Martin Hutchison PhotographMartin Hutchison is an enthusiastic Fabian interested in the underlying architecture of political thought. Here he examines the psychology of the recent election result in Scotland. This piece was first published on his own blog.


So Scotland continues to fulfil its global function as the Large Hadron Collider of political psychology, with the political electrons whizzing around at the speed of light crashing into each other with spectacular results and the creation of entirely new political structures.

If the Large Hadron Collider discovered the existence of the Higgs Boson particle provided vindication for the standard model of sub-atomic physics then is it possible that a new and powerful theory of political psychology called “the Moral Intuist Theory”, which challenges the existing standard model of political accounting, can provide credible insight into the political earthquake which struck Scotland and the wider UK in the recent General Election.

In May of this year in Scotland the SNP won 56 out of 59 Scottish seats up from a total of 6 in the 2010 general election on the basis of threefold increase in its votes from 0.5 million to 1.5 million representing 50% of all votes cast in Scotland.  This result shattered a generation of Labour’s dominance in Scotland (vote share down from 42% to 24%) and left the Labour Party in the wider UK, in a crippled position in terms of obtaining an outright majority in the Westminster Parliament and, consequentially given the Conservative dominance in England, Labour’s entire British social democratic project is imperilled.  Additionally and not trivially, there may not be a Britain as the SNP translates its recent success into a call for a second referendum on Scottish Independence which it may win. Consequential indeed.

To add to the general sense of upheaval and revolution the SNP won the election on a clear policy of ending austerity combined with an even clearer policy of full fiscal autonomy for Scotland which would denude the Scots of the ability to pay for nursery education, primary education, secondary education, all the colleges and all the universities.  Source – here or here.  Intrigued?  Consider some political psychology? But first of course all of this earthquake finds explanation on the standard model – Labour complacency, SNP artfulness, Labour artlessness, contingency, fluke, mishap, error, charisma, big unexpected economic crisis, passion.  All essential to explanation of the revolution but incomplete, add in some cutting edge political psychology to discover why 50% of Scottish voters would have done epic harm to Scotland in order to save it.  Answer in a sentence: they have got some old time religion.

The work of the social psychologist Jonahthan Haidt posits a theory (Moral Intuism) and adduces evidence (Moral Foundations Theory) that can add to our understanding of “what just happened” and in his book the Righteous Mind he brings these ideas together under an intriguing subtitle “How good people are divided by Politics and Religion” that subtitle is the key to the argument below.  For Haidt politics and religion are forms of each other as they ground themselves in the same six moral Foundations:

  • Fairness
  • Harm reduction
  • Liberty
  • Authority (anti-authority and pro-authority)
  • Loyalty
  • Sanctity

The SNP did not get where it is today without building on these foundations with an intensity and ignition which now has now given their politics an entirely revivalist religious character as observed by many political commentators e.g. the estimable Alex Massie.

Moral Intuitist Theory (Moral Intuitists should skip this passage)

Two types of morality a. Ordinary common or garden – don’t steal, cheat, or lie or hit anyone.  Not very important in democratic politics b. Morality as far as politics is concerned is based on the Foundations above – the extent to which each moral calling appeals varies greatly.  Many feel one or two very strongly but most feel them weakly most of the time. Of the strong responders there is a clustering with those inclined to feel Fairness and Harm reduction strongly tending to feel the other foundations weakly.  Those hearing the siren call of Loyalty and Liberty tend to feel Fairness and Harm reduction weakly.  This gives us the left/right pattern which is everywhere in global politics. So we have a Moral Intuition and then an emotion about something being right or wrong and then we reason in support of the intuition.  Strategic Reasoning in support of the emotions and the emotions supporting a moralised worldview, some moral foundations resonate strongly other weakly.

In the Scottish context Moral Intuitist Theory provides and answer to central paradox of Scottish politics: formally voting patterns in Scotland track well to the left of England but when social scientists look narrowly and closely at the underlying values such as inequality and attitudes to EU membership the differences dissolve.  That’s what one would expect if politics was rooted in an inherited and truly ancient evolved psychology.

But how did the Haidtian moral psychology of the Scots process events and in turn create events?  That’s a key argument, they feedback loop between events and psychology?


