by Rhodri C. Williams
I declined to comment in advance on the Scottish referendum in part because I have been too busy to blog much at all, but also in part because it is none of my business. The wonderful thing about free and fair referenda like this is that they render outside observations almost entirely superfluous. Unless you actually have information that bears directly on the outcome – like EU experts – you are just projecting your own concerns onto somebody else’s drama – like the Spanish government panicking about Catalonia’s impending independence bid. Or China freaked out by any state reaction to regional agitation short of obsessive centralized control.
Perhaps the most spectacular example of such projection has been Russia’s cringe-inducing effort to project its new non-linear warfare to Caledonia. As described in the Guardian, a Russian monitoring team has rubbished the vote there because the rooms where the ballots were counted being “too big”. The same article quotes a Russia Today host questioning the high turnout as “what you would expect in North Korea”. Perhaps they are expecting the Scots to begin demanding an intervention by little green men? Perhaps they had a few geographically challenged paratroopers in the belly of the superannuated bomber they sent to buzz Scotland on referendum day?
As nicely skewered by the “Darth Putin – KGB” twitter account, Russia was clearly hoping that a truly legitimate independence referendum in Scotland would not only distract London from things like sanctions but also somehow cast unearned retroactive legitimacy on the shambles Russia staged in Crimea. However, as observed by Thomas De Waal at the time, the Crimea referendum was not only aggression masquerading as self-determination (even accepting that minorities can secede from states that have blatantly violated their rights, this did not apply in Crimea), but also a departure from what Scotland has now consolidated as international best practice for negotiated democratic decision-making on sovereignty.
Despite some post-referendum ugliness in Glasgow, the Russians’ blatant attempt to make hay on a genuinely democratic referendum, and their misreading of public sentiment afterwards may at least give both sides something to chuckle about. Is it really so inconceivable that placing the fate of a nation in its own hands would not inspire widespread and passionate participation? RT’s cynicism on this point says far more about the state of contemporary Russia than it does about Scotland. Notwithstanding the bruised feelings on both sides, Kevin McKenna points out that the combination of passion and civility throughout the campaign does all sides proud:
Scotland has delivered to the world a new gold standard in how modern political democracy ought to function. This was achieved during a struggle that was as passionate, raw and emotional as anything ever previously encountered in these islands. Yet not a bullet was fired and nor were there any physical casualties. The conduct of those chiefly involved in both campaigns was exemplary and, if not entirely chivalrous, certainly characterised by dignity and mutual respect.
Indeed, even Quebecois sovereignists, beneficiaries of the previous gold standard, lavished praise on Scotland’s campaign, while undeterred Catalonian separatists found consolation for the outcome in admiration of the process that led to it. But McKenna notes the crucial role of “the four horsemen of the British establishment – Westminster, the banks, big business and the media” who “rode north to extinguish the flames of revolt.” The essential negativity of the no campaign seems to have been successful but polarizing, galvanizing a majority to vote against disruptive change while cementing the resolve of the yes campaign to think in terms of a long game.
Meanwhile, there is a great deal of unfinished business churning elsewhere in the UK in the wake of the referendum, with Wales still wavering on a bid of its own, English counties more decisive on greater regional devolution, David Cameron promising “English MPs a greater say over legislation that affects England”, and the UK Independence Party mixing it up by exhorting Scottish MPs to abstain from voting on English parliamentary business in the future.
The greatest challenge will nevertheless be managing a ‘devolution revolution’ promised to Scotland by London’s political class in a manner that does not completely unravel the UK’s frayed sense of itself. Perhaps the most promising outset condition for further autonomy in Scotland is the fact that almost everyone seems to be equally unhappy about it as a solution. Even as the main UK political parties maneuver on how the reforms should be implemented, outgoing Scottish Nationalist Party leader Alex Salmond has accused the same politicians of tricking ‘yes’ voters with a package “cooked up in desperation” at the last minute:
Mr Salmond told the BBC he thought the pledge made by the three leaders days before Thursday’s referendum was “decisive” in winning the historic vote for the “No” side, because voters thought they “could get something anyway without the perceived risk” of independence.
Such tricks are hardly new however, and are quick to emerge wherever minorities get restless and central governments are looking for a quick fix to fob them off. After all, the SNP itself suggested greater autonomy within Scotland for the northern Shetland Islands, when faced with their threat to leave Scotland and become a self-governing territory within the rump-UK in the event of a yes vote. And while autonomy is frequently merely an accessory to the freezing of conflicts rather than their resolution (as, dispiritingly in Eastern Ukraine), it can also prove to be a truly sustainable and satisfactory framework, as in the Åland Islands of Finland
Despite my caution in commenting on the Scotland referendum, by the way, I do have my own sentimental stake in the outcome. The vagaries of life led my maternal grandmother to Ullapool, where she retired, learned Gaelic, joined the SNP before doing so was cool, allegedly spray-painted imperialist statuary, and unforgettably reared up from her strawberry beds whenever the RAF jets roared over on their practice runs to shake her fist and bellow “halligachi” (never translated for her grandson and almost certainly barnyard).
Through my Grandmother, I was trained in the virtues of oatmeal, the art of swimming cold Highland burns, the perfidy of the Sassanachs at Culloden, and the passionate fun of folk bands like Gaberlunzie. It is hard to know what she would have made of last week’s events, but in the end, I think she would have been pleased that Scotland had had its say and pleasantly surprised it had managed to force the process so quickly. Back in the 1980s, the cause of independence was as far-fetched as it got. Seems a long time gone now.