Scotland sails into stormy waters

Some years ago I discussed the nature of democracy with one of my American colleagues. The question of Scottish independence was on the political horizon, so I asked him how the USA would react if the Southern States decided to break away from their Union. “Well they tried it once and we fought them, if they try it again we will fight them again”.

The United Kingdom has agreed scotland-independence scissorsto the most forward leaning demonstration of democracy in the world – the breakup of a 300 year political, economic and cultural union that had brought stability and prosperity, in the interests of the betterment of a single nation. It’s an interesting experiment for academic observers but for the people of Scotland it is the start of a voyage into stormy waters.

We should be under no illusions about the impact of the referendum, regardless of the outcome. It’s about change on a grand scale with uncertain outcomes and it’s already generating considerable conflict.

Most people liken change to turning a supertanker. It might take time but if you hold the course long enough you will accomplish your goals. Unfortunately it is simply not that easy. Research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development indicates that only 30 – 40% of changes in business achieve their stated goals. Those that fail usually result in loss of market position, removal of senior management, loss of stakeholder credibility, loss of key employees and decreased motivation of staff. Business is one thing but changing a nation will be much, much harder.

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Bristol riots of 1832 following the rejection of the Reform Bill

The fundamental problem for those seeking change is that human beings hate it. Change unsettles them and threatens their values. Aside from the purely practical issues, change is a deeply emotional matter. Just ask somebody who has moved house or changed schools recently.

People forget that the decision to change direction is only the first step on a challenging road. The change must be planned, implemented and consolidated to ensure a smooth transition. You force through change at your peril as illustrated by the continuing In/Out debate about Europe, 30 years after the UK’s last referendum.

The Scottish Referendum is the starting point and in itself will not guarantee a successful outcome. It will, however, open fault lines within Scotland. The problem is that a referendum is an adversarial contest. Its about argument rather than debate, positioning rather than consensual agreement. Someone will win and someone will lose.

We all know how we feel when we back a party that loses an election – disbelief, denial, anger and finally acceptance with the rationale that it’s only 5 years. However, this referendum is for something permanent, something with which future generations will have to live.Change-Curve 02In these circumstances it is quite possible that those who lose will never make the The Pit of Despairconversion from anger to acceptance but might remain trapped in what is best described as the “pit of despair”. If this happens Scottish politics could well be redrawn on separatist and unionist lines, splitting communities and families in a bitter political war that would make the miners’ strike look like child’s play.

The second issue is the complexity of the arguments.  Few people are able to work their way through the various effects of independence with both sides producing visions of future sunlit uplands. How do we know what is right, if those people who look at these issues for a living cannot agree amongst themselves?

Laurence Brunton, landlord of the Castle Hotel on Dunbar High Street still has to make up his own mind on the referendum question. “I keep swithering, and I think a lot of people are the same. Are you better with the devil you know? One side says you’ll be this much better off, the other says this amount worse off. It’s a gamble.”

pg-1-halmond-gettyBased on the most recent polls the 30% of undecided voters hold the key to independence and how they vote on the day will be crucial. Persuade enough of them and Alex Salmond will achieve his life’s work. It must be a tempting thought to promise people the world to attain the political dream.

Politicians on both sides of the argument must remember that the voting will be emotional, more emotional than in any previous election in Scotland. Any failure to deliver on expectations and promises will result in a catastrophic backlash. A referendum won on the basis of broken promises or unfulfilled expectations will be regarded as betrayal and as I have written previously, betrayal is the worst sin.

So, will Scotland’s southern neighbour fight to prevent separation? No, absolutely not, but the Scots may well fight amongst themselves unless there is good, honest leadership. Unfortunately, as we have all come to realise over the last two decades, these attributes are rare commodities in modern politicians.

Good luck to you all and mind how you go. It’s going to be stormy out there.Ship in a storm 1977 (13)

 

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What is the worst sin?

What is the worst sin? It’s an interesting question to ask yourself or indeed to throw into a faltering conversation. On the occasion I did this in my local pub the initial reaction was a stunned silence, as people struggled to understand how the topic of conversation could possibly have been changed from racing.

Once on to the topic, people ran through the usual list of crimes – murder, blasphemy, adultery, paedophilia – before they focused on the less well defined offences such as bankers’ bonuses, indifferent care for the elderly and the FA’s failure to utilise goal line technology.

What became clear is that sin still has a meaning in our daily lives. It is used entirely within its definition¹, derived from the Old English synn and related to Latin sons/sont meaning “guilty”, as an immoral act considered to be a transgression against divine law or an act regarded as a serious or regrettable fault, offence, or omission.

Sinning is not necessarily illegal but it is a transgression against our fellow human beings.

So in answer to the question – which is the greatest sin – I offer a choice of three.

First up is Excess. This is an amount of something that is more than necessary, permitted, or desirable and is driven by greed or power.

Excess was the major driver for expansionist wars and underpinned the exploitation of colonialism. It brought about the collapse of the financial markets and is currently draining our planet’s resources. As Goethe wrote “ unlimited activity, of whatever kind, must end in bankruptcy”. There is a strong case for excess as it may well lead to the destruction of our planet and the demise of mankind.

Planet Earth in peril from excess

Our endangered planet

Next up is Self Interest, which is defined as one’s personal interest or advantage, especially when pursued without regard for others. Many people see nothing wrong with self interest on the basis that it is merely looking after yourself, but the key issue is “without regard to others”.

It is this aspect that makes self interest so pernicious because it deprives humans of the generosity of spirit and politeness that oil the gears of society. As Jean-Paul Sartre observed “Hell is other people”.

Self interest ignores other people’s desires. It blinds individuals to the wider issues, destroys debate and undermines democracy. As Gough Whitlam so eloquently pointed out “the punters know that the horse named Morality rarely gets past the post; whereas the nag named Self Interest always runs a good race.”

Finally, there is Betrayal which is defined as the action of betraying one’s country, a group, or a person; treachery.

Betrayal is a highly emotive subject because it cuts at the very heart of trust and friendship. It is no surprise that “Et tu, Brute?” are the final, highly charged words uttered by Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play of that name.

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Benedict Arnold
Reviled American traitor

It is no surprise that Judas Iscariot became infamous for his betrayal of Christ, despite being preordained to do so. Benedict Arnold is still reviled for his treachery against the young America fighting for independence. Traitors and informers are subject to the worst possible sanctions.

Betrayal is an attack on trust and trust, once broken, fully can never be restored. The actual elements of betrayal may be small in themselves but the act creates ripples disproportionate to the events.

It undermines every level of relationship and belief – personal, business, establishments and politics. It reduces the group cohesion and ultimately the group’s chances of survival.

There are two very interesting manifestations of this today with the waning support for the British Conservative party, over the introduction of gay marriage, and the Catholic Church’s crisis over child abuse.

Neither issue is cataclysmic in itself but both have become highly destructive because they are perceived as betrayals. One because the gay marriage never featured in the election manifesto: the other because the Church betrayed those individuals entrusted to its care.

So there you have the three great sins against humanity – excess, self interest and betrayal – but which is the worst?

Excess has created more misery and will eventual destroy us, unless we can find Aristotle’s “green mean of moderation in all things”. Self interest will drive us apart, undermine our democratic ideals and set the conditions for excess, while betrayal will attack the bonds of trust, friendship and belief.

I back betrayal because it destroys our group cohesion that has been fundamental to man’s survival and development over the millennia.

You, however, may have other views.

Just be careful where you ask the question. Do so in a pub near closing time and you may well be declared the worst possible sin against humanity. Good luck.

¹ All definitions taken from the English Oxford Dictionary.