Referendum showed it can be good to see ourselves as others see us

This article first appeared in The Herald.

For a few months in 2014, Scotland moved to the centre of international attention.

Politicians and journalists, used to thinking of Scotland as a colourful region of a stable country called England, scrambled to understand what was going on. If the United Kingdom was about to break up, they reasoned, it could happen anywhere. For some, this was an existential threat while, for others, Scotland was a beacon of hope. Either way, we were light years away from the early 1970s, when I wrote a PhD thesis on Scottish politics and struggled to convince people there was such a thing.

While some foreign observers approached the referendum with apprehension, the general consensus among those who came here was of an impressive exercise in democracy. For once, a country had found a peaceful and democratic way of resolving a nationality question, with both sides agreed on the rules and the question and pledged to accept the result. The campaign was peaceful and no more bad-tempered than a normal UK election contest. This perspective from informed outsiders is important in the face of embittered Unionists claiming intimidation and dark plots to excuse their campaign failures, and of cybernats alleging foul play.

Of course, the attitudes of outsiders depended on how they applied its lessons back home. It is no secret that leaders of other states fervently hoped for a No, however diplomatically they insisted that it was a matter for the Scottish people. Fears of contagion were especially live in those states with their own restive minorities. European officials including Jose Manuel Barroso (president of the European Commission), Herman van Rompuy (president of the European Council) and commissioner Joaquim Almunia, made more explicit, but very clumsy, interventions warning that Scotland could be outside the EU.

By the end of the campaign, however, I found more understanding among the Brussels community that Scotland was actually keener on staying in the EU than was political opinion in England. Spain was particularly worried about the precedent Scotland might set but even the Spanish foreign minister was not above making a bit of mischief by suggesting that, if the UK did withdraw from Europe, Scotland would be welcomed back in. The occasion was a presentation about Gibraltar, a sore point for Spain.

Nowhere was the Scottish debate followed more closely than in Catalonia, whose government planned its own referendum for November 9. The Catalan independence debate never really got off the ground and was mired in legalistic disputes about whether a vote was even possible. David Cameron became an unlikely hero to Catalan nationalists (even on the left) for the Edinburgh Agreement. Why, they asked, could the Spanish government not do the same?

There are two answers. One, that the Spanish constitution does not allow it, is only half convincing because the constitution can be changed or re-interpreted and the question tweaked to allow some sort of "consultation". More serious is a difference in political culture and practice. Catalans attribute this to historic British pragmatism and moderation, until I point out that, 100 years ago, on the eve of the First World War, the Conservative Party was countenancing armed resistance to Home Rule (not even independence) for Ireland. Something has changed in British Unionism and it is here that there are lessons to be drawn.

There was intense interest in Quebec as it was expected that the nationalists would win a parliamentary majority and might proceed with a third referendum, the last one having failed narrowly in 1995. Following that experience, the Canadian federal parliament had passed a Clarity Act laying down rules for a future referendum. UK officials had discussed this with their counterparts in Ottawa in advance of the Edinburgh agreement but there were key differences.

The Clarity Act stipulated that there should be a "clear majority", which means more than 50 per cent, and that allows the federal parliament to decide whether the question is clear enough. Former constitutional affairs minister Stépane Dion even suggested that the federal parliament should pronounce only after a referendum, allowing it to interpret the result any way it liked. None of this was accepted by the Quebec parliament. Had the UK Government made similar stipulations, the Edinburgh Agreement would have been impossible. Much international opinion, however, remained puzzled that 50 per cent should be considered enough. In the event, the Parti Quebecois lost the election after one of their star candidates raised the referendum prospect that the party leadership had tried to play down.

One place that was curiously uninterested was Flanders, where the nationalist party has made progress in recent years to become the largest party. Although they are committed to independence in some undetermined future, this is not an immediate issue. Indeed, as the Flemish nationalists were brought into the government, there was, for the first time in decades, no commitment to further devolution in the new government's programme.

The Italian region of Veneto staged its own unofficial online referendum in March. The organizers claimed a 62 per cent turnout with almost 90 per cent voting Yes. Critics have noted the lack of impartial verification of the location of voters (which seems to have included a significant number in Chile). Even among the local politicians, it looks like what Italians call the politics of spettacolo, or theatre. The president of the regional council confessed that he only voted Yes because it would have no consequences.

Less entertaining was an interview with Russian state television, in which I was asked about the differences between Scotland and eastern Ukraine and why the west was so hypocritical in countenancing independence for the one and not the other. As I reeled off the contrasts - democratic culture, agreed question, peaceful context, lack of external intimidation or armed gangs - the interviewer insisted that he could not see any difference at all.

On the 18th of September, the world's media descended on Edinburgh. Amid a frenzy of media interviews, I squeezed in a meeting with a delegation from the Quebec parliament, lunch with the leader of the Basque Nationalist Party and tea with director of a Catalan think tank. Colleagues from Canada and Spain thronged to our centre to watch the results. During the campaign our team did hundreds of interviews, in half a dozen languages, with media across all continents. Reporters did their homework, they learned about Scotland, and their audiences gained a new perspective on the nation.

Of course it is not possible just to transfer the experience of a democratic exercise from one place to another. There is no "Scottish way" of resolving nationality conflicts that would provide a remedy for very different places. Catalonia had its vote on November 9 but, with no agreement on the rules or the question and an inconclusive result(Yes won 80 per cent of the vote but with a turnout of around 40 per cent), it is clear that Unionists had just stayed at home. Bad lessons as well as good will be drawn from 2014 but, when we worry about our constitutional obsessions and intractable debates about West Lothian Questions and Barnett Formulas, it is sometimes good to see ourselves as others see us.

 

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post by Michael Keating
University of Aberdeen
22nd December 2014
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