Martin Hutchison PhotographMartin Hutchison is an enthusiastic Fabian and, like everyone else, blogs about politics. Here he sets out an analysis of political virtues, finding an explanation of Tory and SNP success, and the root of an idea to help Labour find its way back.


Daniel Johnson, in a thoughtful piece on the Scottish Fabians website, asks for Labour to understand its virtues and act upon them, seeing this, rather than clever policy formation, as a potential route back to power. In a related piece Duncan Hothersall wonders whether politics has become “post rational” and suggests that that, perhaps, explains how it was that a long discredited nationalism such as that offered by the SNP was able to unexpectedly crawl out of the dustbin of history to which humanity, in a fit of progress and nobility, had long consigned it.

Daniel is specific; he wants Labour to ascribe to a set of ethics called moral intuitions rather than a crude utilitarian calculus of the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Duncan observes the tide of emotion upon which the SNP surge has surfed so successfully and despairs of a way to defeat it in rational argument.

I think Duncan is right about the emotional basis of the SNP’s politics but I would argue that Labour’s politics also has an emotional basis. Daniel is correct in regarding virtuous moral intuitions as superior to utilitarianism; indeed Labour displaced an elite intellectual political Liberalism in the 19th century for this very reason.

Labour offered two moral intuitions back then, two cardinal virtues which sustain it today: fairness (call it social justice or solidarity or equality) and harm reduction (think health and safety, seat belts, breathalysers, smoking bans). Now there is problem with this magnificent moral purpose – other people can consider social justice immoral. We call them Conservatives. Others regard smoking bans, for example, as a basic infringement of their freedom and immoral for that very reason. We call them Libertarians, fewer in number than Conservatives but not less morally outraged.

For Conservatives the transfer of wealth from the industrious to the indigent is moral turpitude, or even that taking earned wealth from one party to give to another is moral hazard. That is the problem with virtue-based politics as moral intuitions, they simultaneously repel and attract. Labour has something of a monopoly on its particular virtues but the Conservatives, the SNP and the Lib Dems all have moral appeal based on differing senses of what constitutes moral worth.

That is why and how they are political parties, immensely salient and stable over time, and still relevant in their appeal to millions. Many (possibly most) voters most of the time are not fooled but, on the contrary, actually understand really rather well what politicians stand for.

Does the notion of competing moral intuitions doom Labour to failure and what is the relationship of these moral intuitions to emotion and rationality? Is there any explanation in any of this, at a deeper moralised level, for Labour being beaten twice (in both Scotland and England) in the one election? And how does policy formation fit into all this? And why do the Tories win all the elections? Oddly, or perhaps not oddly, all these questions are interlinked.

First, a word about morality and morals in this context: moral intuitions are not the same as ordinary common or garden morals such as not cheating, not stealing, and not lying and, emphatically, not hitting people on the head with beer glasses in pubs. Politicians all subscribe, publicly at least, to this common or garden morality and get into more and more trouble when they transgress against it.

It is their job, however, to transgress against some moral intuitions and support others. Politics has this entirely moralised character in ironic contrast to the public perception of a “parcel of rogues”. There are, then, two different flavours of morality in play. Not that they aren’t often confused, but no political party can base its appeal on a claim to virtue defined as personal honesty. (In other words, honesty may be the best policy but it shouldn’t go into your manifesto.)

So why do moral intuitions about right and wrong confuse and confound so much? Historically ignorant armies would clash by night but now an American Social Psychologist has gone and put the light on in a ground breaking book, The Righteous Mind: How Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt might as well have said that bad people are similarly divided but that is not strictly relevant here, what he means is that people who are personally honest can regard their politics as moral and virtuous and your politics as morally dissolute.

