a larger whole for a wider common good.

The biggest weakness in the SNP’s argument is of course the fact that the 2014 independence referendum took place and that the result was so clear. That vote wasn’t just about self-determination, it was self-determination. It was the purest possible demonstration of the people of Scotland making a decision about Scotland’s future – and we decided that our economy and society would be best served by remaining part of a wider democratic union. Just because the SNP don’t like that answer doesn’t make it not so.

The SNP would of course be quick to point out that no decision can be permanent and since the indyref there has been “material change” with the EU referendum vote threatening to see Scotland “dragged out of the EU against our will”.

Of course there have been other “material changes”, not least those to the economic case for independence. The oil revenue forecasts used by the SNP to underpin their fiscal projections are now known to have been recklessly optimistic and the SNP have accepted that they need a more credible answer to the currency question than simply saying “we’ll keep the pound” (but have yet to find one). The deafening silence from the “SNP Growth Commission” suggests they’re struggling to find a palatable strategy for maintaining an independent Scotland’s fiscal sustainability without slashing public services and while also finding the capacity to invest to grow the Scottish economy faster that the rest of the UK. They may be finding that it’s a lot easier to complain about how things are than it is to outline a credible alternative for how things should be.

The Nationalist’s biggest economic problem though is Brexit itself. Their previous assertion that Scotland’s trade with the rest of the UK would be unaffected by independence has gone from being at best dubious to now completely indefensible. If Brexit means the UK becomes subject to trade barriers with the EU, then a decision about Scottish independence becomes in part a decision about which trading block we favour: we would have to choose between the UK and the EU (or quite possibly risk ending up in neither). The fact that we export four times more to the rest of the UK than we do to the rest of the EU is now a pretty compelling economic argument against Scottish independence.

So the economic case remains the Nationalists Achilles’ heel, and they know it. In the press this week Ian Blackford MP (Leader of the SNP in the House of Commons) was quoted as saying that the SNP must convince Scots voters that their “economic future is better as an independent country”. Given they’ve demonstrably failed to do so to date, you’d think the SNP might at least consider the possibility that they’ll need to convince people that having a worse economic future is a price worth paying for independence


But just as the Nationalists need to work on their economic case, so those of us who intuitively feel that the Union is “a good thing” need to find better ways to articulate and communicate our emotional case. One blog certainly won’t do it, but let me make a tentative start.

The people of the UK are bound together by much more than a common language and the economic self-interest of a shared currency and the UK-wide single market. We have a long history of common endeavour and a shared a sense of responsibility to look after all of those who live on these islands.

This results in what we might term an implicit moral contract that most of us accept without ever really considering it. This assumed contract means that wherever you live in the UK, whatever your background, class or economic circumstances, we will pool together to look after you.

There are standards of education you should receive, healthcare you should access, public services you should be able to rely on, a sense of security you should feel and a standard of living you should be able to maintain which should exist wherever you live within the UK. These things should not be based on the economic contribution you individually (or your region collectively) make. As a matter of principle we pool and share resources to ensure that basic standards are guaranteed - and over time raised - for all of “us” in the UK.

Needless to say, politicians will make their own cases for how best to fairly go about it and we can argue the merits of their different strategies all day long - but I’d hazard that few of them would disagree that their aim is to deliver against this contract, that it transcends party politics.

This moral contract lies at the heart of the emotional case for maintaining the Union and fairly obviously underpins the economic one. If you accept this implicit moral contract, questions like “why should we share our oil?” or “why should Scotland need fiscal transfers from the rest of the UK?” just seem daft: pooling and sharing happens because it’s the morally decent thing to do.

Similarly the flaw in the thinking which suggests “full fiscal autonomy” for any constituent part of the UK is some kind of ideal end-game becomes clear: if we economically ring-fence any geographic area of the UK we necessarily break this contract. Fiscal transfers are not a symptom of regional economic failings, they're the tangible result of a positive moral choice.

Referendums certainly (and general elections possibly) can offer us the chance to choose to narrow the definition of the “us” that this moral contract applies to.  Just as the EU referendum appears to have shown that many believe “we” shouldn’t include our EU neighbours, so it’s fair that Scottish Nationalists are free to argue that “we” shouldn’t include those with whom we share these islands.

