MILLIONS of people took the chance yesterday to determine their country’s future in a 300-year-old political union. We should not under-estimate the historical significance of the referendum on Scottish independence as the votes are declared this morning.
However, does it merit the catastrophic language that our political leaders and political commentators used with growing frequency during the final weeks of the campaign? Is it the “painful divorce” David Cameron has claimed it is, as he urged Scots not to vote for the end of the United Kingdom as we know it? Is it the “end of Britishness”, as the columnist Ian Jack argued in The Guardian this week? I am not so sure.
What most politicians and many commentators seem to have lost sight of is that this is a vote on political independence. That is, this is a question of whether Scotland wants to own and manage its own political system – the institutions and decision-making structures that make up a nation-state. The whole history of the modern period, from the French Revolution of 1789 onwards, is propelled forward by the thrust for this kind of self-determination. It should not surprise us in 2014.
More importantly, this claim for political independence is very different from a claim for cultural, historical, or economic independence. Scotland is not demanding these forms of independence, quite simply because it would mean demanding the impossible: Scotland can no more be independent from the rest of the UK in all of these areas than the UK can be historically, culturally, or economically independent of the US; nor, for very different reasons, that France or Germany could ever be independent of each other in any of these spheres. This has been the case throughout the entire period of the nation-state system, and is even more true today, in the age of globalisation.
The dividing lines between these two very different forms of dependency – political versus the rest – have become hopelessly blurred in the heat of debate around yesterday’s referendum and are likely to spill over into the analysis of the result when it is declared this morning.
But it is not beyond us to undo this muddle: are we not politically mature enough in the UK, the oldest of the world’s modern polities, to state clearly that Scotland can be politically independent of the rest of the UK yet entirely dependent in these other ways? And to state just as loudly the reverse: that the UK is politically independent yet at the same time culturally, historically, and economically dependent on Scotland, as it has been through its entire history?
The advent of new political systems of representation and decision making in Holyrood will in a very real sense bring democracy infinitely closer to citizens from Stranraer to Stromness, but it will have little real effect on these longstanding dependencies.
So let’s not fret about yesterday’s vote. Indeed, let’s celebrate it, no matter the outcome this morning. Who can remember an election, referendum or vote with a turnout in the region of 90 per cent? Who can remember a vote of such constitutional importance, and of such potential political impact?
Think of the millions of people across the UK, Scots and otherwise, who were energised by this vote. And let’s not forget the impact of the campaign on politicians of all side of the border: the frenzied campaign of the last two weeks has focused the minds of our leading politicians in ways that it is hard to imagine would have been brought about by anything other than a vote of this magnitude. And a good thing it is too: the five million plus people of Scotland have suddenly brought about an accountability amongst our political class that has been all too sadly missing in recent years.
The impact of this referendum, and the campaign it engendered, is not just about a one-off of expression of this collective will: last week’s BBC debate in Glasgow, which was packed to the rafters, involved more than 7,000 secondary school students. This could bring an entire generation into the new political debates that will emerge in Scotland, and may emerge in regions across the rest of the UK as a new clamour for democratic participation spreads.
So as the political and commentator class grow ever more hysterical, it is worth remembering what that great champion of liberty and self-determination, the 19th century political theorist John Stuart Mill, said. “A people may be unprepared for good institutions, but to kindle a desire for them is a necessary part of the preparation.”
Irrespective of the final outcome, the kind of preparation for good citizenship and good institutions that stems from this referendum should be our focus here. It has – after all – been a vote without precedent in recent times.
Andy Price is head of politics at Sheffield Hallam University.