Teaching Politics in a Changing Scotland

I’m often asked to speak to groups of visiting international students about Scotland’s referendum process – providing them with a primer on the Scottish political system, how the referendum came about, and how we, as academics, understand and explain these results. Once they get over their disappointment that they aren’t speaking to a real life Scot (the accent gives it away), they are intrigued by both the political arrangements and process of political transformation. 
 
We start by discussing how the United Kingdom came to be and subsequent political patterns in Scotland. I also ask them to reflect on their own identities in an attempt to illustrate the issue of concurrent and overlapping identities – a discussion which is sometimes met with confusion from students from more centralised states. 
 
We then turn to more contemporary matters – the devolution settlement and the key actors and issues in Scottish politics. We play a game of reserved versus devolved powers, a game I suspect voters might wish to brush on – classifying powers according to which level of government is responsible and identifying instances of overlap. My lecture often occurs after a visit to the Scottish Parliament so I ask students to reflect on what the architecture of the Scottish Parliament might suggest about the architect’s goals for Scottish politics. We contrast the Scottish arrangement with that of Westminster where myth says that the government and opposition are separated by two sword lengths.
 
We discuss Scotland since devolution and how 2014’s referendum came to be. Many of my students come from countries where the Scottish referendum campaign was widely covered in the press – either as a novelty or an event with implications for substate nationalist movements within their states. We chat about what they already know and how the media presented the debate in their own country before discussing how the referendum came about, the key issues in the campaign, and the results, drawing on the Scottish Referendum Study. I ask them to place themselves in the shoes of a Scottish voter and identify their key concerns or questions in the debate – their answers (the economy, defence, currency, and borders) are remarkably similar to surveys of Scottish voters.  
 
I always conclude our discussions of the referendum by asking students to take part in a mock vote for independence and explain their reasoning in supporting a yes or no vote. Some students make their case for independence by drawing on their own heritage, coming from states which have achieved independence while others cite issues of risk and uncertainty, which echoes the research conducted by Ailsa Henderson and colleagues
 
In the sessions post-referendum, we talk about what might happen next in Scotland and in the United Kingdom, a discussion which always seems to end with some ambiguity in advance of elections and the referendum on continued EU membership. Over the course of these presentations, I draw resources developed here at the Centre on Constitutional Change as well from colleagues elsewhere, including the ScotVote16 tool and What Scotland Thinks
 

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Coree Brown Swan's picture
University of Edinburgh
25th April 2016
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