Haidt identifies six moral foundations that define our politics:

  • Fairness
  • Harm reduction
  • Freedom
  • Loyalty (to your in-group)
  • Authority (for and against, think Jeremy Corbyn and George W Bush)
  • Sanctity

If that last one seems a bit odd, consider whether the SNP have sanctified Scotland itself and the saltire in particular. Others regard the SNP’s capturing of the saltire as an outrage. All the other foundations work like that, some ascribing to them strongly, some weakly, some with approbation, some with hostility.

Take the fairness foundation. Labour people have a strong moral intuition that fairness is right and unfairness is wrong. Haidt then observes that liberals and socialists consequently experience strong emotions and then reason strategically to support that intuition with arguments, policy papers, manifestos and books. That deployment of strategic reason is universal, and gives politics it Tower of Babel character, the endless talking past one and another with, say, moralised pro-freedom Libertarians acknowledging some facts, deploying others, inventing some, distorting others.

Who knew that politics worked like that? Everyone. But Haidt shows how and why:

Moral intuition of rightness or wrongness
> Big cloud of emotion
> Strategic reasoning

Labour’s central strength is also it weakness. It is founded on a passion for fairness and harm reduction, it is weak on freedom, loyalty and pro-authority, and it sanctifies virtually nothing with its strong adoption of these two foundations having the effect of both attracting and repelling support simultaneously. Labour is like a golfer going around the course with a three iron and a putter, technically possible but at a distinct disadvantage against those with a wider selection of clubs.

Conservatives have that advantage: they do actually believe in fairness and harm reduction but weakly; they believe in the nation as a source of moral authority; they believe in in-group loyalty over out-group considerations (we are having a referendum on our EU membership) and they sanctify things – church, the constitution, tradition. Haidt calls this the conservative advantage and if politics is primarily a form of moralised psychology, and secondly a contest of ideas, then that might just explain the near hegemonic conservative ascendancy in current European politics.

In May, one in seven English voters voted for a new political force based on in-group loyalty, pro-authoritarianism and remarkably and simultaneously anti-authoritarianism, freedom from the EU and re-establishing the purity (read sanctity) of the UK legislative process and UK society from contaminating individuals from the wider continent seeking our jobs.

So enormous is the nature of the in-built conservative advantage identified and described by Haidt that not one but two conservative parties walked over and annihilated Labour in England.

To Daniel’s point that Labour will “not emerge from this crisis through policy and positioning”: this is not the case. Labour still needs to give people reasons to strategically return to its moral intuitions of fairness and harm reduction. Policy can also have a critical function beyond its primary purpose (making stuff better) to point to other intuitions such as our basic patriotism (in-group loyalty), our scepticism of some EU activity (more in-group loyalty), our contempt for ISIS (moralised pro-authoritarianism) or our objection to ending the Human Rights Act (moralised freedom and moralised anti-authoritarianism). The trick is to emphasise or even invent policies which reference and touch the places that Labour politics doesn’t instinctively go.

To Duncan’s point about living in a “post rational” world: it was always so – morals first, emotion second and reasoning third. This is the basic architecture of our evolved human nature. What is probably happening is that under conditions of stress the efficacy of the interplay of competing strategic reasoning breaks down and becomes less effective, and the emotional core of our politics is revealed. Now the UK has just had its worse seven years since that plague of insects in Egypt mentioned in the Bible and this type of notorious stressor is going to increase the emotional cloud as basic moral intuitions are referenced and the quality of strategic reasoning becomes weaker and shriller. The emotional content was always there; it is just rising to the surface.

If the election went badly for Labour in England (blame Jonathan Haidt) then in Scotland Labour was wiped out by a party which had a policy of closing down all the primary schools, all the secondary schools, all the colleges and all the universities or alternatively borrowing the additional sums required under a policy of full fiscal autonomy for Scotland. If politics was about contending values or ideologies or the clash of ideas then that wouldn’t happen.

