Lessons from Scotland

By Ewan MacPhee28.09.2014Europe, Global Policy

By choosing to stay in the Union, Scots probably did the right thing. But did they do it for the right reasons?

Midnight, 19th September 2014. No definitive results are expected until 6:00 a.m., but the media is rife with speculation. Understandably, neither pollsters nor politicians have much response to offer on any question regarding predictions at this stage.

The replies we see a lot of are focusing on who has voted or, rather, how many have voted. The turnout has been extraordinarily high. Whatever the result, there are incredible rates of participatory democracy on show in Scotland. Voting is not compulsory; people are simply more engaged than ever.

Scotland has lessons to offer. The real issue to worry about may be who is learning the lessons, but I’ll come to that later. Whatever the result, Scotland can be proud that such an open, far-reaching and democratic debate has taken place.

The debate has been open in the sense that everybody has been open to discuss independence. In bars and restaurants, at schools and at bingo games: everyone has an opinion. Even if they haven’t quite made up their minds, everyone has had something to say. Everyone realized this would affect their lives. This openness hasn’t felt normal, but it should be normal.

Where is the real democracy?

There is also no doubt that the debate has been far-reaching, spreading out across the continent; it has had a particularly heavy presence in Spain resulting from Catalonian demands for a similar referendum, and has trickled over across the pond to the U.S., where Obama has occasionally entered the debate against independence (most recently on Twitter on the eve of the referendum).

The referendum itself has undoubtedly been democratic. People had one of two options to choose from – staying as part of the UK or leaving the UK to become an independent country. There have, however, been strong arguments – arguments which, while they may well go against the grain, are nonetheless thought provoking, particularly in raising eyebrows over the democratic nature of the debate.

In the lead-up to Scots heading to the polls in hordes, a number of big businesses have stepped into the debate to try to convince people, or, as the “Yes” side put it, “to scare people” into voting against a separate state. With unresolved issues over currency and oil and gas revenues as well as big question marks over public finances, many have fairly doubted the potential for success of an independent Scotland.

Most recently, the pound dropped against the dollar. Market fluctuations following the infamous “Yes-in-the-lead” poll led many business leaders to come out and point the finger at Scotland. “Look what would happen if you vote Yes” seemed to be the common call from the CEOs and banks of Britain.

This leads me to one of the strongest arguments I have heard during the debate, an argument which reaches far beyond the #indyref: if we, the voters, simply cast our votes on the basis of how our markets and economies function, where is the real democracy? Should I consult my bank manager before heading out to vote? Should all political parties send their manifestos for stamped approval to an elite minority running the markets?

In the last few weeks running up to referendum day, I have been increasingly convinced that people’s choice to vote yes or no will come down to a judgment on whether they will have more or less money in the bank at the end of the day. This is a very fair judgment to make. Most elections pass like this. In good times, why do we need to vote for change? But these aren’t good times for many people in Scotland.

Poverty in Scotland has increased to 16 percent of the whole population. 45 percent of all people in poverty in Scotland are in in-work poverty. Child poverty increased to 19 percent in 2012-13.

This was a referendum in which I wanted people to vote through their values, not through their bank balances. Of course, that is not to say that a vote against independence goes against each individual’s values. Certainly not. None but the individual can decide his or her values.

However, I do see a big risk in putting people under reluctant pressure to vote against their values in adopting this financially orientated campaign strategy. There was a real risk that this dangerous game was at play in the last weeks of campaigning in Scotland.

Eurosceptics were watching closely

So what are the main lessons to draw from Scotland? To get people to the polls, make the issues matter. By the time the week of the poll was upon us, even the month, everyone recognized that this vote would make a big difference. This is not easy to put into practice.

Criticisms of Westminster elections center on three things: the electoral system (in the first past-the-post-system, many people’s votes really do not count), the indistinguishable policies of the three main parties, and the disenchantment with the establishment of Westminster itself.

There have been many who have called the “Yes” movement anti-establishment. This campaign, then, has worrying implications for another anti-establishment movement: UKIP. Eurosceptics were undoubtedly watching closely, maybe even taking notes, as to how an in-out referendum on membership of a union was being fought. They have no doubt drawn up a list of “what-to-do’s” and “what-not-to-do’s” for when their time comes and membership of the EU is put to the vote.

Values rather than cold economics

The so-called establishment, in the form of the main political parties, also has a thing or two to learn from this experience when an in-out EU referendum comes. Values have their role to play in the argument, not just cold economics.

The UK would need to bring the EU closer to the people in this fight, not making it feel like the distant, alien body of elites. This should happen sooner rather than later.

When people engage in political debate, they see the importance of politics. But political engagement must be an open, reciprocal, two-way street between those in power and the people. While the people in Scotland have done their bit for democracy, those in power in Westminster and across Europe have important lessons to learn from what happened here.

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