I think the conflict here is fox versus hedgehog. Isaiah Berlin, quoting an ancient Greek, once wrote:
The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.
Neither one is superior to the other, they are just different styles of thinking.
There are foxes and hedgehogs to be found on both sides. In this debate, I would characterise myself as a fox and my friend as a hedgehog. I think Yes has more hedgehogs, and No has more foxes.
When you get down to it, Yes tends to be motivated by one of two beliefs:
- Scotland is a separate nation, and cannot be free while it is part of the UK; or,
- The UK government is fundamentally broken, and Scotland must get out for its own good.
Of course it is not possible to neatly separate these, and a big idea is large enough to embrace both. The beliefs that Scotland is a nation whose time has come, and the UK is one which must be abandoned, are two sides of the same coin. Still, I think most prospective Yes voters emphasise one or the other.
The former is what we might call classical Scottish nationalism. I don't share this particular belief, but I can absolutely understand where it comes from. My mother is British and I have lived in the UK for twenty-three years, but I am Canadian. I love my country regardless of its faults, and I would have very little interest in a reasoned economic argument that it should merge with the USA. In Scotland, classical nationalism has been around for a long time, and typically registered support of no more than about 25% in the polls.
The new factor, which has brought the Yes campaign to the edge of victory, is a surge in believers of the second kind. In the face of the Iraq war, the financial crash, and all the cruelty and indignity of modern capitalism, there is an inchoate but strong belief that something must be done. Alex Salmond and the SNP are adept at speaking to this unease, and claiming Scottish independence is the path to a better tomorrow.
A hedgehog idea is hard to let go of. When it forms the foundation of your beliefs, changing it is difficult if not impossible. Arguments against it are all too easily perceived as a personal attack, and result in spiky bristling, so to speak.
Once again, there is nothing wrong with this in principle. Forming a commitment to one simple belief can bring about terrible mistakes, but also heroic achievements. It all depends on the belief, and what you do because of it.
The hedgehog ideas are too large to easily discuss. To some extent, you feel them in your gut and bones, and they are not amenable to debate. There might be one overwhelming personal event which caused a hedgehog idea to form; but more likely there was no conscious decision, nothing specific the believer can point to, just an intuitive sense that it was the right thing to do.
By nature, I am mostly a fox. I have some deeply held, hedgehogish beliefs; but for the most part I build my conclusions up from many small pieces. The pieces are subject to change and I am not strongly attached to any one of them.
There are certainly some hedgehogs on the No side, especially among the older generation, who have a bone-deep attachment to Britain. My grandmother and my late great-uncle, both proud Scots, belong to this group. For them, the very idea of Scottish independence is appalling and there is no point in discussing it. Britain stood together in the past, and it should stand together now.
I think most of the No side are foxes. Younger No supporters often lack an uncomplicated British patriotism. It feels distinctly old-fashioned, redolent of an Empire which vanished for good reasons. It can even feel un-British, too much like causing a fuss. Instead, they are motivated by the many small (and not so small) ways in which Britain has done well, continues to do well, and has hope of becoming better.
The trouble is, hedgehog and fox have very different ways of communicating. The hedgehog deals in poetry, in grand and sweeping statements. The fox has the slow, steady accumulation of facts.
Our culture is not entirely comfortable with poetry. To a large extent, we pride ourselves on being a rational and technological society. Poets and dreamers are all very well for entertainment, but most of our leaders are trained as lawyers or economists. These are professions which rely on the meticulous, foxy assembly of details; each element may be small, but together they can add up to a compelling picture.
What is more, the details are much easier to pass back and forth than big ideas. We live in the age of the soundbite and the tweet. Our chosen media practically enforce a foxy style of discussion.
So it is that Yes and No end up debating on the home ground of the fox. The hedgehog feels uncomfortable and bristly. The fox is pleased to be dealing in small and manageable details, but wonders why they are failing to convince the hedgehog.
It is hard to say if a better way of discussion is possible. For this campaign, it is probably too late to shift the conversation much. Minds have been made up, and both foxes and hedgehogs have had plenty of time to take part.
To anyone who follows this blog, it is no secret that I am leaning towards No. I live in Cambridge, so I don't get a vote. I won't fully endorse Yes or No, partly because in my foxy way I am still looking at the details, and some of them do favour a Yes.
What if I stood in the polling booth, with a pencil in my hand, ready to vote in a close referendum which would mark history either way, and knowing I would have to live with the consequences? I honestly can't be certain what I would do.
More to the point, I don't live in Scotland. For nine years I lived in Edinburgh; I loved it there, visit often and still have friends and close family in Scotland, but I moved away for career reasons. Regardless of how the vote goes, my home is now in England and I have no immediate plans to move back. It is not seemly for me to endorse one side or the other, only to wish all of Scotland well regardless of the result.
There are a few things I would like to say to people considering a Yes vote: In particular to believers of the second kind, who have embraced the big idea that the UK is broken and Scotland needs to escape by voting Yes.
We all know this is a big, serious decision. Quite possibly, it is the most momentous one Scotland will face in our lifetimes.
If you think modern society is damaged, I agree with you. There are many, many ways in which our economy and politics do not serve the people. Some are specific to Scotland or the UK, others are much wider in scope. We face problems on a global scale, with international trade, environmental damage, and violent conflict; but often the consequences are all too local, measured in poverty, sickness and loss of hope.
Something must be done. The Yes campaign offers an independent Scotland as that something. Other solutions are possible, but most of them are foxy in nature. There are many small ways of making the world better, but for now, the only big choice available is the Scottish referendum.
Before you vote Yes, be very sure it will serve your beliefs, and really help to solve the problems of today and tomorrow. In making this judgement, even the foxy details may come in useful.
Whether Scotland votes Yes or No, it will face dangers and hardships. This is how it has been for every country in the history of the world. If we are lucky, we will be safe and prosperous, but this is not always possible or even desirable. Sometimes, doing the right thing requires sacrifice. My grandparents' generation had to fight a world war against fascism; ours may have to make hard choices to preserve the environment.
Mere economic calculation is not enough to decide whether Scotland stays or goes. A large part of the answer has to come from the heart. Foxes and hedgehogs come to conclusions in very different ways, but I think we can agree on that much.