Why I like negotiating

Published: Sep 18 , 2014
Author: Stephen White

Publishing this on the day the Scottish population votes on Independence, we are no different from any of the other pundits - unable to forecast the result. But we can forecast that whatever the result the Scottish people will lose their ability to function truly as a democracy.

This is because whichever side has the majority the result will be extremely close – 51/49, or 52/48 or something similar. In practical terms therefore about half of the population will getting exactly what they don’t want.

There is something innately undemocratic about a decision being made by simple majority in a situation where the choices are polarized – black or white. There is no half way house in this referendum, there are no shades of grey. Just as a woman can either be pregnant or not pregnant, but not a little bit pregnant, after the referendum there can be no such thing as being a little bit independent. And all the blandishments made over the last few days of further devolved powers won’t make Scotland the slightest bit independent if the ‘No’ vote wins

Look at the democratic process as it happened in Egypt in 2012. After decades of what was effectively a dictatorship during the Mubarak era (yes there were elections during that time but they were recognizably a sham) the result of the Arab Spring uprising was that the electorate were given the opportunity of a real choice between secular parties and religious parties, the most powerful of which was the Muslim Brotherhood headed by Mohammed Morsi. Mr Morsi eventually won in the second round of voting with 51.7% of the votes cast; only 52% of the eligible Egyptian population voted – I expect the turnout in Scotland will be much higher.

So a classic example of a polarized electorate splitting approximately half and half on a matter of stark principle – in the Egyptian case between rule on religious lines and rule on secular lines. There were brave words early on about the new government being inclusive, but where inclusiveness breaches long held values it becomes impossible to implement. So President Morsi began to adopt powers which would enable his party to legislate in keeping with their religious beliefs. And the disaffected 48% minority were goaded into taking action, leading to his eventual arrest and the demise of his party.

I have no doubt that my Scottish friends will tell me that it is a far cry from Cairo to Edinburgh, especially in terms of political will and sophistication. I’m not so sure. The syndrome known as majoritarianism - the idea that winning an election, by however slim a margin, gives the majority the right to do whatever it wants – is very seductive. Once the vote is taken there is no possibility of a compromise – Scotland either will be independent or it won’t, and those in power will follow their principles.

And that is why I believe that the concept of the referendum was flawed from the beginning. It would have been better for those seeking independence to sit down with their counter parties – those for the status quo ante both in Scotland and in the rest of the United Kingdom – and negotiate to find some middle ground. By definition opportunities produced through negotiation are more multi-faceted and much more complex than through a Yes/No vote.

Too late now.

Stephen White



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Stephen White
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My client was sharing with me a negotiation he was involved in that was, as he put it, “jump the shark” worthy. He was very enthusiastic about it. In fact, he was hopeful that it was going to lead to more opportunities for him. He said his client thought the negotiation was “jump the shark” worthy too. As I listened to his positivity and enthusiasm, I started to realize that his definition of “jump the shark” is very different from mine. Quoting Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, I told him, “I don’t think that phrase means what you think it means.” A panicked expression came across his face as he realized what it meant for his negotiation, and he quickly transitioned into techniques for avoiding the sharks altogether.

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