But if you thought that Scotland itself constituted virtue, was a moral incarnation (in-group loyalty) and you valued Scottish freedom (freedom moralised) and supported your government (pro-authority) and hated the Tories (moralised anti-authoritarianism) and believed in fairness (and we do in Scotland but they do not in England), then in that case you might reason strategically, that is you might overlook certain discordant facts (pan-UK solidarity is really quite a thing) and stress others (food banks protected by nuclear weapons).

Labour’s wipe out by the SNP was achieved through a direct attack on Labour’s central weakness – it only believes in two big things, fairness and harm reduction. The SNP used to only believe in two big things as well – the foundations of in-group loyalty and freedom (for Scotland). They have consciously pursued a strategy of displacing Labour by deliberately, intentionally and determinedly colonising its fairness and harm reduction foundations over the last 15 years.

In addition to this strategy their political positioning reaped no less than, in Haidtian terms, three other foundations – they always had the sanctification of the saltire and Scotland, but being in government they can appeal to moralised pro-authoritarians, and their antipathy towards the UK reaps the rich harvest of the hard left’s and Greens’ moralised anti-authoritarianism. (What else causes the Scottish hard left to abandon pan UK solidarity other than a psychological factor?)

It is this conjunction of moral foundations that gives the rise of nationalism in Scotland the feel of a religious revival and a broad based cultural revolution. The self-referential, hermetically sealed nature of the SNP’s politics is explicable by the pivot nature of in-group loyalty, as once Scotland is the pivot then only the other moral intuitions apply to Scotland. Fairness is Scottish fairness only, and so on.

The referendum process suited the SNP perfectly because it was able to organise an argument from the whole spectrum of the intuitions upon which its politics have come to be based, to the epic cloud of emotion which was everywhere last autumn, to the rational argument of Scotland’s future. Their Better Together opponents decided to have a rational argument with an emotional one and the result was a formal numerical victory but an epic political defeat.

OK, enough analysis already, what to do?

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22 thoughts on “Political virtues and why they matter

  1. “Duncan Hothersall wonders whether politics has become “post rational” and suggests that that, perhaps, explains how it was that a long discredited nationalism such as that offered by the SNP was able to unexpectedly crawl out of the dustbin of history to which humanity, in a fit of progress and nobility, had long consigned it.”

    Problem with this piece of brown jobby is the fact that it only applies to and is specifically directed at Scottish Nationalism and not Nationalism is general.

    No “Other” form of Nationalism has been confined to any dustbin as proven by the fact that Nation statehood has increased exponentially since 1945. Fully supported and endorsed by Pro UK nationalists officially as well as unofficially.

    The desire for National recognition National self determination and National identity is only vilified by Pro UK “Nationalists” who believe or pretend to believe or want to believe or want to pretend to believe that the UK of GB is itself a Nation state and therefore Nationalist in their own interpretation.

    So it appears ONLY Scottish Nationalism is vile while UK Nationalism is Gods gift to the world and Johnny foreigner wherever they come from. Unless of course they object to being Governed from London as well then they too are a vile form of Nationalism.

    Im not sure what the official term is for those who belong to a specific National identity who vilify the very existence of that National identity and actively pursue campaigns in direct opposition to it. Perhaps somebody can enlighten me assuming I get this past Duncans form of censorship of course.

  2. Eh, i think openly attacking your core vote in the safest seats in the UK might not be a great idea.
    Labour MPs handed the seats over the SNP willingly.
    Remember Country before Party, rather a Tory Britain then a separate Scotland.
    The phone line that went dead when you said you were voting YES etc.
    The nonsense about Better Together.
    If anything Labour attacked it’s own values.

  3. “Labour’s wipe out by the SNP was achieved through a direct attack on Labour’s central weakness – it only believes in two big things, fairness and harm reduction. The SNP used to only believe in two big things as well – the foundations of in-group loyalty and freedom (for Scotland).”

    No! No! No! WTF is wrong with you people? Are you truly this blind and delusional or utterly terminally deceitful?

