Independence or Union? Some cross-cultural reflections on the Scottish referendum debate

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Article by Nigel Paterson


The dust may have settled internationally for now on the Scottish Referendum, even though some new debates have been created in the process. However, it remains striking how little specific attention was given at the time to the cross-cultural nature of the debate. As a Scot living in southern England, with a great interest in cross-culture, I followed the debate with keen interest. This led me to give a presentation on the topic at Riversdown House, Hampshire, in December 2013. I made a point then that those opposing independence were trying to persuade Celtic people with Anglo-Saxon arguments.

When interacting with people in other countries, Scots can be quick to point out that they are Scottish – and thus not English. They have a way of demonstrating a strong and explicit way of repeatedly reinforcing their national identity to others as well as to each other. For example, the world hardly needs telling that the tennis player Andy Murray is a Scot, despite him hardly ever playing for a Scottish team. Scots are an imaginative, passionate and romantic people, which the ‘No’ campaign (meaning ‘No’ to independence) seemed to have great difficulty to respond to. On the other side, the ‘No’ campaign epitomised an aspect of the psyche of Scots people that fits their Enlightenment tradition of hard-headed rationality and their quiet pleasure in being thought canny (shrewd) in financial transactions. The ‘Yes’ campaign (meaning ‘Yes’ to independence) failed to recognise that aspect sufficiently. In consequence, Scottish voters were obliged to choose between two rather polarised versions of their unique way of looking at the world. The websites of the two opposing campaigns gave ample evidence of this difference.

Little, if anything, was said in the speeches and debates leading up to the referendum that many Scots were most eager to be separated from the Welsh or the people of Northern Ireland. The nation that many Scots wanted to be separated from was England, and most especially that far-away, governing part of it called Westminster. Within England itself, London has continued to develop a cultural quality of its own. This is not necessarily of a kind that looks attractive to those living elsewhere in the United Kingdom, other than in its relative prosperity. For example, it has a very large ethnic population, but deeper friendships still seem to be substantially ghettoised within people’s ethnicity.

Personalities in a cross-cultural context can also be fascinating. In this case, the star personality was surely that of Alex Salmond the Scottish First Minister. The Lewis Model (described for instance in When Cultures Collide by Richard Lewis) analyses the world’s cultural types into three categories (and their combination), called linear actives, reactives and multiactives, Alex Salmond has shown himself to be a multiactive.

Multiactives are primarily relational: people are more important to them than facts, deals and processes. They can be talkative and impulsive, being ready to think aloud and do many things at once. They are not good at following pre-arranged plans. Their conversation can be animated and roundabout. They can be very creative, with the ability to think well spontaneously and out of the box, thus deliberately leaving the straighter path taken by a typical linear active (that is so characteristic of the southern English). The overall picture matters more than the details to a multiactive. The details can be worked out later. They admire and do their best to practise good oratory, show vision and do what stirs the heart. Alex Salmond’s waving of an outsized saltire (Scottish flag) at the moment of Andy Murray’s Mens’ Singles triumph at Wimbledon in July 2013 gave a memorable visual illustration of his unsquashable and multiactive bravura.

George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (the British Finance Minister), is a much more linear active politician. Linear actives like to do things sequentially and in an orderly manner. They are task-oriented and can be highly organised. Speech is for information exchange and direct communication. They tend to regard the truth as something absolute. They are ready to speak the truth even if that may involve distress and confrontation. They dislike discussion that appears to them to be going round in circles or, worse still, is disorganised or chaotic. For a linear active it is important to be realistic about facts and what is actually possible.

Within a speech given in Scotland in February 2014, George Osborne made it very clear that the Scottish people would not be allowed to keep the Great Britain Pound (GBP) if they became independent. His well intentioned message did not work out as planned, though, because many Scots took his sober warning as an expression of disbelief in their ability and potential to succeed as an independent nation. The gap in the opinion polls proceeded to close in the months after George Osborne’s speech. If there is one thing that most Scots are agreed on it is the quality of their people. This sassenach (a Scottish word for someone English or a Lowland Scot) had, in the eyes of many, seemingly dared to challenge that deeply cherished belief.

The ‘No’ campaign’s faltering share of support was changed substantially for the better by ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown. He was one of the few prominent politicians who could present both linear active and multiactive oratory with the kind of passion that rivalled that of the ‘Yes’ campaign. Although the quest for Scottish independence was lost in the result of the vote, the cause of gaining more self-rule for Scotland was not. Multiactives can flourish in situations that they may regard as less than ideal, rather better than linear actives may imagine.

In contrast to Gordon Brown, the party leaders David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg did not finish nearly so well cross-culturally. Although maybe personally the nicest man of the three, Ed Miliband seemed the most uncomfortable in Scotland. While inwardly passionate to see the Union continue, all three did little to shift the campaign in their favour, while they did manage to appear panicked in the final stages. All this speaks much about the dangers of going into cross-cultural settings insufficiently prepared. Being a nice person displaying heartfelt reasoning, important as that is, is not nearly enough.

If there is going to be a United Kingdom in the longer term, the more linear active English need to develop more of the skills and approaches of the more multiactive Scots. This includes putting people, communities and relational thinking at the heart of public policy.

It is very difficult to see a warm rapport towards the English developing short-term in Scottish minds that were not already persuaded that way. However, some genuine efforts by the English to understand, value and embrace Celtic culture more would be one good place to start.

The people of northern England could be enlisted to mediate and establish stronger connections between all the people of England and Scotland, not just those living in the Borders (who did not want a division anyway).

A greater appreciation by the Scottish people of their very impressive reach and influence far beyond the bounds of geographical Scotland might help them to become a little less absorbed than previously with what happens ‘north of the border’.

Dr. Nigel Paterson

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