As Scottish independence referendum approaches, students should take notice

Andrew Wilbur

After this Thursday, the United Kingdom as we know it may cease to exist. Every registered voter in Scotland has the opportunity that day to cast a simple, straightforward vote: “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country? Yes/No.” The American media has barely touched the topic, and U.S. politicians and state officials have avoided making meaningful comment. Why should Americans care about the Scottish independence referendum taking place this week? Why should college students in particular be interested? I want to look past the numbers, although these should be enough to justify more attention to the topic. The U.K. is, after all, the world’s sixth-largest economy and stands to lose about 5 million people and $250 billion in gross domestic product in the event of Scottish independence. There are also significant implications for NATO, the European Union and national diplomatic services should a new country materialize on the northern tip of the British Isles. The current generation of college students should be viewing the Scottish independence movement as an experiment in popular democracy, a renewed model of politics for an age of fragmented allegiances, unequal influence and new media.

Until relatively recently, Scottish independence was considered a fringe movement, its motives defined largely by the Scottish National Party.  The SNP has developed a mixed political profile since its inception in the 1930s, with dips and spikes in membership reflecting its changing platforms. Until the last decade, its peak of success was considered to be a period in the 1970s when it sent several Members of Parliament, MPs, to the House of Commons in Westminster, where those MPs made a case for Scottish independence that did little to motivate anyone outside the party’s core.

The intervening years, however, have done much to reveal the democratic deficit that now forms the basis of a widespread, cross-party drive for independence. From 1979 to 1997, the Conservative Party, led first by Margaret Thatcher and then John Major, consistently held onto power in the U.K. Much of the party’s success has been attributed to its support base in the densely populated southeast of England. Scottish support for the Conservative Party has dramatically diminished since Thatcher’s first victory — and hasn’t been particularly strong since the 1950s. Scotland’s current constituency boundaries send 59 MPs to Westminster in a general election. In the last four of these, not more than one Conservative MP has managed to get elected in Scotland. The present U.K. government, however, is led by the Conservatives in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, a party that obtained only six Scottish seats in the last election. By contrast, the Scottish Parliament — which for our purposes here can be thought of as akin to a U.S. state legislature, though there are some significant differences — is dominated by the SNP and Labour Party, with a more pluralistic representation of other parties than that seen in Westminster. This situation, which seems intractable in light of a “No” vote on independence — and another potential Conservative victory in 2016 — has left many in Scotland feeling that their supposedly representative government in Westminster has no mandate north of the border.

To make a more direct comparison to American politics, the current situation in Scotland resembles a hypothetical American state, roughly the size of Colorado in terms of both population and economy, where the two-party Republican and Democrat system of Washington has simply ceased to exist. Instead, the dominant party in Congress has virtually no representation from this state, and the state’s own legislature is composed of multiple, more regionally focused parties that feel perpetually thwarted by Washington’s Republican and Democrat machines. 

Ideas that until recently seemed the dogmatic remnant of the SNP have spread across the political spectrum in Scotland, engaging younger voters in particular, who have transformed the notion of independence into a renewed and creative vision of participatory democracy. The outline of an independent Scotland, agreed upon across party lines, encourages local decision-making, constitutional reform and fairer representation for small political parties. While the SNP has often been accused of promoting “anti-English” attitudes and a vague ethno-nationalism — charges that had some merit in the 1970s — the cause of independence has been adopted by numerous English people living in Scotland as well as other immigrant communities within the country. 

Many latecomers to the Yes camp describe a journey from skepticism, or even scorn, to a hopeful sense of possibility for a more just and democratic society. “Inspiration” is a word that commentators on the Yes campaign tend to use regularly, and with justification. All indicators suggest that the vote on Thursday will be very close, and the majority may choose to stay bound to the United Kingdom. Even if that happens, there are vital lessons to be learned from this campaign that should be the source of inspiration far beyond Scotland’s borders. 

First, the independence campaign proves that no political system is too ossified to be broken apart. Second, the growth of the independence movement owes nothing to puppet masters. While it was once possible to easily conflate Scottish independence with a single political party, even unionists concede that the Yes campaign owes much of its success to a masterful use of new media, grassroots organizing and a diverse, self-supporting base. Finally, the independence movement cannot be reduced to a tired left/right dichotomy. Voters can only guess at the political composition of an independent Scottish parliament, but the Yes campaign is unified in its belief that more direct representation will produce a better outcome for all. Unusually, partisan rancor has been muffled by a diverse consensus around a common objective.

It is probably too late to hope for a similar style of politics to emerge in America before our next election cycle, but if the Scottish independence movement can teach us anything, it’s that “hope” and “change” don’t have to be empty slogans or targets of mockery, but can — and should — influence politics within a broad range of opinion. Whatever the outcome of Thursday’s referendum, Scotland has shown that politics outside of entrenched elites, big money and partisan warfare is not only possible, but may be the only route to building a more legitimate representative democracy.

Wilbur is a media support technician in the Perry-Castañeda Library.