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Scottish Independence Vote Holds Important Lessons — And Possibilities

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In 1998 the people of Scotland, part of the United Kingdom, gained a considerable measure of self-government. For the first time in almost three centuries their parliament met in Edinburgh, the capital, after a referendum among Scots in the previous year resulted in 74.3 percent of voters answering “Yes” to the statement, “I agree that there should be a Scottish Parliament.” The subsequent Scotland Act passed by the British Parliament set up the devolved assembly and defined its limited powers. Wales and Northern Ireland also secured home rule-type parliaments in Cardiff and Belfast.

The assemblies differed in their respective constitutions, but all had something in common: the governments were all subordinate to the central authority in London.

For Scotland, at least, that may be about to change.

After what The Guardian called a “stunning” victory in the Scottish elections of 2011, winning 69 of 129 seats, the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), led by Alex Salmond, immediately began talking up plans for a new referendum on the status of Scotland within the United Kingdom — one that would ask voters whether Scotland should secede from the UK. “Just as the Scottish people have restored trust in us, we must trust the people as well,” he said. “Which is why, in this term of the parliament, we will bring forward a referendum and trust the people on Scotland’s own constitutional future.” He vowed to hold the vote within five years.

It is no surprise that the UK’s prime minister, David Cameron, was not crazy about that idea. After acknowledging that the SNP had indeed won an “emphatic” victory, he nonetheless pledged to oppose any plans for such a referendum and claimed he would “campaign to keep our United Kingdom together with every single fiber I have.”

Interesting enough, the chances for Scottish independence don’t look very good. Opinion polls vary, but none has shown support from more than a third of population.

That isn’t stopping the SNP from moving forward. Salmond and Cameron met in October “to agree [on] the terms of a referendum that could break up the United Kingdom,” reports Union Jack, a monthly newspaper for British expatriates in the United States. “Cameron does not want to be the leader who presides over the demise of the 300-year-old political union between England and its northern neighbor,” the report continues. “But, practically, there is little he can do to stop politicians in semi-autonomous Scotland asking voters whether they want to break free.”

Representatives from the two governments met to discuss details, wrangling over issues such as the date of the vote and the exact wording of the question. Both sides said they reached a deal, and it looks as though the fateful day will come in October 2014. Like a similar vote in Canada on Quebec independence in 1995 — which failed by less than 1 percent — voters will be asked to give a Yes or No answer on national sovereignty.

Regardless of the outcome, this issue is important because it demonstrates again how a modern, centralized state can — and should — approach the issue of secession in a responsible and civilized manner. It is especially important in light both of the economic crises faced by many countries around the globe and of often-irreconcilable cultural differences among segments of their populations. It is possible to address in a peaceful way the frictions that arise. States within a larger union can and do have the option of effecting even radical change in a constitutional manner.

It also shows a certain political maturity on the part of the British people, in stark contrast to the kind of blustering militarism typically exhibited by Americans when discussing the possibility of states‘ seceding from the Union. “We already settled that” is a common refrain from those who lack the intellectual capacity, historical knowledge, or even the basic human decency to allow for the possibility that the hundreds of thousands of deaths, imposition of martial law, long-term military occupation, terrorizing of civilian populations, suppression of free speech, and massive centralization of power that resulted from the United States government’s attack on its seceding states a century and a half ago do not provide ipso facto resolution on the matter. Nor is it any kind of guidebook for future action.

Regardless of what the polls say today, neither Cameron’s government in London nor Salmond’s in Edinburgh is willing to avoid the important and potentially thorny discussions that absolutely must take place to ensure an orderly change, should the majority of the Scottish people vote for separation in two years. For example, there are the matters of Scottish membership in the EU, control over UK military bases and army regiments in Scotland, £6.5 billion in revenue generated by oil and gas reserves in the North Sea, and the Scottish government’s share of the national debt. Another uncomfortable issue is ownership of Scotland’s two largest financial institutions, the Royal Bank of Scotland and the Bank of Scotland: both were bailed out by British taxpayers in 2008. The two sides are far from agreement on those questions — but at least they’re talking about them. And better now than later.

There are also wider implications to consider. Basque separatists in Spain and Flemish separatists in Belgium would both receive a massive boost from a Yes vote in Scotland. Financial meltdowns in Greece, Ireland, and Hungary could drive those nations out of the European Union.

In the United States, the continuing and dangerous growth of federal power, trillions of dollars of national debt, and the resultant looming “fiscal cliff” may be addressable only through a dismantling of the Union. Financial journalist Jeff Opdyke suggested recently that “Red and blue will not just define how people vote in the future … it will define how new countries begin to organize themselves in the Great Breakup of America.” If he is right, we can only hope that politicians in the various states and in Washington, D.C., approach the matter with the kind of civility, forethought, and wisdom currently being shown by political leaders in the United Kingdom.

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    Scott McPherson is policy adviser at The Future of Freedom Foundation. An advocate of the Free State Project, he lives in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.