Salmond: set England free

With his party ahead in the polls, the leader of the SNP says independence would serve UK interests

The tower at the Glasgow Science Centre is Scotland's tallest structure: millennial modernism on a quayside where Clyde-built ships once traded from the second city of the British empire. It was meant to spin on its base, but has been plagued by design problems. As the Scottish Nationalists gathered for their conference next door, their hopes of being photo graphed symbolically atop the structure were thwarted. It had been closed due to bitter, blustery squalls.

So it goes with devolution. The 21st-century modernisation of the British constitution is not working as devised. It was hobbled by overambitious, over-budget architecture at its home in Holyrood. And Labour has to throw all the bluster and squalls that it can muster if it is to see off the Nationalist threat. Although the 129 MSPs elected four years ago represent eight parties, with a voting system designed to deny any of them a majority, this is a Labour-SNP tussle. The stakes could be highest for Gordon Brown, for whom the timing is awkward. On 3 May, the process of takeover from Tony Blair must surely begin, yet an SNP breakthrough would give the Chancellor a constitutional crisis in his backyard, leaving doubts that he could continue to sit in the Commons if his Fife constituency becomes part of a foreign country.

Alex Salmond has stressed in recent weeks that he wants to work with Brown. The SNP leader wants to reassure people that his party, if it took power, would be sensible and credible, working with Downing Street on national strategies for tackling poverty and renewable energy. But in his conference speech, Salmond also served notice of confrontation. He would, he said, fight against more nuclear-armed submarines on the Clyde; he wants a referendum on independence before the 2011 election; and in his first 100 days, he would open negotiations on taking control of North Sea oil and gas. The discussion could be brief between the Nationalists' unstoppable force and the Chancellor's immovable object.

But haven't we heard this before from the great chieftain o' the Pictish people? Yes, we have. Salmond has puffed himself up at four elections, and been deflated. Aged 52, the oil economist has been around for a long while. But this time, polls show that the threat to Labour looks serious. Salmond has set out to counter the negatives that lost previous elections. He has embraced corporate tax cuts, winning support and money from big names in the business world. As Blair arrived in Edinburgh on a brief campaigning trip, the SNP unveiled a gold-plated endorsement from the man who built the Royal Bank of Scotland into the world's fifth-biggest bank. The next day, the party received a £500,000 donation from Brian Souter, the boss at Stagecoach buses who helped fund the campaign against the repeal of Section 28.

Salmond, defining himself as a social democrat, highlights the "arc of prosperity" around Scotland: Ireland's low tax and Celtic tiger growth, Norway's vast trust fund built on oil wealth, and Iceland's control over fisheries (for constituency reasons, Salmond takes haddock very seriously). Whether in or out of Europe, small neighbours are proving nimble and adept in the globalising economy. The best response so far from Labour is to complain about the price of beer in Oslo and the cost of a consultation with a Galway GP.

Labour has struggled to find a response that works. Both Blair and Brown told Jack McConnell, Scotland's First Min ister, to talk up the cost and risk of breaking up Britain. It may yet work. It has before. But, for now, it looks tired and occasionally silly. Labour has implied that independent Scots would be cut off from visiting or phoning their relatives in England, business and academic networks would be ripped up, border guards would be stationed at Berwick, and an independent Scotland would be more vulnerable to attack by al-Qaeda. More effective could be Labour's economic claims. It argues that Scotland is so heavily subsidised by England that it couldn't possibly go it alone. An £11bn "black hole" translates to an extra tax bill of over £5,000 for the average household.

Salmond has to leave the weekly leaders' joust at Holyrood to his deputy and protégée, Nicola Sturgeon, because he leads his party from Westminster and from the BBC studio in Aberdeen, hoping to oust a Liberal Democrat from her seat just north of there in six weeks. It is a curious position for the man hoping for Scotland's independence to be in. As Salmond and I discuss the challenges ahead, he is just as keen to target hearts and minds in England as he makes the case for English independence. "A national parliament is rather a good idea. It's normal," he says. "I don't suppose many people in England doubted they were self-governing, in that the distinction between English and British gov ernment was not clear. But there have been a lot of issues making people in England wonder - top-up fees, foundation hospitals, the probation service recently - issues where interfering Scots want to poke their noses in English affairs, just as Margaret Thatcher used to poke her nose in Scottish domestic affairs." Deeply un popular in Scotland, Thatcher is credited with doing most to further the cause of devolution. Salmond says Blair's wars and nuclear missiles are doing the same for independence.