    Labour was wiped out in Scotland because it became another uncaring self serving self absorbed pro corporate Tory party! Coupled with the growth of Online Social media which successfully counters the pro Labour MSM propaganda and lies.
    If Labour in Scotland cannot accept this basic truth then you will never find your way back even in an Independent Scottish Parliament.

    Some of you may even genuinely believe Labour are not Tories because of some desperate need to protect yourselves from the reality but you are going to have to accept sometime soon that the VAST majority of people in Scotland DO! And they do so because of the policies and political direction Labour has taken since Tony Blair was made leader!

    Trust me Im not lying to you or trying to deceive you here I leave that kind of despicable behaviour to your leadership.

  4. Very complex analysis which I will simplify Scottish Labour MPs lost their seats as they became careerists and took the people of Scotland for granted. SNP on the other hand worked tirelessly in the communities on behalf of and solely for the people of Scotland. Also the Scottish Labour Party working together with the Tories in the referendum standing shoulder to shoulder and their austerity lite policy did not help.

  5. Eliminate all the waffle, the new age mumbo-froth and what do we see?
    Scottish “Nationalism” bad. British Nationalism—what?
    British jobs for British workers.
    Labour election mug—–Vote Labour for immigration controls —-this while AlexSalmond advocated an open economy and the benefits of migration.
    The “British” Labour Party discussing setting up an “English” Labour party–oh, and a “Scottish” Labour Party.
    The Tories wants something called national sovereignty returned from the EU. Labour backs this policy.
    Nope, British nationalism doesn’t exist. Just ask the Chagos Islanders.

    1. I should have added both Labour and the Conservative Parties are opposed to any return of sovereignty to Scotland. The guarantee that Scotland’s parliament would be a permanent institution was just one of the Smith Commission promises broken. Devo Max, Home Rule, Federalism—-all promised during the frantic last days of the referendum campaign, none delivered so far.

      1. Dishonesty is a feature of Scottish Nationalism, it seems.

        1. The very first clause of the Scotland Bill 2015 says “A Scottish Parliament is recognised as a permanent part of the United Kingdom’s constitutional arrangements”. That’s literally the first clause.

        2. Labour tried to strengthen this commitment with a requirement for Scottish Parliament approval for its own dissolution. The SNP also tried to strengthen this commitment with a subsequent amendment requiring both parliamentary approval and a referendum. The SNP’s amendment was called, and Labour spoke in favour of it and voted for it.

        1. So, is the Scottish Parliament sovereign, Duncan?
          If not, then it can be voted out of existance by a majority at Westminster, even one representing a relatively small minority of voters. So, was the Promise just a British Nationalist scam?
          Seems dishonesty is a feature of British Nationalism.

          1. By the way, although I now want Scotland to be self governing, I am not a nationalist.
            Are you? Of the British variety?

        2. “Dishonesty is a feature of Scottish Nationalism, it seems.”

          If that were true you would be the First Minister of Scotland.

          You do know that the Scotland act can be altered amended or even abolished by Westminster at anytime? And its this constitutional arrangement which none of the pro UK parties wishes to change.

  6. I find the Labour idea that seems to have gathered traction to explain what happened in Scotland described as post-rational politics interesting. The idea that the emotive appeal of the SNP has triumphed over economics. This was a key message for Better Together during the referendum (except that on this occasion BT won the argument). This economic argument states that an independent Scotland or Scotland under fiscal autonomy would be running considerable deficits that would require either large tax hikes or drastic cuts to public services. On current revenue and expenditure this is an undeniable truth.

    But applying the same logic to the UK, it has been running a fiscal deficit since 2002 (with the latest target to return to surplus extended again from 2015 to 2020) and has a total debt north of 1 trillion. By Labour and Better Together’s own rational, the UK can’t function as an independent country without drastic cuts to public services to reduce the deficit (no one is proposing the tax hikes option). Therefore the idea of the UK as a successful independent country (presumably one minus the drastic public sector cuts) remains a distant dream, or to put it another way, is an emotive idea as opposed to a rational one.

