Indyref psychology

Posted: December 29, 2014 in indyref, politics and ideas
Tags: , ,

We’re into a reflective phase of the indyref process. Senior figures from the campaign have shared their recollections in two excellent broadsheet longreads (Guardian part one and part two; and the Telegraph) while the first few books emerged in time for Christmas. I’ll be buying the Peter Geoghegan and David Torrance tomes with my Christmas money, and so should you.

I keep returning to the referendum too; there’s always more to say, always another angle. And this month I’ve been thinking more and more about the startling sense of adventure that a huge chunk of the electorate showed on the day of the vote. To frame this, I’m going to consider the ideas of the great 20th century political philosopher John Rawls, particularly his view of human motivation. You’ll like Rawls, he’s brilliant. And to me, Rawls’s theory provides an interesting perspective on what the Yes and No votes symbolised at the individual and collective levels. Read on.

Rawls and the Veil of Ignorance

Often considered the great figure of 20th century political theory, John Rawls offered a philosophical justification of the liberal capitalist welfare state. I want to outline very briefly the key ideas from his most significant book, A Theory of Justice, and explain the relevance of his ideas about human motivation to the independence vote. If you’re new to Rawls I promise this is really simple (that’s the genius of Rawls) and genuinely useful stuff.

One of the trickiest issues in political theory is the question of how you justify anything. Why is the state legitimate? Why is democracy a good thing? Why should we accept the result of a referendum? In normal life we justify things on the basis that, for example, it’s the law. But political theory asks us why the law itself is legitimate. Get out of that one, wiseguy.

Rawls had an ingenious solution to all of this. He argued that the arrangements of society were valid if they matched the results of a simple thought experiment. Here’s what he proposed.

Obviously, all of us are born into a political society which is already formed before we arrive. I was born into a liberal capitalist democracy, for example, while others are born into different arrangements. But imagine we were going to start afresh tomorrow. Tonight, we will all decide on the form of society we will live in thereafter. We will decide on a political system (maybe democracy, but maybe not), a financial system, a legal framework, kinship arrangements; everything. It’s all up for grabs. And after that, it’s settled for good.

The trouble is, you’re not allowed to know who you will be in that new society. You might be rich, powerful, able-bodied, male, white, western…or you might be poor, peripheral, disabled, female, black, from the global south. You could occupy any position within that society. Rawls has a dramatic name for this; he says we are behind the Veil of Ignorance when we make our decision.

Rawls calls the whole context the Original Position. So what social organisation would you opt for under those circumstances?

Rawls argues that it would be irrational to decide on any political arrangements in which you could be badly disadvantaged. For example, it would be a bad idea to vote for a massively unequal slave society, because you might end up as one of the slaves. Instead, the wise course of action is to agree on a set of social arrangements in which no one is wildly worse off than anyone else.

Skipping some of the detail, Rawls eventually settles on what can fairly be described as a welfare capitalist democracy under the rule of law. Inequality would be permitted but only when it benefits society as a whole. This is called the Difference Principle. That is to say, the perceived motivational benefits of earning money will spur people on to entrepreneurial excellence, but their taxes will fund income support for people without that knack. Crucially, it’s the taxes funding welfare that makes it legitimate for some people to become rich: if taxation doesn’t make poverty relief possible, it’s illegitimate to be a capitalist.

I said above that Rawls is offering a solution to the question of how to justify anything in politics. To be clear, Rawls is telling us that something is justified if it is fair. And fairness is derived from impartiality. In the original position, behind the veil of ignorance, you don’t know what hand you’ll be dealt. You have to be impartial, because you don’t know if you or your loved ones will be winners or losers. In that scenario, this is what you would agree to, so it is fair, and therefore just.

There is lots of detail if you fancy reading more. It’s really good stuff. But the key point I want you to take from this is as follows.

Rawls thinks we would seek to avoid ruinous scenarios, which is logical. But crucially he also says that we would seek to maximise the minimum potential outcome. That is to say, we would arrange society in such a way that even if we were the worst off in that society, we would still be as well off as it is possible to be in such a situation. In other words, we would hedge our bets. Rawls calls this ‘maxi-min’ (maximise the minimum outcome) motivational psychology.

(He argues against communism, by the way, on the basis that the worst off in a properly arranged capitalist society will be better off than a citizen of an absolutely equal society that doesn’t reward enterprise).

