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Scottish Independence Referendum

The kingdom remains united


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On September 18, 2014, the people of Scotland took to the polls in record numbers to vote on a referendum question: "Should Scotland be an independent country?" More than 4.2 million voters (86% turnout) made the choice to remain a part of the United Kingdom (which also includes England, Wales and Northern Ireland).

A Tough Call

The day before the vote, the majority of polls showed a slight advantage to union, approximately 52% to 48%. Surveys also revealed that as many as 600,000 voters were undecided only hours before heading to the voting booths. Scotland stood at a crossroad: remain a part of the United Kingdom, or become an entirely new, sovereign state. This was a big deal, deciding whether to dissolve a 307-year-old political union. But the idea of independence has both distant and recent precedent. Heavy with symbolism, the referendum came 700 years after the Battle of Bannockburn, the legendary Scots-over-English victory led by Robert the Bruce. In 1979, 52% of voters came out in support of a Scottish parliament, which didn’t actually materialize until 1997 when almost three-fourths of Scots voted for their own parliament. Today, the Scots are represented—as described by the Scottish government’s website—“. . .with devolved powers exercised at Holyrood and reserved powers exercised at Westminster.” In other words, the UK parliament at Westminster has reserved the right to exercise power over Scotland in a long list of areas such as constitution, political parties, defense, trade, energy, and transport. Those matters that are not reserved fall to the parliament in Scotland (known as “Holyrood”), including education, environment, health, local government, and justice.

When the votes were tallied, it was 2,001,926 (55.3%) for No to 1,617,989 (44.7%) for Yes. Moving forward, the Westminster powers that be will have to take a hard look at the very structure of the United Kingdom. A margin of victory of 10% is decisive; however, British leaders have promised to listen to the 1.6 million who voted for independence. In the coming months, we should see higher levels of state funding and greater financial control granted to Scotland. Prime Minister Cameron has named Lord Smith of Kelvin, the organizer of the Commonwealth Games, to provide oversight of this process, to be agreed on by November, drafted by January, and ready to go for general elections in May. What has been called a "devolution revolution" will affect not just Scotland, but the rest of the U.K. as well, with voters in Wales, and Northern Ireland expected to lend their voices to a call for a less centralized state.

Who Voted Yes

Four out of 32 councils voted for independence: Glasgow (54%), West Dunbartonshire (54%), Dundee (57%), and North Lanarkshire (51%).

To those “celebrating” the battle of Bannockburn instead of “commemorating” it, the Yes vote might have come a little easier, for throughout the independent Scotland platform ran a current of nationalism that sometimes erupted as anti-English sentiment. But there were plenty of current issues for supporters to get behind, regardless of their views on historic tensions. Since 2010, the majority of Scottish MPs (members of parliament) have consistently and vehemently voted against the “bedroom tax,” the “poll tax,” Trident replacement, austerity cuts, and privatization of Royal Mail—measures that passed easily in Westminster simply because of the composition of parliament. Currently, Scotland sends 59 MPs to Westminster while the rest of the UK sends 591. Up until now, Scotland, as part of the U.K., has always been outnumbered.

Another fear has been the possibility that England will petition to remove itself from the European Union. The UK Independence Party (UKIP) believes Britain should part ways with the EU. In May 2014, UKIP enjoyed a historic victory, capturing the most Members of European Parliament (MEPs) than any other party. Finally, Scotland is quite proud of its North Sea oil and is confident that billions of barrels remain to be captured and the fields should be productive for decades to come. Those that said “Yes” wanted to capture the resources, human and natural, that Scotland proudly produces.

A Vote for No

Behind the “Better Together” campaign were leader Alistair Darling, lots of money—including a $1.7 million gift from J.K. Rowling, and support from big business. In their campaign, the Nos pointed out that public spending in Scotland is the highest in the U.K. and their utopian ideas of a true socialist democracy are going to be very hard to support financially. As for arguments, the No vote boiled down to a “why wreck a good thing” mindset. The document “Scotland analysis: Devolution and the implications of Scottish independence” prepared for the Crown by the Secretary of State for Scotland, puts it this way: “A strong Scotland is good for the whole of the UK, and a strong UK is good for Scotland.” The No argument used the referendum itself as a case in point, for it is thanks to the devolved powers of a “system of government that is flexible and responsive to changing needs and circumstances,” that the UK government “was able to deliver its commitment in the Edinburgh Agreement to transfer to the Scottish Parliament the power to hold a legal, fair and decisive referendum on independence.”

Two Futures

Interestingly, this election was the very first to allow voters as young as 16 to vote. The common understanding was that these newly enfranchised youth would vote for independence. But information is emerging that contradicts that assumption--those of the Y generation seem to be well aware that this is their future and they are just as concerned about jobs, the economy, and the uncertainties that independence would entail. According to Jan Eichhorn, a professor of social policy at the University of Edinburgh, the teen vote--while probably tipping to the side of No--represents less than 3% of the electorate and therefore wasn't a decisive factor in the outcome of the election.

Leading up to the vote, the polls showed an interesting trend. In Sept. 2013, the online tracker at WhatScotlandThinks.org (an average of polls taken by Angus Reid, Ipsos Mori, TNS-BMRB, Panelbase, Lord Ashcroft Polls, YouGov, ICM, Progressive Scottish Opinion and Survation) recorded the greatest spread for the month as 27% Yes, 59% No. The same tracker two weeks before the referendum, showed 42% Yes, 48% No.

Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) produced a 667-page plan for independence called “Scotland’s Future” that answered 650 questions posed about Scottish independence. So many questions, yet the summation is simple: “Scotland’s referendum on 18 September 2014 is a choice between two futures.” The choice has been made; for better or for worse, the union continues.

Devolution in Action

On Nov. 27, 2014, the first devolution agreement was reached. The decision gives Scotland the power to set tax rates and allows unprecedented access to its self-generated taxes, from the current standard of about 10% to 60%. Draft legislation is expected in early 2015.

by Catherine McNiff

Information Please® Database, © 2007 Pearson Education, Inc. All rights reserved.

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