A matter of liberty

After we filter out the propaganda from both sides, one could characterise the Scottish referendum debate as essentially boiling down into the old stand-off between positive liberty and negative liberty.

This is a controversial concept from the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin who argued that there are two forms of liberty. Positive liberty which tended to favour individual freedom to fulfil one’s desires, while negative liberty tended to focus on eliminating interference from others, in particular economic constraints. Isaiah argued these two concepts boil down in the phrase “I am my own master” for positive liberty, while for negative liberty “I am no slave”.

In general terms this means positive liberty tends to be more all-encompassing focusing on political and economic freedom although this can result in it being somewhat more chaotic and unrestrained, something which in of its self can lead to authoritarianism (the French revolution or Russian revolution are often highlighted as examples of this trend).

Negative liberty focuses on overcoming restraints to freedom, although it can in itself be restraining, often via economic means (e.g. performance related pay, target setting in public services) and guidance from higher authority (e.g. the media and religion).

Isaiah himself tended to favour negative liberty, as he regarded it as “safer” as it avoided the sort of bloody mayhem and economic chaos that can occur, for example, after a revolution. Almost every Western leader since Margaret Thatcher has tended to follow the concept of negative liberty, even left wingers such as Obama and Tony Blair. And it is particularly favoured by many companies also as it tends to lead to greater political stability.

In essence one could argue that what the Scottish referendum amounts to is a doctrine for positive liberty. It will place the Scottish people will be in control of their destiny, enabling all the benefits and of course the risks, that this would entail.

When looked at it through this prism, it’s easy to see why so many of the Westminster set are opposed to Scottish independence. Left or right they see this as representing a polar opposite in how they see politics operating. And of course their reason for opposing positive liberty is their fear of the chaos, hence the stream of ridiculous scare stories coming out of the “better-off-dead” camp, as it is often a tendency of such leaders to always see the worst in any situation (hence the constant terror alerts over some wannabe Jihadi’s).

This dilemma is perhaps highlighted by the voting intentions of UKIP supporters. You would expect them to a man to all vote no. But I know one or two UKIP voters who plan to vote yes on Thursday. And no, it’s not because they are kilt wearing, haggis eating, racist Scottish nationalists. It’s because they represent the libertarian wing of the party who, inevitably, lean towards the positive liberty concept.

This contrasts with the views of Nigel Farage. While he would like to claim that he and UKIP are also libertarian, as I’ve pointed out in past posts, scrutinising UKIP’s policies, in particular UKIP’s views on immigration, one is forced to the conclusion that implementing such policies would entail a hefty level of authoritarianism, i.e. the opposite effect of what Farage and many of the party would like.

Now while I suspect if you asked Alex Salmond or the SNP they’d shrug their shoulders at this idea (then say whatever they reckoned would get them the most votes!). But it is possible that there is more going on here than a simple “in” or “out” referendum. And of course, just because the SNP seem to be promising some sort of “positive liberty” agenda now, doesn’t mean they’ll stick to it in the cold light of dawn after the 18th of September.


2 thoughts on “A matter of liberty

  1. English Democrats?


    I think an English parliament wouldn’t be a bad idea, as it would give the headbangers somewhere to hang out. Rather than annoying the EU and antagonising the Scot’s Farage & co would be obsessing over bin collections and the proposed route of HS2.


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