How to squander a winning hand


If there is an Ignobel Prize for Political Ineptitude, I would like to nominate the ‘Better Together’ campaign in the Scottish referendum debate. How is it possible to start with such a strong hand and play it so badly?

Think of it like this:

You live, let us say, in an ancient property divided unequally: by far the greater part is occupied by a large and numerous family, while your own family and two others occupy parts of the building very much smaller. The property is run communally though each of you has their own living space. There is a shared entrance (an adjoining establishment that used to be part of the same set-up then left has a separate entrance).You all get on well enough even if those of you in the smaller properties occasionally feel your larger neighbour treats your living space as an extension of their own.

Now some of your family are proposing an alteration to these arrangements: they want to drop out of the communal way of doing things and run their own small household without reference to the others. This will involve some degree of restructuring – separate water and power supplies, say – though no-one seems quite sure how much or what it will cost. They propose keeping the common entrance, however, as that seems sensible and practical.

Your family are divided on the point: some are keenly in favour, others against; some are insufficiently engaged by the question to favour either side. In order to decide, the matter is to be put to a vote.

An outsider might think that, human nature being what it is, the advocates of change don’t really have much to offer: at the cost of some certain but unquantifiable disruption, they propose that you go on living in the same house with the same neighbours in more or less the same arrangement, but with some changes to how the household finances are managed (it should be said that whether you will be better or worse off under the new arrangement is a matter of dispute: some say yea, others nay).

Inertia (the current set-up, though capable of improvement – what household is not? – works well enough; has done for years) and a liking for the quiet life (change will undoubtedly involve disruption and a certain cost) should suffice, you would think, to persuade the majority to prefer the status quo; you would see little for those in the largest household, who dominate the present arrangement by virtue of their size, to worry about. Surely they would be best to take a relaxed attitude, sit back and say, ‘well, take a look at what you’ve got – works all right, don’t you think? Still, if there’s a real case to be made for change, let’s hear what it is. It’s not as if you’re going anywhere, is it? We’ll still be here, you’ll still be there, and I expect we’ll get along much as we’ve always done.’

No need, certainly, to become embroiled in a dispute about the common entrance, to insist that if your family votes for change, they’ll need to build their own, because ‘we won’t let you use ours any more: not open to discussion; end of.’ No need, surely, to go around threatening all sorts of dire consequences if there is a vote for change; why not simply ask ‘what more do you think you’ll be getting? I mean, beyond what you’ve got already? do you think it’ll be worth the effort?’

Such conduct will only serve to get people’s backs up, and will probably persuade some who favoured the status quo to think twice about it; after all, no-one likes to be bullied.

And when such a shift in opinion becomes evident, surely it would be better to say, ‘you know what – we’ve thought about it, and we don’t really mind about the door. You can use it if you like, though on much the same terms as now, so we’re not sure how that fits with your notion of doing everything yourself – after all, it’s our door too, and we use it more than you so we’d expect to have the final say. What else was it you wanted again? I mean, besides what you’ve already got?’

Rather that than turn up, lachrymose and inebriated, at a very late hour, promising all sorts of things while pleading ‘Please don’t leave us! We love you! we’d be heartbroken to lose you! We can’t bear to think of life apart! We’ve been so good together!’

After all, it’s not as if you’re going anywhere, is it? You’ll still be in exactly the same place, exactly the same people, doing much the same things – it’s just that now, after these embarrassing displays on the part of the neighbours, you do begin to think you might be better looking after things yourself – after all, if they make such a hash of this straightforward business, how can you trust them in more challenging tasks, like organising pea-soup in a brewery?

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