“Not everything that counts gets counted and not everything that gets counted, counts.”
Albert Einstein

SOMETIMES it takes a genius to spell out in simple terms a general statement that describes our current malaise. All of us, every day, are bombarded by messages that purport to tell us how the world is ordered and what needs to be done.

How do we decide what and who can be trusted to tell the truth? What has been distorted by the time it reaches us? Who gains?

Put simply, how do you decide what counts for you?

The answer in large part is to be guided by your inner sense of right and wrong. Aside from a few sociopaths, most of us have this in-built faculty. We have a sense of right and wrong and we tend to “know” what counts.

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It is called morality. I like to believe that we are moral creatures, bound by a set of ethics that helps us navigate an increasingly uncertain and, some would argue, amoral world.

And research suggests that we get our values and principles mainly from two sources: nature and nurture.

If this is true for individuals, what inference can be drawn for groups of people? Are some countries, for instance, more ethical than others? Can a society once ethical become immoral? Some will point to 1930s Germany as an example of the latter.

Others warn that Brexit Britain is following a similar path.

This column has defined a constitution as "what a country stands for, and what it will not stand for". At heart, a constitution is a moral statement. A code of ethics for a country.

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Independence-minded folks often assert that there is a fundamental difference in values between Scotland and the UK.

Unionists, by contrast, reject this notion and claim there is very little moral difference. And furthermore, they contend, should Scotland become independent it would inevitably and rapidly travel the same route as the UK.

Unionists say that economic and market forces would force a departure from any lofty moral aspirations and Scotland would inevitably end up in the same ethical morass as the UK.

How do we decide which of these views carries most weight? Helpfully, a study published by Lord Ashcroft this week provides a real insight into what these differences are. It places the SNP ahead of the UK parties across a range of ethical attributes.

These include: ‘‘Shares my values’’; ‘‘will do what they say’’; ‘‘represents the whole country, not just some types of people’’; and ‘‘stands for fairness’’. One of the largest disparities was to the question, ‘‘on the side of people like me’’, where the SNP are a full seven points better than any UK party.

It is vital to underscore the importance of these findings in the moral context of the UK. These results suggest that the SNP have built up a reserve of ‘‘moral capital’’. Does this matter? After all, it is not like cash ... you can’t spend it, can you?

The short answers are: yes, it does matter; and yes, you can spend it. Indeed, in some respects, moral capital is more valuable than cash.

Take the case of large corporations. Every year they spend a king’s ransom on lobbying, but it does not make them seem any more ethical if they are perceived to behave badly.

Most corporations fear groups such as Greenpeace, who have very few resources. But environmental groups such as Greenpeace are generally well regarded by the general public, in contrast to most corporations.

People trust Greenpeace – and the young environmental activist Greta Thunberg – because they have masses of ethical capital.

Over the long term, sound ethics generates trust. You cannot buy trust. And you cannot even begin to address trust issues effectively if you have no moral capital.

This takes us back neatly to the constitution. When people in Scotland are next confronted with an independence referendum, they will no doubt be bombarded by Unionist propaganda from all quarters. Much of this propaganda will make full use of social media as well as the conventional mainstream outlets. It will likely be relentless and doubtless well-funded.

In this coming blizzard of claim and counterclaim, people will inevitably fall back on what serves them best. They will reach out for that small voice within themselves. And it will boil down to the answer to one overriding question. Whom do I trust?

The vital and missing link in all of this is that there is still no single statement of what a new Scotland stands for and what it will not stand for. Technically, Scotland is little different from the UK in this respect. Right now, the UK has no code of ethics for the state, and we can see daily and all around us the moral turpitude this creates.

It is a serious error for Scotland to make the same mistake.