Scotland’s Future

As an undergraduate I used to regret that people in history seemed so ideological while my generation were so cynical. Yet, suddenly, dozens of my contemporaries have been fired with the great ideological cause of Scottish independence – and it terrifies me. It is a disaster.

My problem is not the cause per se. I like the principle of subsidiarity – that people control their own affairs – although I believe this requires a level of political engagement which Scotland does not yet have.

My problem is now is not the time. The environmental crisis is not one of a list of important issues. It is the issue we must deal with, globally, immediately. The recent report about global temperature rise of 4 degrees by 2100 does not mean ‘things will start getting really bad around 2100’, it means, ‘things will get worse, faster, from today onwards, and within 85 years it will all be over for most of life on earth’. Mass extinction of life in the oceans is not an interesting piece of marine science: it is the most important event in world history since the dinosaurs died out, and life on land will not escape.

If Scotland votes for independence this year, what will happen?

1. Scotland would spend the next decade or so establishing institutions, realigning parties, finding its economic feet and its diplomatic place in the world.

It may or may not be too late to avert catastrophic environmental crisis. By the time we have spent years learning to be an independent country, certainly will be. Who do we expect will lead a global turnaround in environmental destruction in the meantime? America? Denmark? Kenya? England? To expend all our energies on political restructuring in a world which is all sliding to disaster together seems to me to be the opposite of heroic, idealistic freedom: it seems to me to be a gross misuse of Scotland’s talents, influence and (as the country that produced James Watt!) considerable historical responsibility.

2. All Scottish influence would be withdrawn from Westminster.

I can’t believe that the English Tories don’t know what they are about, with their appalling ‘Better Together’ campaign which, at every turn, drives more Scots to vote for withdrawal from Westminster. Because, make no mistake, that will be by far the most significant shift in power. The Tories must be rubbing their hands with joy. Scotland already has control over most of its internal affairs (education, NHS, law, banking, religious and ethical issues, etc), and control over economy and foreign affairs will in reality be marginal given our small size and the strength of international forces. The global economy will go down with the environment. English floods are far from the worst environmental disaster in the world today: look up California and Alabama, for example, and watch out for food prices going up.

Do we really want to pull out of Westminster and lose all our influence over a country which is on our borders, far larger, far richer, of dubious prevailing political principles, equipped with a large army, and already beginning to suffer major environmental catastrophe in its most densly populated areas? If Westminster is bullying Scotland now over the pound, how might they bully us when they have an army, a refugee crisis, and a government over which we have no influence, and are under dire environmental stress of their own?

Since the SNP have brilliantly appropriated the word ‘yes’ for their campaign for Scottish withdrawal from Westminster, it is very difficult to oppose them without sounding like a negative nay-sayer. It is doubly hard when politicians who know themselves to be obnoxious to Scottish sensibilities have hijacked the opposition. Yet I do not believe I am calling for a vote for ‘Negativity and the Tories’. This yes/no thing alone is a very powerful piece of manipulation: don’t fall for it.

The delusion of Scottish independence is like the delusion of heaven keeping peasants in their places in pre-industrial Europe. The only people who will unquestionably gain – the fat wicked clergy in the Marxist fable – are the English Tories and their friends, who will be rid at last of two hundred years of tremendous, world-changing, irritating, persistent, Scottish influence in British affairs. A yes vote is an unequivocal yes for English Toryism: for everything else it is a vote for uncertainty.

There is a bit of me that is, still, excited to see you get idealistic about something. Yet I think you are chasing a dream. In the environmental crisis, there can be no social justice or economic growth. This is not negativity or pessimism, it is simply the reality. If you don’t believe me, please spend some time reading some of the latest science on the environmental crisis. If you don’t want to know, maybe your hope and optimism is really a covering for fear?

What do I want instead? I want you to realise we are not just at the dawn of a new nation: we are at the dawn of a new geological era. There has never been a more terrifying or exciting time to be human, because for good or ill, our decisions will shape it. Nothing will ever be the same. All your future life, and the future of all life on this planet will be determined by our actions in the next few years. It sounds unbelievable: it is unbelievable: but unfortunately it’s true.

Today is the day, and you are the person, to change the discourse of fear and denial around the environmental crisis: to begin to stop burning fossil fuel and destroying ecosystems, and to begin sequestering carbon and fostering biodiversity, to begin making the noise, twittering, facebooking, graffiting, vox-popping, article-writing. Get engaged in politics: really engaged, joining things as well as protesting. Join our thing @earthbeglad or start something of your own. The technology, the science, the political mechanisms: everything is all there: all we need to do is stop being afraid, and turn into the hope.

Scotland cannot have a future in a world of environmental crisis. But it could do what it has done before: be the catalyst that changes the global discourse: that changes the world. And that, to me, is the idealistic, exciting, heroic, courageous course.

If we succeed – because we’ll succeed or fail in the next couple of decades – then let’s discuss Scottish and English self-government. And, then, I will support it.

In Defence of Bankers

I’ve just been watching a very poor BBC2 documentary about big, bad bankers. In a tone of impending doom, the narrator catalogued thirty years of now-familiar events which led to the ultimate crisis. For twenty years it seemed delightful: but we knew that it would all end in mis-selling, crash, small business owners in tears, and bankers facing the condemnation of society with a united viciousness I don’t think I’ve ever seen exhibited against any other group of people before.

The condemnation of bankers and their `culture’ is comprehensive. Bankers are thieves, swindlers, lacking `any common decency or honesty’. We will never trust a bank again. I can’t remember ever hearing anybody, politician, commentator or acquaintance, in public or private life, defend a banker since the crash.

