In a week of democratic decisions in the Commonwealth, the most headline grabbing has been the Scottish Independence Referendum. On Thursday the 18th September the Scottish people voted in a historic referendum to decide whether Scotland should have split from the United Kingdom to become an independent country. After a dynamic campaign, 55% of voters chose to vote no to independence and thus in favour of remaining in the union. While the majority vote in favour of remaining in the United Kingdom was decisive, the 45% of Scots who voted in favour of independence was definitely a significant minority. While Scotland has voted on a single issue, namely independence, the No and Yes Campaigns have galvanised public debate on a range of political issues affecting the whole of the United Kingdom.
The Commonwealth Reacts
The reaction to the referendum worldwide has been mixed. Several pro-Kremlin Russian politicians have criticised the referendum and expressed support for the Yes vote, as has North Korea. A variety of independence campaigns have also expressed support for the Yes vote, most notably from Catalonia in Spain and Quebec in Canada.
Most Commonwealth governments, on the other hand, have expressed support for the Union. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a “friend” of Britain said he preferred a “United Kingdom rather than a disunited Kingdom”. And the Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs, John Baird, points to the significance of this referendum for the UK as a whole and the Commonwealth more broadly: “The peaceful, open and democratic way in which two very different but sincere views was handled is a credit to the Scottish and U.K. governments”.
The referendum was created after an agreement between the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) government in Scotland and the government of the United Kingdom, known as the Edinburgh Agreement. This granted the Scottish government the power to hold a legal referendum. Like many elections in the United Kingdom, residents of Scotland from countries in the European Union plus residents of Scotland from Commonwealth countries, who have or do not require leave to stay in the United Kingdom, were eligible to vote in the referendum. What was different to UK elections was that young people aged 16 and 17 could vote in the referendum. In UK elections only those who are 18 or older are normally entitled to vote, and the inclusion of younger citizens was controversial. A large percentage of 16 and 17 year old voters favoured independence, and set a precedent for potentially lowering the voting age for other elections.
The Scottish referendum is the most recent of a string of events around which political power has been shifted from the Westminster-based national UK parliament to regional bodies in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London. In 1973 Northern-Ireland voted to stay in the United Kingdom in a referendum that was widely boycotted by supporters of union with the Republic of Ireland. Since 1997 further referendums have set up and granted new powers to regional assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and London. In a 2004 referendum the North-East of England voted overwhelmingly against having their own regional parliament. The campaigns for the Scottish Independence Referendum have thrown open debates on devolution again. Late in the run-up to the referendum former UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, delivered a promise from the three main UK political parties that the Scottish Parliament would gain more powers if the Scottish people voted to remain part of the Union. The day after the vote the current Prime Minister, David Cameron, promised that more discussion on devolution to the cities and regions of the UK would be forthcoming. However, some commentators have already urged caution and the full inclusion of the people in any constitutional changes, given the relative speed at which devolution has been announced.
Despite largely positive campaigns, various aspects of negative campaigning, alleged intimidation and accusations of bias and abuse of position crept into the debate. From early on in the campaign, the No campaign was accused of simply campaigning against an independent Scotland rather than for a United Britain, earning the nickname ‘project fear’. As the campaign drew nearer to the referendum the political battle grew fiercer. Allegations of intimidation followed the Yes campaign in particular but Union supporters have also been accused. There have also been allegations by both sides of bias by actors who should be neutral, from civil servants to the BBC.
The most striking aspect of this referendum has been the scale of popular participation. Both campaigns attracted huge numbers of volunteers and activists with the Yes campaign gaining particular praise for its grass-roots mobilisation. However, even more impressive was the turnout. Over 3.6 million people voted in the referendum, representing an 84% voter turnout. This impressive turnout is higher than any post-war election in the UK, as well as many other Commonwealth election turnouts. A record that many countries would aspire to replicate.
The Scottish are not the only Commonwealth citizens who had democratic decisions to make last week. Read our blog on elections in Fiji and New Zealand here.
Photo by The Laird of Oldham