Scotland: reflections on the referendum

The week before the September 18 referendum saw high drama, due to the release of a yougov poll on September 6 suggesting that the Yes vote had a 51% to 49% lead. The surge was in part due to a lackluster performance by Better Together’s Alistair Darling in his second debate with Alex Salmond on August 25. Salmond had answers to Darling’s economic questions about currency and the NHS, while Darling failed to come up with any arguments to appeal to Scots’ sense of belonging and identity.

The Yes surge triggered a flurry of activity from the Better Together campaign, with the leaders of all three Westminster parties heading north of the border to plead their case. On September 15 David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband signed a pledge promising more powers for the Scottish parliament if full independence was rejected. Downing Street placed calls to business leaders urging them to speak out, and a string of corporate leaders made statements in the final week warning of the dire economic consequences of a Yes vote.

But the most noteworthy development was the extraordinary speech delivered by Gordon Brown’s in Maryhill, Glasgow two days before the referendum. It was Gordon Brown’s finest hour: Scotland’s version of the Gettysburg Address.

Brown reiterated some of the economic arguments against secession. But his speech was remarkable for the passion with which he laid out the Better Together case on identity grounds. He eviscerated what he referred to as “the nationalists” for claiming to speak for Scotland, with some followers calling their opponents “traitors.” He argued that the institutions of which the nationalists are most proud, such as the pound sterling and the National Health Service, were built together, as part of the United Kingdom. He pointed out that Scots and English had fought and died together for a common cause in two world wars. He argued for cooperation and solidarity over disparagement and division.

Seeing Brown performance raised the question of why he had not been given a more prominent role in the Better Together campaign from the outset. Veteran Scottish Labour politician John Reid explained that Alistair Darling had been chosen as the front man for the No campaign because he was a less partisan and divisive figure than Brown, and was more likely to be able to forge a common approach with the Conservative and Liberal-Democratic leaders.

Brown’s speech was probably too late to sway any voters – exit polls (see below) indicated that while some 15% of Yes voters were undecided until the final week, only 9% of No voters had made up their mind in the last week.

Curiously, neither the BBC nor any other news organization bothered to pay for exit polls on election day. So the only source we have for analysis of the demographics of the rival camps is a poll sponsored by Lord Ashcroft. It makes for fascinating reading. 73% of those over the age of 65 voted No, and women were 6% more likely than men to vote No. 57% of No voters said the pound was one of the most important factors in their decision, vindicating Alistair Darling’s focus on currency in the campaign, while the main driver for Yes voters was “disaffection with Westminster politics.” Only 27% of No voters selected a “strong attachment to the UK and its shared history, culture and traditions” as a reason for voting No, while 47% said it was due to fear of the consequences of independence.

More broadly, the whole exercise raises some interesting questions for political scientists. What is the role of history and identity in shaping political decisions? While both sides made emotional appeals to voters’ sense of identity, in the end it seems to have been bread and butter issues that won out.

The referendum drew some praise from around the world for providing an example of how to decide the fate of a country through a peaceful, rational deliberative procedure. The upsurge of public involvement in the campaign and the high (85%) turnout was taken as a sign that democracy is alive and well and can serve as a tool for resolving ethnic disputes.

However, there are also some troubling aspects to the referendum from the point of view of democratic theory. What right does a minority have to set terms for its participation in collective decision making? Under what circumstances should they be allowed to opt out of laws and policies that are applied to citizens living in other regions? Under what conditions does a group have the right to secede – and should that require the consent of the rest of the polity from which they are seceding? Most counties, including China, Russia, Spain and the United States, do not allow secession at all. Moral philosophers tend to argue that secession is only justified if some clear harm has been done to the minority seeking independence. No such direct grievances were present in the Scottish case.

Second, as my Wesleyan colleague Donald Moon has pointed out, neither side really knew what they were voting for. The Yes campaign could not provide definitive questions to whether Scotland would or would not be able to keep the pound or stay in the European Union. The No campaign also was unclear on what exactly was being promised by way of new powers for the Scottish parliament – not least because there was an immediate reaction from many Labour and Conservative MPs questioning the wisdom and fairness of cutting a special deal for Scotland without also giving more powers to England and Wales.

Ideally, one can imagine that if a referendum were to be a solid basis for dividing a functioning democracy, there should be a three-stage process. First, a vote on the principle of secession. Second, assuming the vote was positive, the convening of a constitutional convention which would hammer out the precise terms of the split. Third, a second referendum in which voters are given a chance to vote on independence, this time knowing more or less what it would entail.

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