"The negative interpretation of the English view of Scottish independence is not borne out," says Salmond, who claims to get an even warmer reception in England than north of the Tweed. "It may sometimes be heard in a bar in the Home Counties, but it's not my general experience. I find most people in England find the idea of independence entirely reasonable. They're accepting and encouraging of people who stand up for themselves and articulate a powerful idea. That's part of the attraction of the English character." He also says: "The English . . . have respect for people who stand up for their own country and its own rights, and people who talk to them straight and honestly." He predicts amicable relations. "When Scotland becomes independent, England will lose a surly lodger and gain a good neighbour."

No end to EastEnders

Any arguments over the constitution arising from Scottish independence could be taken to an intergovernment body he wants to call the Council of the Isles, building on the institutions that sprang up with the Ulster peace process, and borrowing ideas from the Nordic Council. There would be co-operation on railways, renewables and energy grids. Nuclear weapons would be banished, but Scottish moors and moorings would still welcome English military training. "There would be a different configuration of the Scottish defence force, but would friendly powers be able to use Scottish territory for training and other things? Yes, just as the British army trains in many countries at the moment."

Plus, to reassure the voters: "They would still watch EastEnders. You'd want to make sure BBC Television is available in Scotland, as it is in Ireland at the moment. Obviously you'd want a Scottish broadcaster, and it might want to have shared relationships with the BBC in terms of programme-making. But broadcasting would be an area where there would be strong benefits from having a Scottish dimension."

First, a Salmond government would need to find enough Holyrood seats for a majority. The geographical distribution of votes left the SNP far behind Labour at the 2003 election, trailing 27 to 50, so there is a lot of catching up to do. Even if the SNP delivers on its current poll lead, it could still fall behind its main rival. Then there's coalition. Scottish Tories rule themselves out of "unprincipled" partnerships, but are cosying up to a potential Labour minority administration with a tough crime and drugs agenda. The Greens, pro-independence and with seven seats, eagerly want to be players.

Yet it is the Lib Dems who look the most likely coalition partner. Labour is irritated with them, and after eight years of sharing power, do they want to prop up Labour on its downward trajectory? Nicol Stephen, Lib Dem leader in Scotland, can agree with Salmond on more devolved powers, but rules out an independence referendum. Salmond is equally adamant that he won't do a deal without one. Past experience suggests they could, with some political contortions, agree to set up a commission, and punt their differences into the long grass.

As he surveys the constitutional tangle left by Blair, Brown will head north to park his tanks on the SNP lawn until 3 May. Does he have any new ideas? Not so far. But consider this: what if Brown called a referendum, with his choice of question and timing, splitting the Nationalists, and gambling on a No vote? For Labour in Scotland, these are worrying times, and they may call for extraordinary measures.

Douglas Fraser is Scottish political editor of the Herald

Scottish elections by numbers

129 number of MSPs

50 current number of Labour MSPs

25 current number of SNP MSPs

34% support in Scotland for the SNP in the latest ICM poll

29% support for Labour in the same poll

500,000 voters contacted by the SNP in telephone canvassing by early March

Research: Rebecca Bundhun

Scottish independence: key dates

1707 Act of Union dissolves the sovereign Scottish parliament

1967 SNP's Winnie Ewing wins watershed Hamilton by-election

1969 Crowther (later Kilbrandon) Commission set up to consider devolution 1974 The commission recommends devolution. SNP wins seven and 11 seats in two general elections

1978 Scotland Act provides for a Scottish Assembly, subject to a referendum

1 March 1979 Voters choose devolution, but the act cannot stand because they represent less than 40% of the electorate

11 September 1997 New Labour holds another devolution referendum. Result - a majority vote for a Scottish Parliament

19 November 1998 Scotland Act

6 May 1999 First election to the Scottish Parliament: Labour and Liberal Democrats form coalition government

1 July 1999 Power is formally transferred from Westminster

9 October 2004 Parliament building opens in Holyrood

Research: Sarah O'Connor

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: Time to break free?

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge