Leadership and Democracy LabWestern Social Science

Scotland and the Independence Referendum

The Independence Referendum in Scotland

Martin Eidenberg – Democracy Lab Team Leader and Op-ed Contributor 

On September 18th, the people of Scotland were faced with a choice. On one hand, Scots had the option of remaining a part of the greater United Kingdom (UK), composed of itself, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland’s historical foe, England. The other option was to vote for Scotland to become an independent country. These sides were represented as the ‘No’ and the ‘Yes’ sides in the independence referendum. To skip to the result, the Scottish people chose to remain a part of the UK with 55% of people voting No and 45% voting Yes with an incredible voter turnout of 85%. 

To understand what happened in Scotland we have to backtrack a few steps. The desire of Scots to have a separate country is not a new one. In fact, for centuries the Scots and the English were not on friendly terms, and to this day the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 is remembered fondly by Scots as a great victory against the English under the leadership of the great Scottish hero Robert the Bruce. More recently, the Scottish National Party (SNP) has been bringing the question of independence to the forefront, both at Westminster in the British Parliament with elected Members of Parliament and in Edinburgh at the Scottish Parliament, which has devolved powers from the United Kingdom, including the allocation of the budget of the Scottish National Health Service.

So then why, with the devolved powers that Scotland already enjoyed and the strength that comes with being a part of the United Kingdom, would Scotland, or at least a substantial percentage of Scots, still desire to become independent? There is not one answer to this question; instead there are a lot of contributing factors. One of these is the sentimental factor, that of Scottish pride. But there are also the beliefs that North Sea oil revenues should remain in Scottish hands and that Scotland should not be a nuclear weapons depot for the UK. These facts were disputed by the No campaign that argued that the Yes campaign was hugely overestimating the oil revenues and the risks of the nuclear program. The No campaign essentially argued that it would be far too risky for Scotland to become independent. Their principal argument revolved around currency and economics and the political risk that would surround the Scottish economy should it become independent of the UK. This would have had significant implications on people’s pensions and would have resulted in the loss of banks and corporate headquarters from Edinburgh’s sizable financial district. It was here that the Yes side, as much as it tried, failed to gain much traction in reassuring voters.

Supporting the argument for why there was enough discontent in Scotland for a referendum to be held is the fact that Scottish MPs at Westminster are predominantly of the Labour Party and the SNP. This creates a feeling that Scotland does not have a say in its own governance with a Conservative government in Westminster, whom Scots didn’t vote for. This is what can happen with a first-past-the-post or single member plurality electoral system. This is also why prominent Scottish Labour Party politicians led the No side. Alistair Darling, longtime Labour MP and former Chancellor of the Exchequer, led the No campaign, also known as the Better Together campaign. Former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown was a key supporter as well, especially at the end of the campaign.

The leadership dynamics of the referendum themselves are an interesting study. A quick overview shows the Yes side having a strong leader in Alex Salmond, the Scottish First Minister, who proved to be adept at depicting himself as a strong, honest leader who didn’t lie to the Scottish people and would bring the change that Scotland deserves. The No campaign was an eclectic group led by a Labour politician and supported by the Labour Party, the strongest unionist party in Scotland, but also by the Conservatives who are in power in the UK as a whole as well as all the other major political parties including the Liberal Democrats and the UK Independence Party (who want to see the UK leave the EU). This mix of voices may well have hurt the No side. The Yes side was quite successful at depicting the efforts of British Prime Minister David Cameron as self-interested to simply try to save his own job. Ironically, it was Salmond who stepped down after the No victory.

So what now for Scotland and the UK? Scotland was promised more devolved powers and this may well come in conjunction with devolved powers for each of the other three nations of the UK. Perhaps the net result of an independence referendum in Scotland is a move towards federalism for the UK. Now that would be turning the tables. Scotland may not have gotten the government in Westminster that they voted for, yet this would mean England would now get devolved powers it also did not vote for.    

Martin is a student at the University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business in their Honors in Business Administration program after completing his first two years studying Economics and Political Science. Martin writes regularly for the Leadership and Democracy Lab where he also serves as a Team Leader.