Those committed to breaking up the UK will keep working towards it. Those of us who disagree with them, who believe that more unites than divides us on these islands, who believe that this implicit moral contract is something precious to be cherished - it's time we got to work too.


Edwin Moore said...

Excellent stuff Kevin. The question of who are ‘we’ and ‘us’ haunts the debate and we can't allow the nationalists to say that only ‘True Scots’ - those who support indy - can be ‘we' and us’.

Thee are many Scotlands, good luck to them all, from Stornoway Calvinists to the drunken hen nights at Central Station. I dont identify with them all though, and why should I?

I got a lovely smile from Victoria Wood one Sunday morning in Byres Rd. I’m not even sure what my nation is precisely, but whatever it is, dear Victoria still has a more prominent place in it than Ms Sturgeon.

Anonymous said...

Should there ever be another indyref, I agree that the emotional case for the Union needs to be better articulated. Ironically, it almost began to be in the dying days of the 2014 campaign. A healthcare worker spoke at the rally at the Festival Theatre on 17 September and she spoke about the number of ambulance trips that crossed the border each week, taking people in Scotland to English hospitals with particular specialisms and vice versa. That struck a chord for me, as someone who was able to draw on not just UK-leading but world-leading healthcare at London NHS hospitals for a member of my family. All could be done seamlessly and with no extra cost incurred.

Living through the indyref campaign, I came to realise that it is the principle of 'solidarity across borders' that trumped everything for me. When some No-voting friends tell me they'd now vote Yes (in the event of indyref2), I'm still not sure I could go there: that's still flicking the Vs at my loved ones in the rUK who like me voted Remain too.

Thanks again for a thought-provoking post, Kevin.

Greg said...

Great blog. I've thought more than once recently that the SNP seem to be incapable of understanding that "we" means different things to different people. This is why they can't understand the resistance to their worldview.

Anonymous said...

The biggest problem with this argument is that the unhinged extreme Brexiters who have taken over the Conservative party seem to be intent on tearing up the social contract that you, and I, value. I'm not sure the United Kingdom we voted to stay part of in 2014 any longer exists.

Wildgoose said...

Fine words butter no parsnips as we say down here in England.

We seem to have an "implicit moral contract" that provides funding based upon Nationality, not Need (- the Barnett formula).

We have Parliaments for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to specifically shout for Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish, but no English Parliament for the English. Here in England we are subject to the Imperial UK Parliament and have MPs from England be over-ruled by MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland who openly sell their votes knowing that their own citizens will be unaffected.

Devolution broke the Union.

It it pointless for so-called "Unionists" (whose only interest in Union with England is for what they can extract rather than for what they can pool) to try and make any kind of positive emotional case for Union. You don't believe in it in the first place.

Like many people here in England I favour exit from both the EU and the UK. But I don't see any reaching out and attempts at understanding why English people like myself who were brought up with an emotional attachment to the Union now reject it out of hand.

Anonymous said...

Excellent piece Kevin, logic and reason are powerful weapons when deployed with such guile.....even when assessing the emotional case!

Drew said...

Scottish Unionists do make some strong economic arguments about Scotland's place in the Union however it is telling they never mention the 'benefits' of the Union to the wider UK as a whole, for example considering the economic case of Wales and Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland has a complex and sadly violent history but the Troubles don't tell the whole story of the country's economic decline.

Thanks for posting this in a previous blog but worth repeating here:

Belfast used to be the main economic powerhouse of the whole of the island of Ireland at the time of Irish independence in the 1920s, with 80% of the industrial output centred around Belfast.

However the Irish Republic now comfortably outstrips Northern Ireland's overall economic output ten times with 15 times more exports than the North thanks to the ability to pursue their own fiscal and economic development, while the North is heavily reliant on subsidies from London.

Given the Civil Rights Movement and major periods of paramilitary violence ran from the 1960s to the early 1990s and more or less was brought to an end in the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, nearly 20 years has passed since Northern Ireland's economic woes can be blamed solely on terrorism.

So you could argue Unionism is actually been bad for Northern Ireland from an economic point of view.

