LAST week, I got halfway through drafting my column and lost the ability to think clearly. It turned out to be the onset of Covid. This week, still struggling to focus my thoughts, I decided to write the first draft of this article using dictation software. You’re not seeing that version. It turns out, at least in this Covid recovery phase, that I can talk faster than I can think.

A week late, then, here are some more thoughts on temperance. The concept has fascinated me since I started economic research. Exploring why temperance is often valuable but also hard to practise, I analysed problems of habit formation and the challenges of giving up harmful habits.

This work essentially ignored the conventional disciplinary boundaries between philosophy, psychology, and economics. When I am teaching students and I introduce this material, I preface it by saying that everything I have taught them up until that point about decision-making has been wrong.

Perhaps the most important point to emerge from this research is an understanding of the way in which people create the world in which they live. The great achievement of the last 500 years – bloody, cruel and confused as they were – has been to break the link between an expanding human population and famine.

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We still face the challenge of understanding how to deal with climate change, and progress towards it is still slow and stuttering. Nonetheless, human history suggests a tendency to delay and delay until action must be taken. And even when action is essential, building agreement takes time and effort.

Temperance encourages us to take the long view. On climate change, we should not focus on the costs we will have to pay – especially those of us who are unlikely to live to see many of the benefits. Instead, we should be thinking about future generations: the world’s citizens in the next century.

Temperance should also encourage us to look well beyond winning the Scottish referendum. Let us assume that the First Minister succeeds in leading the campaign to regain Scotland’s independence late in 2023. Listening to Dr Philippa Whitford in conversation with Lesley Riddoch, I was struck by the extent to which she assumed there would be substantial continuity in policy development as Scotland became independent.

If independence is to mean anything, Scotland must deviate from the path set out by the United Kingdom. Devolution permits this to a limited extent. Gaps between Scotland and the UK are small compared with the gaps between the ability of the United Kingdom and many of its European neighbours to improve health and education and also to achieve economic growth or social cohesion or wellbeing.

The challenge of independence is then to become an ordinary European country. That will take temperance. Major social changes take time, and need careful design. Dr Whitford hinted at several examples of this from her practice as a consultant surgeon, such as gradually changing the relationship between patients and doctors, so that patients would be more fully engaged in the process of treatment.

My own field of behavioural economics offers a very salutary lesson. When politicians have encountered it, they have often been attracted to a rather simplistic interpretation of Professor Richard Thaler’s ideas. For more than 20 years, he has argued that policy makers should identify the “choice architecture” in which decisions are made, and adapt it so people make the most beneficial choice for themselves and for society.

This is not the participative approach which Dr Whitford was discussing. It assumes that experts understand the needs of people. It presumes that people will unthinkingly accept being steered in the experts’ chosen direction – and that if they can see the apparatus guiding them, they will realise that all is being done for the best.

That was the model of New Labour, of the Cameronian Conservatives, and of the New Democrats in the USA. Pursuing a dream of non-ideological, factionless politics, they created the conditions in which Donald Trump could offer to drain the swamp and Boris Johnson could organise parties in Downing Street. In trying to find ways by which governments could better serve the people, these experiments have instead driven a wedge between politicians and the electorate.

Listening to Dr Whitford, I did not pick up any sense that this might be a challenge in Scotland after independence. Yet, in the implementation of the named person legislation, the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, and possibly now in legislation on gender recognition, we have evidence of the Scottish Government seeming to work in a sealed environment, in which the design of policy alienates the public.

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Settle the constitutional question, and Scotland’s politicians will have to be responsive to public opinion – or face the electoral consequences.

For independence to work well, in a temperate approach, the period following the referendum would perhaps proceed at a rather leisurely pace. There should be more than an echo of the conscious debate in the Scottish Enlightenment about the nature of institutions which would serve Scotland well.

In the 18th century, no country had ever built a democratic government. The arguments about what was likely to work were largely speculative. Where they were applied well, we find countries which are today richer, happier, and more cohesive.

And so, I commend temperance as a moral value – for winning the referendum, and then making independence joyous.