  1. Labour in power for 13 years

The long period of Labour Government was characterised by core delivery on the Fairness and Harm Reduction Foundations but Labour supporters deserted the Party steadily during this period with five million people less voting Labour in 2010 than in 1997.  These were not the five million people the Party claims to have raised out of absolute poverty during that period but it does illustrate a critical weakness of the Left: it has three foundations Fairness and Harm reduction and, ruinously moralised anti-authoritarianism.  The left are all moralised anti-authoritarian some strong and some weak but all opposed absurdly to their own governance to a degree.  Strategic Reasoning of strong anti-authoritarians  – Iraq/PFI/Welfare Reform.  Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats tracked hard to Labour’s left for a decade denuding the Labour party of core support.  As the Lib Dems went into government in 2010 this same dynamic of anti-authoritarianism destroyed the Lib Dems and in Scotland this Labour to Lib Dem support crossed to the ferociously anti-authoritarian SNP (they don’t want the UK so how anti-authoritarian is that?).  An SNP majority in the Scottish Parliamentary elections of 2011 gave them a mandate for a referendum.

There is an interesting footnote here – Ed Miliband hoped that disaffected Lib Dems would return to Labour in 2015 to give him electoral victory in the UK.  Some did, but a sufficient amount went to UKIP in honour of their anti-establishment credentials.  Same process as above.


  1. SNP to Labour displacement Strategy

See here, the SNP pursued a relentless colonisation of Labour’s moral Foundations over 15 years, striking out from their core of In-Group Loyalty and Scottish Freedom (Liberty) to attempt to displace Labour on Fairness and Harm Reduction.  This strategy took a fanatical turn in the recent elections when the SNP waited until Labour had published and then issued the same manifesto.

N.B.  Labourites complain of the injustice of the Lib Dems tracking to Labour’s left and gathering votes whereas Labour built schools and hospitals and improved the social condition.  In Scotland there is the same complaint – the first two Scottish Labour governments have record of delivery on Fairness and Harm reduction and the SNP minister could not point to a progressive policy in the 8 years of governance when interviewed.  Moral Intuist theory points to the (long suspected) utterly emotional and irrational nature of political reasoning.  The SNP and Liberal Democrats were able to do epic harm to Labour by pressing the moral foundation buttons harder, more frequently and with more rhetorical passion.  Words are what matter, working families tax credits do not.


  1. Economic Stress from 2009

Haidt’s Loyalty Foundation is not a reference to loyalty to one’s broadband provider but Loyalty to the In-Group.  All civic nationalism and uncivic nationalism is founded here and what in the old days (the fabled environment of evolutionary adaptedness) stressed the in-group, was usually the depredations of the out-group.  The folks from over the hill are invariably the source of our distress.  In England UKIP took an eighth of votes after seven leans years of falling incomes with a two foundation morality Loyalty and Freedom (from the EU).  If virtually no one voted UKIP in Scotland then which Party was the beneficiary of the ancient dynamic of hugging the In-Group in times of stress?


  1. Solidarity isn’t a Moral Intuition

Labourites are aghast at the repudiation of pan-UK solidarity by almost half of their voters in May 2015 but Haidt offers an insight here.  The Fairness foundation in which Labour believes solidarity to reside is not monolithic, different people process Fairness in different ways – Conservatives, he observes agree that Fairness is getting back out what you put in.  The political philosopher George Lakoff has analysed what Fairness can mean:

  • Fairness as redistribution
  • Equality of opportunity
  • Procedural distribution – playing by the rules
  • Rights based fairness  – you get what you have a right to
  • Needs based fairness – the more you need the more you have right to
  • Scalar distribution – the more you work, the more you get
  • Contractual distribution – you get what you agree to
  • Equal distribution of responsibility – we share the burden equally
  • Scalar distribution of responsibility – the greater your abilities the greater your responsibilities
  • Equal distribution of power – one person, one vote

That first definition of Fairness as redistribution means within the in-group.  Our psychologies evolved over millions of years when there were no flows of fish and spears from the folks over the hill and we sure as heck didn’t offer needles sand pots to them.  That makes sense, the United States could not hold if Californians were in a constant state of umbrage over the outflow of fish and spears to Alabama The entire basis of the Labour case for the Union was simultaneously valid, as in 2015-2016 the Scots have their education system courtesy of the UK inflows, but critically there is no psychology underpinning this solidarity as a form of Fairness in respect of a moral worth or moral value which should be venerated.  That is why it was lost.  Pan UK solidarity is for the rational, the higher brain, for the blog or for the seminar or policy paper, it has no underlying emotional support.


5a. Referendum – Labour/Unionists make catastrophic error

The Referendum was the seismic event which reset Scottish politics.  The SNP leader wasn’t wrong to quote Yeats “all is change, all is changed utterly”.   The Unionist Better Together campaign luxuriated in a 70-30% lead in 2012/2013 so decided that the SNP would be more comprehensively beaten by beaten on its own premise – what is good for Scotland.  The welfare of everyone else in the UK and the wider world could be forgotten and the welfare of the Scots was all that mattered.  The effect of this was to collapse the moral basis of the Unionist case and a further undermining occurs when the Unionist had a rational argument with SNP emotional argument on grounds the Unionists themselves didn’t agree with.