I think these ideas can help us make sense of the referendum result.

Voting No in the Original Position

You’ll no doubt have realised by now that I see the referendum as analogous to the Original Position. Rawls presents us with a thought experiment in which we design a new society from first principles. Similarly, Salmond offered the Scottish electorate the opportunity to imagine the sort of society they would like to live in, with the means to start afresh. Kinda. If you squint a bit. You understand my point anyway.

I suggest that if you presented the referendum question to one of Rawls’s disembodied agents behind the Veil of Ignorance, they would probably have voted No. In other words, if you applied Rawls’s methodology to the question of how to vote, you would opt against independence.

Why? Well, Rawls’s theory is premised on the idea of a ‘maxi-min’ motivational psychology. You’ll remember I emphasised this point: in Rawls’s view, when confronting the fundamental questions of politics, the rational course of action is to insure against potential defeat by making sure you eliminate the possibility of being especially badly off.

Forget for a moment the Better Together campaign, and consider the more nuanced and persuasive arguments of the No voters you’ve spoken to. Isn’t this exactly how they reached their decision?

I hope we’re all over the idea by this stage that No voters are cowards or traitors. Certainly, every No voter I’ve spoken to has explained their position in terms similar to Rawls’s approach. Independence could lead to something much worse than we currently have – debt, plunging oil prices, London hostility, no credible currency plans, wild nationalism, etc – which would be even worse for the poor. Remember Rawls is interested in securing the best possible outcome for the worst off, by designing incentives in such a way that wealth is only legitimate if it pulls everyone else up through redistribution. If it’s possible that the worst off will be even worse off, because there’s less wealth to redistribute, then independence is a bad idea from this perspective.

I don’t know any No voters who were voting to entrench inequality or defend austerity. Every No voter I’ve met said either (a) they were sure everyone in Scotland would be worse off after independence, or (b) they didn’t know how an independent Scotland would turn out and didn’t want to take the chance that it would be worse.

The difference between what I’ve sketched about No voters and the Rawls methodology is that real voting behaviour isn’t impartial. That’s not to say everyone votes selfishly, but you do vote on the basis of what you’re partial to (which might be helping others). Therefore No voters could be presented as voting to preserve their own personal position in society. That’s hardly unreasonable, of course, but I would tend to think people were guarding against a perceived worsening of their own and everyone else’s position. They thought it was better both for themselves and for society as a whole to opt against independence.

I think it was entirely reasonable and rational that 2m Scottish people reached that conclusion. Better the devil you know, and all that. They weren’t cowards. Their motivational psychology was maxi-min. In their calibration of risk, the chance that independence could be ruinous outweighed the possibility that it would be brilliant. That’s an entirely responsible decision.

But 1.6m Scottish people didn’t think like this. This seems more remarkable to me with every day that passes.

Being brave

John Rawls came as close as it’s possible to come to being universally appreciated in the world of political philosophy. That’s not to say that everyone agreed with him, though. There are many assumptions and perspectives embedded in Rawls’s theory with which it’s possible to disagree. The beauty of his work, however, is that he always shows his working: he foregrounds his assumptions, because the methodology kind of is the theory. Follow these deductions, Rawls says, and these are the political arrangements that would emerge at the other side.

One of the main objections to Rawls’s theory is that it describes a thought experiment that never actually takes place. We can’t enter the Original Position, even if we wanted to (and maybe we wouldn’t), so the best that can be done with this is a sort of retrospective justification of welfare capitalism. Our actual social form matches Rawls’s ideal form, so thank goodness for that.

Except, as I’ve argued above, the referendum was pretty close to being a Rawlsian thought experiment.

New societies have been founded countless times throughout history. Usually, though, they emerge from dramatic upheaval: the aftermath of war, predominantly, or natural disasters. And they’re rarely the result of consensus-building: the Bolsheviks wouldn’t have carried 38% of the Russian adult population behind them at the time of the October Revolution, for example.

Uniquely (as far as I can tell) Scotland had the chance to create a new and radically-different society as a result of purely constitutional processes. As I’ve noted before, none of us really saw Salmond’s landslide election victory coming in 2011, far less that we would be offered a referendum on independence in 2014. It’s easy to forget after the excitement of the last twelve months, but the referendum came as something of a surprise, and was the outcome of mundane politics.