Wales too is bottom of the UK's GVA table, less is produced for every person working in Wales but also the economy has grown less than the UK average.

Wales also gets a much poorer return from the Barnett formula than Scotland and yet Scottish Unionists are perfectly happy to keep this in place without proper reforms in spite of 'solidarity'.

Unionists can't blame an underperforming Welsh economy on Nationalism as Labour have been in charge since devolution in Wales and they have had all the powers available to them under devolution for the last 15 years and more, why aren't they using them?

Many of the English regions too are less wealthy or productive than Scotland but continue to receieve far less back from the central Government because of the Barnett formula.

So the 'emotional case' for the Union seems to me, not to be based not on what's good for the whole of the UK but purely what's good for Unionists living in Scotland.

CMac11 said...


If the people of England want an English parliament I suggest they vote for it rather than use the European Union as a proxy cry for independence that impoverishes yourselves and the rest of us into the bargain.

As it happens, the complaints you have about the lack of fairness within the current set-up for England are largely academic. The UK parliament is a proxy English parliament (even more so since the introduction of EVEL) with the WM majority almost always coinciding with an English majority and in practice there is nothing that "England" wants that it couldn't get via Westminster except in the rarest of circumstances. can you actually think of any examples? This is in much the same fashion as the complaints against the imposition of EU laws are completely baseless on even the slightest scratch of the surface.

What does exist though, is a regional deficit. I can perfectly see why Cornwall, the North-East or the North West etc might have specific issues they feel don't get a proper airing via WM. So devolution to the English regions could well be a viable solution... but it won't happen and the reason for that is the "We" that the people of England associate with stops not at the regional border (nor at the UK border) but at the English border.

Anonymous said...

Looking at ONS figures released on 23 May 2017.

I note the difference between income & expenditure (excluding debt interest) accumulated since
1999, then divided by per head of population mid 2016 is as follows

Accumulated deficit per head 1999-2016 (population share of N Sea)

£1,825 = England
£31,018 = Scotland
£53,144 = Wales
£62,338 = N Ireland
£8,395 = United Kingdom

Accumulated deficit per head 1999-2016 (geographical share of N Sea)
£3,041 = England
£17,135 = Scotland
£54,773 = Wales
£63,840 = N Ireland
£8,395 = United Kingdom

Some sharing and pooling of resources I think not!

Kevin Hague said...

You do realise that's it's precisely *because* of pooling and sharing that those regions with higher deficits get to spend the money that makes that happen - without pooling and sharing they'd spend less and not have high notional deficits - you understand that right?

Drew said...

Wouldn't it be better if the nations and regions didn't spend so much? The the UK's overall deficit would be lower collectively which would mean lower borrowing or the UK might even make a surplus, which hasn't been achieved since 2003.

It isn't like the UK can afford to throw away extra money, we are already drowning in debt well over a trillion pounds, which means more money taken away from spending on public services to service the debt interest.

Eventually logic and reasoning will kick in and the UK Government will realise the UK's funding formula desperately needs reform and move to a system based on need not population. Barnett is where Unionism's economics fall down, putting emotion and sentiment ahead of sensible finance.

Wouldn't be better if Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were allowed to control their own spending and try to live within their means?

I don't see why we in Scotland should get preferential treatment ahead of more deprived regions of England and Wales.

Kevin Hague said...

They are allowed to "control thier own spending" that's how devolution works - but is Barnett an imperfect system for redistributing wealth around the UK? Certainly.

Wildgoose said...

@CMac11 You do realise that every call for an English Parliament is vetoed because "it would be a threat to the Union"? That the most outspoken opponents of any move to equity for England are Scottish Unionists?

We call for an English Parliament to make our own laws for ourselves and instead we are told we must have glorified County Councils that strip their powers from local Councils making our government even more remote and unresponsive?

And yes, there are plenty of examples whereby England's wishes have been over-ruled by votes from MPs outside England. Just a few examples include the imposition of student fees, foundation hospitals, the abolition of our ancient constitutional right of Double Jeopardy, and more recently, Sunday Trading laws. It doesn't matter what your position on Sunday Trading or for that matter fox-hunting is, what matters is that English MPs are over-ruled by MPs from outside England. And our laws and freedoms (e.g. Double Jeopardy) are likewise removed without our consent.

