Alberto Mingardi  

Scotland and the irrational media

Inequality in education... Richard Epstein's Faulty Case ...

Scotland won't secede: 54% voted for 'no', 46% voted 'yes'. The composure with which the losers conceded tells you something about this referendum. The secessionists had remarkably little complaint with the state of the Union. They did not push for secession as they felt particularly oppressed: they went for secession because they thought it was a possibility to be looked into, and because they considered its costs remarkably low, in the contemporary world (see David's excellent post).

Secessionists asked simply to allow the Scots to choose by the ballot box. They played by the rules of the contemporary predominant view of democracy: if voting is "good" (pardon me for the gross simplification), why should voting on borders be wrong? The UK government took them seriously, and accepted a referendum that will be remembered as a landmark of civility in the history of collective "couples therapy." In this instance, the fact that the government was gracious and respectful enough to allow for the possibility of divorce helped perhaps in making it unnecessary.

If precedent has any weight in international affairs, the Scottish experience will make it more difficult for the Spanish government to maintain that the Catalonians cannot hold a vote on similar lines, because the Spanish Constitution doesn't provide for secession. Which is, by the way, a very strange way of arguing. In the world of political fictions, the Constitution is supposed to be a "contract." Contracts should be resolved or renegotatied if the parties no longer agree to keep the original terms. Lysander Spooner explained to us long ago that there is little serious in the idea of a "social contract".

What amazes me, however, is the reaction of the press. 46 Scots out of 100 have told the world that they think they'll do better without the UK. It doesn't quite look to me as a "victory" of the status quo. And yet Unionist newspapers sounded almost triumphalistic.

Richard Epstein argued that such a fundamental change should be achieved only by a supermajority vote. Under normal conditions, we should think that most people are happy with the status quo (or, at least, not so unhappy that they want to overthrow it) and we shouldn't allow for a group, even if it is a plurality, to impose a radical change on the others. The issue is finding good guarantees against the despotism of the majority, an inherent risk of democracy.

But despite such a big problem, for the modern media, democracy is the continuation of soccer by other means. By this I mean, whatever the issue at hand, everything is subsumed into the formula "team A vs team B," and we are supposed to take sides and wave our flags. Most of the British (and indeed international) media were strongly pro Union. And now they celebrate what they understand as a victory in euphoria. The Independent's first page talks of "The reunited Kingdom."

All this emphasis, for an election in which 46% of the voters said they quite don't quite like the current arrangement. This isn't a majority: under the rules of the game, they shouldn't impose their will on the remainder. But they were remarkably close to being a majority: perhaps this is something the media should take note of.

More shrewdly, David Cameron welcomed back the Scots by announcing a further devolution of powers. Are politicians better readers of societies than journalists?

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CATEGORIES: Eurozone crisis

COMMENTS (4 to date)
Daniel Lemire writes:

The Quebec referendum of 1995 was lost 49.42% to 50.58%.,_1995

ThomasH writes:

An odd reading of the media. Most I have heard/read (while strongly "No") point out that things will change in important ways even with the "No" majority vote.

Ew pemakin writes:

Hold a referendum in any US state and I would bet you get lots of votes for succession but few majorities. I would not be surprised by 45% yes votes, particularly where the local majority party endorses succession.

Burocracy writes:

The key issue is not that this question was put to a vote, even taking into account of all the political sleigh of hand in deciding eligibility rules (why a 16 year old spanish student living in Scotland should decide?!?!?). The point has been that this decision was put to the ballot before any negotiation about the articles of dissolution. therefore, any "out of this world" statement was available: yes, we will continue to print the pound. No, but yes yes, we'll be able even without the consent of the Bank of England to use the pound. or we will use the Euro. we'll join Nato, only up to the point of the UN resolutions. maybe not even that. Yes, all the oil revenues will accrue to scotland, without compensations for investment. No, we will not inherit any public debt. well, maybe a little. yes, about 80% of the GDP of scotland, whatever is left after the companies go south. We'll renounce nukes but the Brits will maintain the Navy bases here.

I think that England was unlucky NOT to see Scotland go, and Europe ( and therefore Italy ) had an incredible stroke of luck. Scotland in five years would have sucked about 30% of the EU structural funds, to no appreciable imprivement in people lives, a Greece writ large, with no UK to help.

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