The Scottish independence referendum is one of the more puzzling political episodes of recent decades. As the Financial Times noted in an editorial opposing Scottish secession, “there is little precedent for a hitherto stable modern democracy splitting apart in peacetime, in the middle of an economic recovery.”
The vote creates issues were none existed before: there’d be no question of where the British nuclear arsenal would be located past 2016 if Scotland weren’t voting on Independence on September 18th. Neither would there be the specter of a deep Scottish recession, the looming possibility of economic crisis in another peripheral and economically vulnerable European country.
The EU wouldn’t be faced with the question of admitting a separatist entity to its ranks — if this vote weren’t taking place, no one would have to wonder whether Spain and Belgium, EU members with their deep regional and national fissures of their own, would allow an independent Scotland into the club.
Even if the Scottish electorate delivers a “No” on September 19th — a likelihood, based on the latest polls — the United Kingdom is risking the loss of nearly a third of its territory, while raising economic and national security-related quandaries that are largely the creation of the Independence vote.
So why did the United Kingdom’s political leadership, and in particular Conservative party Prime Minister David Cameron, allow the vote to happen in the first place?
As Patrick Wintour explained in a September 9th column in The Guardian, Cameron let the referendum to proceed in order to both acknowledge and circumvent an increase in Scottish nationalism after the country got its own parliament in 1998.
The Scottish National Party (SNP) has been the major political beneficiary of this “devolution” of power from London to the UK’s constituent entities: when the SNP won a stunning parliamentary majority in 2011, “Cameron felt he had to respect that result and give the Scots a chance to vote on their future.”
The SNP’s victory was overwhelming enough, British journalist Liam Hoare told Business Insider, “to shock Westminster and in effect place the question of a referendum on independence on the table.”
In signing the 2012 Edinburgh Agreement allowing for an Independence vote, Cameron was “responsible for the referendum’s date and terms,” Wintour writes, including “the lack of a turnout threshold, 16-year-olds being allowed to vote — and Scots living outside Scotland not getting a vote.” He also opted against presenting other possibilities on the ballot, including “devo-max,” a framework for increased autonomy whose inclusion on the ballot some in the SNP actually supported.
Cameron’s stance was a “calculated gamble,” writes Wintour, an attempt to permanently settle the Independence question at a time when nationalist sentiments appeared to be at their height. In Wintour’s view, Cameron made “a firm commitment not to discuss any further constitutional change ahead of the referendum, because that would only cloud the issue of separation.”
Cameron was confident that any burgeoning Scottish desire for Independence would wilt in the face of an actual choice: “It was all or nothing.” But framing the vote solely around Independence, and not around other, non-Independence possibilities, is proving to be a fateful miscalculation.
There are numerous historical precedents for failed secession efforts permanently settling similarly long-standing political and national disputes. The closely-fought Quebec Independence referendum of 1995 helped settle one of Canada’s defining political issues by precluding its most extreme possible solution. Independence racked up slightly more than 5% in a 2012 vote in Puerto Rico, ensuring the Caribbean island would remain a part of the U.S. Even Staten Island’s failed attempt to leave New York City in 1993 forced the Five Boroughs to come to grips with life together (Staten Island actaully voted to secede that year, but the State Assembly determined the vote was nonbinding. Separatist sentiments dissipated over the next decade, and the Island has made no other serious subsequent attempt to leave New York City).
Cameron thought something similar would happen in Scotland. “Westminster believed that a strong ‘no’ vote would take the question of independence off the table for a generation and undercut the authority of the SNP in Scotland,” Hoare told Business Insider. Cameron figured that the UK and Scotland were better off figuring out a constitutional fix to their relationship after independence had been dismissed as a possibility.
This blunder, a product of the vagaries of British politics and the hubris of the country’s top leadership, has created needless uncertainty on matters ranging from the nuclear arms to the future of the British pound to the integrity of several countries in mainland Europe.
Even with a “no” vote, Europe and the broader world are now dealing with the consequences of a small and essentially local political mistake.
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