As far as England is concerned, leaving the EU is a benefit - and so would be leaving the UK, for much the same reasons. Both are economic drains that interfere with our laws and governance.

Drew said...

So if Barnett is imperfect and needs reformed to give the UK a fairer funding settlement (numerous parliamentary committees, the Lords, cross-party politicians and of course the man himself agree with you) why not call for reform in your blog or newspaper column?

Kevin Hague said...

give me a chance Drew, blimey - am I not making enough of an effort to move the debate forward? This isn't my job remember, it's a hobby, something I do because I think it needs to be done - and as it happens I am working on trying to get together a body of thinkers, influencers and people with the sort of experience who could have a little more impact than me dropping a line about it in my occasional Scottish tabloid column

Drew said...

Fair enough, appreciate the time constraints but you have a decent profile in the Scottish media and seem to be well respected by your peers. So you are in a good position to get those colleagues to join this important national conversation.

You have written many blogs over the last few years highlighting the importance of the current funding settlement to Scotland and why it is important to retain Barnett.

So I'm glad you seem to becoming round to the idea that people in poorer regions in other parts of the UK need a fairer method of redistribution.

Your call for unity is welcome and that's why I think we need to bring forward the review of the UK's funding formula as soon as possible before 2020.

There are very few credible people left that think Brexit is going to work out well from an economic point of view.

I fear the regions that are already struggling to cope with austerity in England & Wales are going to need all the help they can get after we leave the EU.

Replacing Barnett now with a formula based on need and not population basis would be a great start.

I know for many Unionists in Scotland this will be a bitter pill to swallow, Labour in Scotland in particular who don't seem to have any other economic policies beyond retaining Barnett.

But if they really believe in looking after people in other cities and regions of the UK as much as they constantly tell us, then they have to accept we need a fairer funding system for the nations and regions.

Drew said...

It might be a coincidence but the areas that voted heavily to remain in the EU, Scotland, Northern Ireland & London all traditionally receive generous public spending packages and investment from the UK Government.

Many of the regions that lose out through the Barnett formula, some of the most deprived regions in England & Wales voted for Brexit.

Perhaps the Scottish politicians and commentators arguing to keep Barnett (including the SNP) have to take a share of the blame for Brexit.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing but maybe if we had had a fairer needs based funding settlement for the UK then those communities that are under funded because of Barnett would have had more spent in those areas, less anger and they wouldn't have voted for Brexit.

Kevin Hague said...

Thanks Drew - fwiw far from "coming round to the idea that people in poorer regions in other parts of the UK need a fairer method of redistribution" I've never disputed that fact - I am working on something to try and take that debate forward (among others) in a constructive way - see These Islands and watch this space!

Drew said...

Sounds interesting Kevin, thanks. Best wishes with the project.

Anonymous said...

Would that some Labour party representatives genuinely adhered to this sense of shared solidarity. Pretty ironic when you read Clause IV ('the the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more together than we achieve alone').

Small 'n' nationalists like Neil Findlay and Alex Rowley sadly do not seem to grasp this. They would have Scottish Labour form a fully independent party.

Nor does Mr Corbyn, who is to all intents and purposes, a small 'n' British nationalist.

It's a pretty depressing state of affairs. We must fight hard to retain our shared solidarity, both within the UK and beyond. And it looks if it will fall to ordinary citizens to articulate this when so many politicians of all shades have effectively surrendered themselves to nationalist narratives of some sort.

ross said...

Everyone is in favour of cooperation across "These Islands". This doesn't immediately make me think of the United Kingdom union.

Certainly people have every right to argue there should be a common interest between the different nations of these Islands but I'm not sure that immediately makes you in favour of the Union between Scotland and England. If anything it makes me think of how to loosen the asymmetry and how to get each nation working on a more equitable basis despite the huge population differences.

There's no such thing as a positive vision of an 'Islands' nationality. Bizarre and arguably crass sentiment to many. I really don't get the name for a group which only supports one option of how the Island nations should work together. Counterproductive.