    1. BT didn’t win any arguments because they didn’t make any. They made assertions which they didn’t couldn’t and wouldn’t prove. Project Fear was a litany of whatabootery and crystal ball presumptions presented to the people of Scotland as Factual by a warped and partial media circus.
      We weren’t going to get to use the pound.
      We were getting kicked out of the EU.
      We were getting kicked out of NATO.
      Our mobile phone network was getting shut down.
      Our airports were going to get bombed.
      The pandas were moving to London along with Michelle Moan.
      Russian and Viking raiders were going to take over our Oil fields.

      BT couldn’t run a proper credible economic argument because its sitting on a 5 trillion plus growing debt and the Governments favourite policy is austerity.
      BT lost a 30 point lead because it had nothing positive to say for itself and here we are living the predictions of the Yes campaign who called it spot on for a No vote. The vast majority of us worst off and Michelle moan living in London.

      1. BT managed to cast enough doubt in the minds of the floating voters to win the referendum. It might not have been pretty to watch but it was effective. If the yes campaign is going to win, if there is a next time, we need to recognise the strengths and weaknesses of our opponents to be able to win. Critically for Labour the negative BT campaign has turned off Labour voters, which they really should have seen coming. I think the Tories knew Labour would never get the credit they deserved for essentially saving the Union, while many of their own supporters who voted yes have now switched to the SNP.

        I speak as someone who, despite supporting independence, I assumed I would vote Labour during General elections all my life. But their attacks on yes voters has effectively turned me off Labour, possibly permanently.

        Ironically, I think Jeremy Corbyn could win many voters in Scotland back to Labour from the SNP because he adopts a far more conciliatory tone towards Scottish autonomy. But it seems there are few in the current Labour party hierarchy clever enough to realise this.

  7. “If the election went badly for Labour in England (blame Jonathan Haidt) then in Scotland Labour was wiped out by a party which had a policy of closing down all the primary schools, all the secondary schools, all the colleges and all the universities or alternatively borrowing the additional sums required under a policy of full fiscal autonomy for Scotland.”
    Yes there’s nothing like rigorous, rational analysis for getting your Party out of a sticky situation!
    This from a Party which signed up to Tory austerity cuts but was going to spend billions on schools, hospitals and other services……….

  8. It looks as if Jeremy Corbyn will work with progressive Parties in particular the most progressive party in the UK the SNP you would think as I do that this is a good thing fighting austerity and the Tories. It is strange that that remnants of the Scottish Labour Party cannot bear to work with the SNP and view them as the enemy. Ex Scottish Labour Party MPs should bear in mind that within the Scottish Labour Party itself that there are supporters for an independent Scotland. As for the constitutional arrangement it is what it says an arrangement it could be dissolved by the UK government at a later date. Finally the powers that were promised are not being delivered and it is just as well that the SNP 56 MPs are in parliament to be the voice of the people of Scotland.

  9. Let’s face it, Labour lost safe seat after safe seat because large numbers of YES voting traditional Labour voters walked away.
    Noising up your core voters is a very dangerous thing to do.
    Only a fool would do it.
    We had scores of fools.
    They were called MPs.
    I’d also guess the Labour vote in May was propped up by voters who were uber unionists from various political backgrounds.
    I knew a number of tories who voted Labour to stop the SNP.
    Let’s see if there’s a Labour comeback today in the four Glasgow council by-elections.
    That might give us a wee idea where we’re at.

  10. “the SNP’s capturing of the saltire”-this flag is not the property of any political party so its difficult to see how it can be “captured” by one.Certainly the Nats use the saltire in a great deal of their literature/broadcasts but then they are a specifically Scottish party and this is the flag of Scotland.Since the saltire is not under any nationalist copyright there is nothing to stop Scottish Labour using the saltire in the same way.At least,nothing external to Labour.

