Scotland’s big decision

A Sept. 18 referendum on independence raises questions about diversity and democracy.

Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters/File
Volunteers hang campaign signs before a "Yes" campaign meeting at the Fenwick Hotel in Kilmarnock, Scotland, in March 2014.

Some may think of Scotland as little more than a place of photo-op castles, colorful kilts, droning bagpipes, and a shy lake “monster” always just out of sight beneath the steel-gray waves of Loch Ness.

But on Sept. 18 Scots will do something with worldwide consequences: They will hold a referendum on whether to become an independent country.

Polls have consistently shown voters in Scotland saying “no” to independence. But the “yes” vote has closed the gap recently, and some argue that the emotion and enthusiasm of the “yes” forces might be enough to swing the vote and confound pollsters. 

“No” means keeping the status quo, in which Scotland has a degree of independence, including its own parliament, but in important ways would still be part of a “united” kingdom run from London.

The Scots have a long, tumultuous history in their dealings with their southern neighbors. But to see it as all “Braveheart” bravado – an oppressed people under the thumb of a foreign ruler – vastly oversimplifies the relationship, which since formalized in 1707 has greatly benefited both England and Scotland. Scots have played an integral and important role across British society, including the arts and sciences, and in defense of Britain in times of war.

Polls show that many in Scotland see themselves as Scottish, but also as British – and as “European,” too, for that matter. Many already feel fully “Scottish” without the need for full political independence.

Voters will encounter a number of tricky and crucial questions. What would be Scotland’s currency? Scottish pounds? British pounds? The euro? Is the Scottish economy strong enough to stand on its own? Would trade with England suffer? Would the European Union and NATO agree to admit an independent Scotland as a new member?

The vote may become a psychological test for Scots: Are you a risk-taker with a confident, independent bent? Vote “yes.” Or are you a careful “look before you leap” type? You may be more comfortable saying "no."

The referendum will offer the world a positive example of how to seek independence. A long period of open, vigorous, and largely thoughtful and articulate debate has taken place since the referendum date was set in 2012. The expected high turnout of 75 to 80 percent of eligible voters will ensure that the will of the people is done. Should Scotland vote “yes,” there is no question that Britain will peacefully accede.

People from the Catalonia region in Spain to Canada’s province of Quebec to Tibet and Chechnya will be watching to see how a peaceful and legitimate decision about sovereignty is made. If “yes” should win, Northern Ireland may decide it should test the waters.

Perhaps most important the vote asks a big question about identity and democracy. Is devolution into smaller and smaller ethnic entities the only way to ensure full expression of a culture? Or can democracies sufficiency protect the rights of minorities and exist as multicultural states, finding strength in their diversity?

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