Scotland is not a theatre of combat, it hasn’t experienced any natural disasters lately and, despite the awfulness of the austerity agenda, we have a functioning society and state. And in that context we had the opportunity to rip it all up and start again. That’s remarkable, and the outcome even more so.

Imagine the referendum had taken place after a war or earthquake that had destroyed the country. You could understand people thinking there wasn’t much to lose, and backing a new approach to organising society. But in a context of stability and relative affluence, 1.6 million people still voted Yes.

Let’s consider that from Rawls’s perspective. Scottish people didn’t know what independent Scotland would be like; all we really had to go on was a procedural White Paper and the products of our fertile imaginations. So we didn’t know how it would turn out, and how that would affect us and our loved ones, and people we don’t know but who we don’t want to have a bad time.

And 1.6 million of us went for it.

That’s not maxi-min psychology at all. We all knew that it could have been a disaster. We were pretty sure it wouldn’t be, but we didn’t really know. We couldn’t be sure. But we gambled. We went for the maxi-max option: maximise the maximum outcome. If this comes off it’ll be brilliant, so let’s give it a whirl.

1.6 million of us went for it!

Rawls passed away a decade ago, sadly, but I think he would have been very interested in this if he’d been around to see it happen. It certainly challenges his assumptions about how people reason when they think about the deepest and most significant political matters. The 2m No voters broadly followed his psychological model but 1.6m didn’t, and that’s an awful lot of us.

So what to make of this? Firstly, it doesn’t mean we (as in Yes voters) were necessarily right, or that we’re morally superior to No voters. Maybe the maxi-min, preservative model of thinking is actually more responsible when you’re asked to make a fundamental decision about the organisation of your society. I don’t know. But it does suggest that a striking proportion of us turned out to be adventurers.

When you think about it, voting Yes was a pretty brave thing to do. Maybe it was even a bit foolhardy. I wouldn’t say that, obviously, but it was certainly adventurous. The more I think back on the whole affair the more amazing the Yes vote seems. If at the time I had considered the indyref through this Rawlsian lens, I would have expected most Scots to adopt a maxi-min approach. A sensible approach. A slightly boring approach. And to be fair, a majority did. But not a very large majority when you think about it in symbolic terms.

So it turns out that Scotland is home to hundreds of thousands of gamblers. Who knew?

Indyref psychology

When you think about the referendum as a symbolic engagement between two forms of motivational psychology (carefulness versus adventure; preservation versus innovation; maxi-min versus maxi-max), Scotland starts to appear as a beautifully balanced country. Carefulness and a concern for preservation are virtues, as are adventure and innovation. These virtues complement each other.

Regular readers will have noted the evolution of my thinking on the referendum over time, from ecstatic excitement about independence as renewal, to a more skeptical attitude to the Yes movement in recent weeks. My Jacobites and Jacobins piece got a bit of attention and seems to have sparked some discussion, which is flattering. I think it contained a kernel of something worth considering, but obviously it was completely over the top in places. I didn’t even agree with all of it and I wrote it. But I suppose it was by thinking about Rawls recently, and working out the ideas traced above, that I realised the deeper point I was trying to make in the Jacobins piece and the earlier On Solidarity post. I want the virtues of the Yes movement to continue to inform our politics, but I want the virtues of the No vote to inform our politics too. They’re all worthwhile and necessary.

And there’s another lesson from Rawls, which goes back to his Original Position. Actually, none of us do know how life will turn out for us, which is why Rawls is surely right that we should design our political institutions to secure the welfare of everyone in our society. But neither do we know who will be our allies and opponents in the future. And this is why I keep on counselling people in the Yes movement to retain a skeptical eye towards the SNP. They might turn out to be psychos! I doubt it, but they might. Keep your eyes open.

Equally, don’t write off the Labour Party. They might surprise us yet. Forever, as they say, is a very long time, and I for one am unprepared to debar myself from voting Labour in the future. It’s been quite a while since I backed them, but you never know who will turn out to be the good guys in politics. (By the way, you wouldn’t believe how many people accused me on Twitter of being a Labour stooge after my Jacobins piece, or suspected me of having Labour associations of some kind. I was amused and bemused in equal measure.)