  11. I’m sorry Mr Hutchison but this article reads like a particularly obtuse and boring seminar paper from one of my PolPhil courses circa 1970-1973. I can tell you what went wrong with Scottish Labour quite easily by looking at a couple of things; one of which you mention in your second paragraph.

    Duncan Hothersall’s contribution is just dressing the old Marxist doctrines of ‘false consciousness’ and ‘positive freedom’ up in new clothes and in a particularly insulting way to the Scottish electorate. For Mr Hothersall’s “post rational” politics (Other Unionists of right and left have been pushing something like this.) simply read ‘the proles don’t know what’s good for them’ and vote the wrong way.

    Following on from this there is an interesting interview, with Ken Macintosh, reported in today’s Common Space in which he comes out with a couple of fairly extraordinary statements. One is that further devolution of powers would be dangerous as Scotland might have a reactionary government in 20 years time. I think Mr. Macintosh doesn’t quite get the meaning of ‘devolution’. In that, he’s not alone in the Labour Party. He then goes on to state that in the past Scotland had been a relatively reactionary country and that London and other cosmopolitan areas would have been seen as more Liberal. That is something which completely passed me by when moving to London from stuffy old, anti-liberal Edinburgh in 1968. Apparently I hadn’t noticed that we were slavering, racist, homophobic religious nut jobs before moving down to be enlightened by my much more liberal southern brothers and sisters.

    Now the point here is that what statements like these point to is a deep distrust: almost contempt for the people that Labour wants to appeal to electorally. That does not win you elections. There is also what appears to be either a deep ignorance of recent Scottish history and social change or a simple unwillingness to engage with it. For better or worse Scotland has simply become much more Scottish over the last 50 – 60 years. There was a high point of British Unionism in the 2 or 3 decades after WW2 but that Unionism has been diluting increasingly quickly since the 70s. My grand father’s and father’s generations considered themselves British/Scottish then Scottish/British. The sense of Britishness, even in my generation (and I’m 65), has been lessening steadily over the decades and younger people appear to be abandoning or merely losing any real sense of Britishness and are identifying more strongly as Scottish. That isn’t because they are irrational, or post-rational, or merely stupid. It’s because the institutional framework within which they live has become much less British and more Scottish; plus the experiences they have had and the attitudes they have formed have also moved them away from Britishness and towards Scottishness.

    If the Labour Party wants to have a place in modern Scotland it has to recognise this. Frankly, I do not care one way or another if it does. Its is the reason why, in an earlier discussion, I drew attention to Trevor Davies’ rather odd view that, after the referendum, Scottish Labour had to recognise that it was Labour first and Scottish only second. That worked well: didn’t it?

  12. Five council by-elections in the Greater Glasgow area yesterday.
    Four in Glasgow, one in Hamilton.
    All heartland seats for decades.
    All now lost to the SNP.
    I appeal to the Scottish Labour Party membership to call for full autonomy now before it’s too late.
    The elected reps have lost the plot.

    1. I find it bewildering that you think the answer to our problems is “full autonomy”. People aren’t voting SNP because Scottish Labour is part of a wider movement!

      1. I find it bewildering that you think the answer to our problems is “full autonomy”

        No you don’t! You’re agenda driven to pretend you do.

        The faults failures and absolute corruption of the Westminster Parliament and the UK state is well recorded well known and is unquestioned undeniable and fully proven.
        You’re ludicrous argument is to pretend that for all its faults nothing better can be created from being fully separated from its influence and control in spite of all the overwhelming evidence of the Independent success of the Commonwealth of Nations proving the opposite.

        The UK state has nothing positive or advantageous to offer Scotland at all. It cant offer it anything it cant obtain for its own Independent self with the added bonus of not losing its identity its choices its income and revenues to outside criminally corrupted influence and control.

        No wonder your default position is always to lie Duncan.

  13. Maybe you’ve just hit the problem on the head.
    The party is bewildered.
    Not unlike that young fella from Oxford that chapped my door yesterday.

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