Money doesn’t make us happier. That’s why we need a post-materialist case for an independent Scotland.
The cover of this week’s Economist, showing a map of Scotland with place names changed to things like ‘Skintland’, ‘Highinterestlands’ and ‘Edinborrow’, has ruffled its fair share of Nationalist feathers. Many are understandably offended by what they see as the ‘patronising’ tone of the tongue-in-cheek graphic, and have used their outrage – real or feigned – to draw attention away from the far more measured analysis of an independent Scotland’s economic prospects inside the magazine. That analysis makes for some pretty grim reading from a pro-independence perspective.
Scotland, says the issue’s leader, will be ‘one of Europe’s vulnerable, marginal economies’, while current levels of state spending are portrayed as unsustainable should Scotland choose to leave the UK. While it is easy enough to dispute much of the analysis and speculation behind that sensationalist cover (and I’m sure the gears of the cybernat steamroller are screeching into life to attempt just that as I write this), the general tone of the articles and the response to them speaks volumes about how far we still are from a truly enlightened debate about Scotland’s future.
The Economist is, of course, all about money. Its analysis of Scotland’s prospects for independence is exclusively concerned with how the Scottish economy would perform should the Scottish Parliament assume the full powers of a sovereign state. However, within that leader – and obscured by the politically sensitive nature of its general content and the politically oversensitive response to it – is an important sentence:
If Scots really want independence for political or cultural reasons, they should go for it.
They should go for it. At no point does The Economist say that Scotland, in choosing independence, would crash and burn. That’s crucial. No sensible economic analysis has ever said that Scotland simply cannot affordindependence; it just suggests that Scotland would be either slightly poorer or slightly richer, before those words are spun, exaggerated and disseminated throughout the media by excitable press officers as a ringing endorsement or crashing dismissal of Scotland’s post-independence prospects. The SNP tend to be the main offenders in this case, with dubious claims of Scotland becoming the ‘sixth richest nation in the world’ after independence, or having access to a ‘trillion’ pounds worth of North Sea oil.
The economy is an easy way of swaying undecided voters. A recent survey found that a majority of Scots would support independence if they could be sure of an extra £500 in their bank accounts, and the SNP have refocused their arguments accordingly. The unionists, on the other hand, have to be sneakier with their efforts. With the knowledge that the ‘too poor, too wee’ argument could backfire on them and drive insulted Scots over to the pro-independence camp, they’ve tried to mix sentimental appeals to ‘unity’ and ‘Britishness’ with the cautious exploitation of lingering fears about economic uncertainty, but will no doubt be a bit more forceful with the latter as the referendum draws nearer.
Perhaps Scotland will be richer with independence. Perhaps it will be poorer. But you know what? I don’t care either way. Whether we stay in the union or leave it, our decision has the potential to have a profound effect on millions of people, and to make that choice based on pure economic self-interest would be an act of stupendous ignorance and insensitivity.
After all, money isn’t everything. In fact, money is nothing. One of the greatest follies of capitalist society has been the transformation of money as a mere symbol of exchange value into a commodity with supposed intrinsic worth; wealth that was once a means to and end is now an end in itself.
The World Happiness Report, published this month (and which everybody should read), captures an emerging paradigm – the pursuit of wealth does not make us happier; in fact, it often makes things worse. Since the 1950s, the USA saw an unprecedented rise in GNP and material living standards, but no rise in human happiness. However, people at the top of the income scale in the US report themselves to be far happier than those at the bottom. The reasons for this – known as the ‘Easterlin Paradox’ after the academic who discovered it – are examined in the economist Richard Layard’s book Happiness: Lessons From A New Science, which suggests that in any unequal consumerist society, wealth confers status. We are happier when we are higher up on a socially constructed ‘ladder’.
In their book The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett show that more unequal societies score worse on almost every indicator of social wellbeing than more equal ones. Policy that creates high levels of inequality is a sure-fire way of making people unhappy, and it’s often policies obsessed with notions of ‘wealth creation’ – tax cuts, soft-touch regulation and so on – that lead to greater inequality. The idea that we need to get richer to be happier is particularly delusional; Layard’s work shows that we are happier when we have enough money to exercise autonomy in our pursuit of greater security, comfort and (most importantly) social engagement and strong relationships – and we don’t need to be fabulously wealthy to achieve any of those things; we just think we do because we’re told – by advertisers, politicians, celebrities and the media – that money is power, greed is good, and it’s the economy, stupid.
A country’s collective values are so often defined by the nature of its creation – just look at the USA’s persistent resistance to government intervention – and if Scotland is born of selfishness, it will become a nation forever scarred by that. In 1977, the political scientist Ronald Inglehart developed the concept of ‘post-materialism‘, a value system that prioritised things like the environment, equality, happiness and self-determination over material possessions and conventional notions of wealth. There is still time for the independence debate to reject the dull rhetoric of material self-interest and reconfigure itself around post-materialist values. It would make for a public discussion with more vitality, engagement and innovation than any speculative dispute over GDP could ever have.
The way to make Scots happier is not by giving them £500. Scotland may or may not be the ‘sixth richest nation in the world’ after independence, but that won’t put a smile on our faces for long. The UN’s first ever conference on happiness, held before easter, shows that there is demand for a new way of measuring a different kind of wealth, and suggests that an independent Scotland need not be an economic powerhouse to ensure the wellbeing of its citizens.
If we have the political will to reduce the grotesque inequality of modern Scotland, and the crushing anxieties over status that inequality exaggerates, we can make an independent Scotland a richer nation. If we choose to escape from the neoliberal obsession with ‘wealth generation’ that still holds firm at Westminster, we can make an independent Scotland a richer nation. If we can stop the needless pursuit of eternal growth at the expense of the environment, we can make an independent Scotland a richer nation. If we can develop smart, innovative, compassionate policies that give people more security, more self-confidence and more time with the people – not the possessions – that make them feel happy, we could make an independent Scotland the richest nation in the world.