Scotland and the irrational media
By Alberto Mingardi
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?