Analysis |

Lessons From the Scottish Independence Referendum: What Do People Demand From Their State?

There is a lesson here for citizens, and governments of any country that considers itself a democracy.

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Will Catalonia be next? Supporters of Scottish independence hold “estelada” flags, that symbolize Catalonia's independence, during a demonstration in Barcelona , Spain, Friday, Sept. 17.

The results of Thursday’s independence referendum in Scotland contain important lessons on nationalism and citizenship that are relevant not only to the people of the British Isles but for any country that considers itself a democracy.

Fifty-five percent of the Scots decided that despite being a proud nation with a strong identity and ancient history, they preferred not to be an independent country. On the other hand, 45 percent of them, citizens of the United Kingdom of Great Britain for their entire lives, voted to leave it all behind for an unclear political, financial and social future.

Polls conducted after the referendum indicated that the main reasons the Scots voted for or against independence had little to do with issues of national pride and identity. According to one poll, 47 percent of those who voted no, did so mainly because they were worried that independence would jeopardize Scotland’s currency, may leave them outside the European Union and have an adverse impact on employment and inflation rates. Only 27 percent said that their strong feelings for British history and their shared traditions and values with the rest of Britain was a key factor in voting to remain part of the U.K.

This trend is even more marked among those who did vote for an independent Scotland – Scottish identity didn’t feature among their main reasons. Seventy percent said that their chief motive was their desire that decisions regarding Scotland’s future would be made in Scotland, not in the parliament in London where Scottish voters are represented by less than 10 percent of the members. Another 20 percent said their main reason was their belief that a future in an independent Scotland would simply be better.

The breakdown by age groups is also fascinating. Voters over 55-year-olds were overwhelmingly against independence, with the tendency to vote “No” increasing with age. These voters, on the verge of pension age or already well into that period of their lives, were concerned that a newly independent economy would have trouble guaranteeing their benefits and savings. The other group voting in favor of remaining in the U.K. was 18-25-year-olds – those about to start independent lives who were worried about losing their opportunity to study and work in England and other European Union countries.

All the age groups between 25- and 55-years-old, those already working and with families, feeling they needed more control over the lives and hoping that in a smaller country with five million citizens the government would be more attuned to their needs, voted for independence. (16 and17-year-olds were also given the vote in the referendum, and voted overwhelmingly for independence).

It’s not that nationalism and patriotism didn’t play a role in the difficult and sometimes bitter debate between the two camps. But there isn’t a way to decide which is stronger – a separate, distinct Scottish identity or a wider British national pride. At the end of the day, responsible citizens try and make decisions based on more tangible considerations.

For two years, the Scots held an admirable debate on their future as a nation. With the exception of a few incidents of shouting-down and shoving at rallies, there were no incidents of physical violence. It is hard to recall any similar campaign over independence anywhere in the world being held in such a respectable fashion, focused on the very real and relevant issues. The considerations that led the Scots to vote, for either option, were in kind.

The is a lesson here for citizens and governments of any country that considers itself a democracy. People in every country want to feel they have some degree of control over their future and that their state guarantees equality, stability, a chance to succeed in life and the security of a decent retirement. This is the fundamental citizens’ charter and however they voted, the Scots were making a judgement on whether they felt Great Britain or and independent Scotland were best suited to deliver this.

And this is true not just of the British, but Spain and its Catalans, Canada and the Qubecois and, of course, Israel and its Arab minority. National identity is important to the majority and to every minority group, but the key to building strong and well-integrated societies will always be ensuring the social charter.

Pro-independence supporters console each other in George Square in Glasgow, Scotland, on Sept. 19, 2014, following a defeat in the referendum on Scottish independence.Credit: AFP

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