The Real Winner of the Scottish Independence Referendum is……Democracy!
By Dr. Soeren Keil
There has been a lot of discussion in the last two weeks on the outcome of the Scottish referendum. To recap, on the 18th of September 2014, around four million people in Scotland were asked whether Scotland should be an independent country. With a turn-out of over 84%, more than 55% voted against Scotland being an independent country and thereby for a continuation of the Union with the rest of the United Kingdom.
There have been a lot of discussions surrounding the vote on the arguments for and against independence, the late UK government intervention which offered more devolution to the Scottish parliament in case people voted in favour of the Union, and the contrast between Scottish national feelings and Britishness and belonging to the UK. Yet, the real winner of the referendum was democracy.
There are a number of reasons for this.
First, as all Swiss colleagues would point out, direct democracy, i.e. referenda, are the highest form of democracy, because people get a direct say in political issues. Now, one may agree or disagree with the general use of referenda in politics, but in the case of Scotland it clearly enhanced democratic participation. Both sides of the debates had large resources to support their claim for Scotland’s future. While the “Better Together” campaign had the backing of the UK government and the main three parties in the UK, the “Yes” campaign had the backing of the Scottish National Party, which has been in power in Scotland for a number of years, most recently with an absolute majority in the Scottish parliament. Resources were distributed relatively evenly and media campaigns promoted the arguments of both sides. In circumstances like this, where the sides have equal access to resources, to media, and to public debates, referenda can be a useful tool to enhance democratic participation, especially when the question is so fundamental.
Second, the debate about Scottish independence allowed for a re-negotiation of the social contract between the Scottish people and the state they live in. Both, the “Yes” campaign and the “Better Together” camp promoted different visions about the future of Scotland. The people of Scotland had the chance to listen to different ideas and think for themselves about what kind of state they would want to live in. This is an incredibly rare chance in modern society, where politics usually focuses on certain policy issues rather than the wider social contract that connects the governed with those that govern. In Scotland, a detailed debate from child care to military policy unfolded and allowed people to think about their own lives and which kind of state / system would serve them better. This has been one of the strongest successes of the referendum; it enabled people to think about politics, about the state and about their own future in this state.
Third, with nearly 85% turnout, the referendum has also proven all those wrong, that have argued, again and again, that people are getting tired of democracy and of politics. This Politikverdrossenheit (tiredness of politics) was reflected in lower electoral turnout, particularly in recent local and European elections. People, so the argument, were getting fed up with politics, because they felt disillusioned with the established parties and most political issues were becoming too complex for ordinary people to follow and understand. One has to go back to the 1950s to find a national election in the UK that had a similar high turn-out as the referendum. Yet, the issues discussed during the referendum were complex (what could be more complex than the future of the country you live in?), the stakes were incredibly high, and because of its complexity, many different policy areas were touched upon in the discussions surrounding the referendum. Despite all of this, nearly 85% of those eligible to vote went and participated in the referendum. This does not only underline the importance of the issue at stake, but it also demonstrates that people are able to make choices and come to conclusions about highly difficult and multifaceted decisions. The people, in other words, are not as lazy or stupid as those that promote the Politikverdrossenheit–thesis want us to believe. It depends on the policy issues, clearly, but also on public engagement, on the representation of different issues and on the different parties involved and their ability to mobilise their supporters. Democracy is alive, we just need to re-think the way we approach it, and this is another important lesson from the Scottish referendum.
Finally, the Scottish referendum has contributed to new discussions about the organisation of the United Kingdom. With the Welsh Assembly demanding more autonomy and the West Lothian question being revived by the British Prime Minister, one can expect fundamental constitutional changes in the UK in the coming years. Even the federalisation of the country, as demanded by UKIP leader Nigel Farage, cannot be excluded anymore. One of the main arguments in favour of federalism is that it brings government closer to the people and enhances checks and balances. Both things would increase the level of democracy in the UK and contribute to further citizen engagement.
It does not matter if one supported Scottish independence or the continuation of the Union. What the Scottish referendum has been able to do is contribute to new public debates about the political system we live in, about different policy areas and about the future of the British state and its relationship with the people living in it. By doing so, it clearly enhanced democratic participation and citizen engagement. And this is the main success of the referendum.
Soeren Keil, Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Canterbury Christ Church University