In Rawls’s Original Position, behind the Veil of Ignorance, you don’t know who you are, how you are positioned in society or what your future might be. Those are the conditions for absolute impartiality. And while in the indyref none of us occupied such a radical position, we did think about others, and about the impact of independence on them.

Rawls confronts us with the ineluctable reality of other people’s emotional existences, on the basis that they might be our own emotional existences one day. He also gives philosophical justification to the idea that society exists in order to enable everyone within it to flourish, and to safeguard their welfare.

Consider the referendum as a version of Rawls’s thought experiment, and recognise the different but complementary models of motivational psychology that underlay the decision to vote Yes and the decision to vote No. What a remarkable thing to have happened, and to have happened here. And what luck to have such a balance of virtues within our political community.

If any of us could stop talking about the referendum for five minutes, we might harness those virtues to stop people starving to death in Scotland.

But it was all so interesting!

(Time for a peace deal, perhaps?)


  1. Allan Hosey says:

    Interesting piece, but I think the last bit on not writing parties off because they could be different in the future is worth expanding on. The SNP ushered in a tory government in 1979 (it was only months before it would have happened anyway, but still…) if they’d been utterly crucified by the electorate never to be seen again we’d never have had a referendum…

    But to get to the point where the SNP were the party that delivered the referendum there was long periods of reflection, repositioning on the political spectrum, and a reliance on a good leader emerging who could hold his party together whilst shifting them. I don’t believe that would have been possible whilst the SNP were in power, or actively seeking it.

    Which brings us to Labour. By all means don’t rule out supporting them at some point in the future. But what would make that a plausible scenario? After their behaviour in the referendum? After their decade+ in power with huge majorities where they simply further entrenched the current system? After electing Jim Murphy? I don’t think I could ever trust them to deliver for the people they are supposed to represent. And that’s another thought experiment.


  2. Well, that was very interesting. I’d never heard of Rawls but the basic idea reminds me of my father’s story of his father’s useful idea of fairness in dividing chocolate (say) between my father and his brother. What grandfather stipulated was that one brother would divide the prize and the other would have first choice. So, obviously, the one who divided it tried to make the pieces as equal as possible.

    You must have spoken to far more principled No voters than I have. I’m sorry to say the ones I know simply embodied the “I’m all right, Jack” attitude.

    And the No voters I know don’t realise that it’s pointless to try to eliminate risk. The future is a risky place. I think Yes voters realised this. And I still think many No voters were basically selfish. When standing at the door of Tesco recently, asking people to donate for the food bank, I was met with more than one person who said “Is this food going to be for me?”. They couldn’t even see that it might very well be for them. Their future is just as risky as anyone else’s.

    In the days leading up to the vote my friends and I did think that things might be hard in an independent Scotland but that the situation would gradually improve and that we would have a more equal society and it was worth voting Yes for that, even if we ourselves were made poorer for a time. It really was the triumph of hope over fear as far as we were concerned.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jon Grieve says:

    Great article, just like the last Jacobin/ Jacobites one (which incidentally was not in any way over the top but articulated well the troublesome ‘utopian’ systemics of the indyref and Yes, that I certainly felt at least. Karl Popper sprang to my mind quite often during the last few weeks and after). And I think there is a link between the two pieces. One of the criticisms of Rawls is the hypothetical nature of the OP and veil, Sandel and the truely dreadful Nozick among others point out that people are not divorced from their communities but make decisions based on this reality. To imagine a disconected ‘Kantian’/ metaphisycal imperative is to deny the very conditions that compel people to decide and ignores the very conditions upon which a decision can be made. Simply put people ‘live in the real world’ with experience and not in a ‘veil of ignorance’. And there in lay the danger (IMO). The assumption that there would be a blank canvass after a Yes vote (which seemed to be quite prevelant among Yes voters) was simply wrong. It was a very Rawlsian fantasy that we could reimagine or redesign society irrespective of the realities that impinged on it. (Or at least to the extent being put forward…and rarely did I hear a Yesser consider the possibility that independence could make things alot worse.) I think it was Zhou Enlai or Deng Xiao peng??? who said about the great leap forward. I forget now and can’t fnd it on google? It’s something like ‘in the gulf between politics and economic reality can be found the graves of millions’? A bit dramatic perhaps but never the less.

    Anyway good food for thought. Keep the articles comming!

    Liked by 2 people

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