At the moral psychological level the Unionists ceded the In-group loyalty to be Scotland and not the UK and this combined with Identity (see below) re-cast the debate in SNP terms psychologically.  The level which matters


5b. Referendum – Identity Question resets loyalty foundation

The Unionist error above was compounded by the central driver of the nationalist upsurge: Scottish Identity versus British Identity.  A blog post here made the case that the voting dispersion in the Referendum is entirely identity based with only two notable exceptions, pensioners worried about their UK pension and long term welfare dependents seeking to escape their poverty by moving to a new country.

As of 2014 one survey found that Scots identity looked like this

Equally Scottish and British 31% More Scottish than British 26%
More British than Scottish 5% Scottish not British 24%
British not Scottish 9%
Other description 5%

This spilt is almost 50/50 but the “More Scottish than British” category is soft in terms of SNP support possibilities.  The referendum required each to vote in terms of this identity, a dynamic deepened by the Better Together campaign authorising “what is good for Scotland” as the only criteria.  Recall that Moral Intuitist theory suggests that voters proceed from the emotion to rationalisations of the emotion and then the vote.

40% of labour voters voted Yes in the Referendum on the basis of identity, shattering pan-unionist Solidarity which as noted above was a weakly held rationalism and not a powerfully underpinned moral foundation such as in-group loyalty.  Those 40% of Labour voters, their in-group loyalty having been reset went on the vote SNP and rationalised this on the basis of the SNP colonisation of Fairness and Harm Foundations.


6. Nationalist Ignition and Religious Revival

If a Haidtian process is underway, that the in-group is reset as Scotland and all other Moral Foundations in turn reference Scotland then it should be expected that emotion follows and then strategic rationalisation of those emotions should follow in turn.  The political researcher Geraldine O’Riordan found exactly this in a series of focus groups for TNS.  She found a tide of emotion around Scottishness: “ the huge growth in SNP support is driven by emotion and identity, rather than dispassionate logic”  in her focus group  “Full fiscal autonomy doesn’t come up once in three hours”  (The awkward fact that Scotland cannot fund its entire education spend).  Not one a hundred people who voted SNP choose to know or understand this: intuition first then emotion then rationalisation and then strategic reason which fits the facts that the support you intuition and ignores those which do not fit.

The SNP surge is explicable in Haidtian terms, in its colonisation of Moral Foundations of politics for that one half of Scotland who accept its definition of the In-Group.  The religious revivalist nature of the surge (100,000 new members in 2014) is due to capture of the high moral ground.  Look again at the Foundations

  • Fairness – captured from Labour
  • Harm reduction – captured from Labour
  • Liberty – ownership of Scottish Freedom
  • Authority – SNP reaps all moralised anti-authoritarian votes in Scotland and from its position of being the Scottish government it reaps moralised pro-authoritarian votes
  • Loyalty – in group loyalty Scotland not UK
  • Sanctity – wrap oneself in the Saltire and repeat the word Scotland 30 times per day as a daily incantation,

Additionally the SNP is able to posit a secular Heaven: the new Scotland will combine Nordic Social Welfare with Singaporean economic dynamism.  The religious revival is complete.

After the election the UK Prime Minister refused the policy of full fiscal autonomy as it consequences would be too harsh, even catastrophic.  He knew that the Scots didn’t mean to harm themselves and insisted upon their receipt of the unknown UK solidarity flows. This was exactly the inverse of what the surge the revolution was supposed to achieve.

Politics in Scotland is now stripped back to its emotional core, more disconnected from rationality and more attentive to identity than perhaps anywhere else in the world.  How can it end well?

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3 thoughts on “What just happened?

  1. That’s an awfully guff filled way of saying that a growing majority of Scots think of fairness as fairness for and in Scotland first.

  2. I guess I’m one of the few who took the time to read this mince and let me say to all those who decided not to that you done the right thing.

    It’s actually full of logical and grammatical errors, not to mention basic spelling errors. Amateur night or what…

    Why are wannabe labour intellectuals all so pretentious? I’ve worked with lecturers for years from a variety of fields and I haven’t met one that was pretentious.

    Mr. Hutchison ought to have a very close read at the findings of Dunning-Krugger.

    This argument (and so many others on here) has fake and pretentious intellectualism oozing from the many holes that a child would find in it.

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