Well, the anger of the woman whose hotel will have to be sold to pay for her mis-sold insurance is entirely understandable, and she may easily be forgiven for not having a cool and detached perspective on the question. However, I believe the bankers deserve to be defended. 

Not that I never did `trust’ them either (but my friend Rob has already written eloquently on this side of the question, about other forms of business for whom the issues are exactly the same). But I don’t condemn them, and I don’t think anyone else who is in a position to take a considered view of the matter should either.

In fact, this kind of condemnation is the best way to avoid fixing the problem, and so ensure it happens again.

In a capitalist system, banks like all businesses are required to compete. They compete within rules, but within those rules, their task is to do everything they possibly can to out-compete the others. This, we believe, produces better results: if bread-production is nationalised, you will end up with horrible bread. If there is a free market, bakers will compete to produce ever-tastier loaves to entice customers.

Suppose it wasn’t banking: suppose it was the Olympics. Within the rules, the athletes can, and must, do everything they can to win the game. If they break the rules, for example by taking drugs, or sabotaging another athlete’s wheelchair, they will be fiercely disciplined.

But suppose one athlete realised that it would be more exciting for the spectators if she lost a few rounds of the game, so deliberately did so and perhaps then lost? Or suppose he knew that his rival’s grandmother had just died, so let him win out of compassion? Athletes with such attitudes would probably not have made it anywhere near the Olympics. What about the athlete in the boxing, or shooting, event, who had a moral objection to boxing or shooting? That’s just silly — such a person couldn’t even come into existence.

Sometimes the rules of the game require to be changed, to make it safer for the athletes, or more exciting for the spectators. The athletes’ task is not to make the rules, but to compete within them, although a responsible athlete might notify the organisers of a change which they thought ought to be made. If the organisers refuse to change the rules, the athlete can put up with it, or pull out of the competition.

The best, most honourable athlete is the one who, at the end of the games, stands on the top of the podium and is awarded the gold medal. Only in very extreme and unusual situations does an athlete gain more credit for losing than winning. The Boston marathon runners who stopped yards from the finish line to help competitors injured in the bomb attack lost the competition, but were more than compensated, in terms of honour, by the excellence of their unselfish actions.

Sometimes there might be an athlete with a moral qualm he could not overcome which put him at a disadvantage, like the evangelical Christian Eric Liddell who refused to compete on a Sunday. If, despite this, he is selected for his team and wins competitions, he wins extra admiration: he has proved both high-minded and superhuman. Yet no-one expects athletes to handicap themselves with moral qualms, and those of more ordinary abilities who do so will have fallen out at far earlier stages in the competition.

So to return to the banks. The stakes are higher, but the structure is exactly the same. The bankers compete within the rules laid down for them. They are responsible to their customers and shareholders to do the best they can, as the athletes are to their team and the spectators. To discharge that responsibility they must be as ruthless and competitive as they can, within the rules.

The bankers themselves are not required to regulate their competition, but a responsible banker might suggest regulations which ought to be changed, and if they are not he must put up with it or leave the industry. I suspect quite a lot of bankers have done all these things over the past thirty years. However, I suspect the majority, like the majority of athletes, have been content to play their assigned role, and to leave the rule-making to those with that expertise. Indeed, athletes — or bankers — who were continually demanding changes to the rules might be criticised as impertinent, interfering, or not paying proper attention to their assigned task.

So when the banks increased their range of products, centralised branches, encouraged aggressive sales through performance-related pay, they were not thieves, or swindlers, or abusing trust: they were playing within the rules of the game they had been given. If they had backed off sales to allow their rival who had suffered a bad year to catch up, or used company money to give interest-free loans to poor people on a philanthropic basis, they would be rightly fired as ineffective bankers, or even prosecuted by shareholders for misusing company funds. Many people did leave the industry as the competition grew more cut-throat; so the individuals who remained were indeed the toughest and the most ruthless. Yet to condemn them for their culture or their ethics would be like condemning the boxer for hitting his opponent. They played within the rules.

Now, of course, those `values’ of `trust’ and `decency’ to which everyone is appealing have become, literally, valuable. 9 Charlotte Square, Edinburgh, is being redeveloped as the headquarters of Scoban, a new bank promising `stable long-term client relationships’, `no legacy “baggage”‘, `clean reputation’, `respected and experienced banking and treasury staff’ and `risk averse culture’. This is very nice, but I suspect that, in a free market, such commodities will fetch a high price, beyond the reach of most of us. (By the way, I can’t help noticing that they have no women on their board, and only two on their senior staff, one of whom is the HR manager. That’s another product, I believe, of the rules: not of some condemnable mysogyny of bankers — but it suggests to me the rules might benefit from further change).

For twenty years, the game appeared to be benefiting everybody; a banker who foresaw the crisis that evolved would have been more far-sighted than the politicians who encouraged them or the customers who bought their products.

The BBC2 documentary ended with an orgy of vituperation against the big, bad bankers. At the last moment, however, the last word went to Justin Welby, who in my opinion spoke the first sensible words in the programme. He didn’t condemn the bankers, blame them for creating a destructive `culture’, or appeal to vague notions of `decent common basic traditional values’ as voice after voice had been doing for the past ten minutes. He deplored the situation, and said, `we now have a chance to change the architecture, the structure of banking’.

It’s not about trust, or decency, or good or bad. It’s about deciding what rules you want to put in place. Stop blaming the bankers. Give them better rules, and get them back in their game.