Scottish Independence: It’s the Psychology, Stupid.
Bill Clinton’s famous “It’s the economy, stupid” doesn’t seem to apply in thinking about the remarkable social movement which is the Scottish “Yes” campaign.
A Scotsman who has not lived in Scotland for nearly a quarter of a century, I can only look on astonished at a social movement in which young, working-class men, are unusually prominent.
I am amazed because such young men across the western world have suffered a collapse in status, employment and self-esteem. The crisis in male identity is reflected in huge educational underachievement, burgeoning alcohol and drug problems and high suicide rates. Millions of young working class men have lost many if not most of their of traditional roles in work – heavy industry and mining for instance – and at home, where female-led, single-parent households are exceptionally common.
From the perspective of a psychologist, I can only look on with admiration to see the energy and empowerment of people some of whom do not normally feel particularly good about themselves. In a class-conscious society – and Scotland is only marginally less class-conscious than England – those in the lower socio-economic echelons get more sick and die younger for reasons purely to do with their status, independent of any dietary and other factors which additionally contribute to mortality differences.
So, if I had a vote, the psychologist in me would be saying, without doubt, vote Yes. I think that there is a reasonable chance that, other factors set aside, there would be a lengthening of lives and a boosting of mental health for tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands.
But I am not just a psychologist. I am a resident of a country – Ireland – which suffered a catastrophic economic shock, equivalent to Iceland’s, in 2008. I saw people suffering huge personal stress and suffering because of crippling, un-payable debt and unemployment. I saw my own take-home income slashed by at least 25-35% due to a combination of pay cuts and additional taxes and levies.
Ireland’s economic crisis was caused by a number of things – and the most important were a property bubble, a gargantuan banking sector and runaway public spending. I worry because I see risks that these three factors may play out in an independent Scotland.
The property bubble arose mainly because European interest rates were set low to satisfy a sluggish German economy: at a time when Ireland needed higher interest rates to cool its economy, the opposite was happening in the form of cheap European money – the property bubble was an inevitable consequence and it broke the lives of tens of thousands of people when it burst.
It may already be happening once more, because the Irish economy is again growing, but interest rates are set for a moribund European economy. This is in spite of the fact that Ireland is no longer master of its own economy. In 2011 the German Bundestag famously saw an Irish budget before the Irish parliament did. The same will be true for a sterling-zone Scottish economy – London will call the economic shots which may not suit the Scottish economy at all.I am not sure that these young working class men of Scotland quite realise this – I, with all my educational privileges, had no idea about these economic factors until I lived through them.
The Scottish banking sector is even bigger than the Irish one was and the question of who underwrites this is certainly not a theoretical one. But for sure, the Irish experience with the European Central Bank is that he who pays the piper, calls the tune. Independence will be far from complete with sterling as the Scottish currency.
Finally, the runaway public spending in Ireland happened because of a strong social-democratic drive to share the spoils of the Celtic Tiger and at the same time, buy votes to stay in office. Even had the banking crash not happened, Irish public spending grossly outstripped its income and had to be slashed: Irish universities have had their funding slashed by over 40% over ten years, for instance.
The social movement for Scottish independence is based on an emotional drive towards strong, egalitarian, public-spending-heavy, social-democratic policies. In Ireland, more than half my income goes in taxes and levies; a visit to the GP costs 60 euro, with prescriptions paid for at commercial prices. All this, taken with the new water and property charges, will ensure that I take home a much diminished minority of the euros in my headline salary.
Small, public-spending-heavy countries do not come cheap. Of course, Ireland does not have the oil and the risks for a small, open Scottish economy may therefore be less than those for the small, open, Irish one. But the risks are still there – small may be beautiful, but it is also vulnerable in a crowd.
All this being said, I love living in Ireland. It is much easier to feel part of, and connected with, a small country than a large one. Psychologically speaking, I have no regrets about the financial penalties I have incurred for these psychological benefits.
The Irish people tolerated one of the biggest economic crashes in a developed country ever seen with a remarkable resilience and uncomplaining good humour. They endured the cuts to wages, increased taxes, slashed public spending and diminished pensions with grit because they knew there had been a party and they knew they had to sit out the hangover.
But here is what I am not sure of: how would the people of Scotland handle an equivalent set of spending cuts and tax increases in an independent country? If the answer is – with the uncomplaining resilience of the Irish – then I say, vote Yes. If, on the other hand, such pain cannot be contemplated, then voting No is the more sensible, if not the most psychologically appealing, option.
This article was first published in the London Telegraph: