Lessons From Scotland’s Referendum

Originally written for THE WORD THEATER 

BRITAIN_SCOTLAND_2113410gLast week’s Scottish Referendum ended with a resounding NO vote on independence from the UK. Since winning a clear majority in 2011, Scottish National Party (SNP) had led the charge for independence from the UK. Scotland’s then First Minister and head of SNP, Alex Salmond, bet his political future on getting Scotland out of the union so it would have more control over its finances. What Alex Salmond was promising the Scots was a change after 300+ years in the UK, they would have control of their resources and set out their own foreign policy. On paper, this looks like a great deal, so what went wrong for SNP and why did Scotland say NO to independence? Is there a lesson to be learned here for other federations and unions dealing with separatist movements?

To start with the lesson from Scotland is a simple one; devolution works. People like change but it depends on the magnitude of that change. In case of Scotland what people wanted is the change from the status quo of having to be subservient to London and not break away completely. The magnitude of changes that independence would have brought was a bit too much for the majority who preferred more leeway over completely walking away. Separatist movements are commonly routed in economic and social disparities that push people living in a specific geographic area to push for autonomy. The logic is once they gain independence, the relevant authorities would have enough access to resources to genuinely make a difference for their power base. In this case the assumption was if the SNP could pull through and have an independent Scotland, it would have 100% control over the finances it raised and more importantly would have control over the fiscal and monetary policy within its boundaries. While in the Union, Scotland gets to decide on 60% of the finances provided to it by London. It has no say on how to raise taxes or what the tax rates should be. Plus with the oil production in the north seas, the Scots hardly get enough piece of that pie. So from Scotland’s point of view, they produce the goods, pay taxes and yet get no say on how much the taxes should be and do not even get to decide 100% of the money they get awarded from London. No wonder they wanted independence.

What the NO camp eventually ended up offering that kept Scotland in the Union was a fairly simple deal that should have been offered back in 1999 when the Scottish Parliament was first elected. The deal the NO camp offered the Scots is complete control of the finances from London, more control of raising taxes and general taxation issues, more control over social policy issues and resource usage proceeds. The set of proposals dubbed ‘Devo Max’ are to be put together in a four stage process starting on the 20th of September. The first stage is cross party discussions and talks on what the basic points of each party are. Second stage kicks off in October where by the political parties will set out the united list of devolutionary powers that are up for discussion. Stage three would include public consultations throughout November and December. And the final stage is culmination of this process in the form of a bill that will be presented in parliament that would formally grant Scotland the additional devolutionary powers.

The Conservative PM, having learned from the lesson of Scotland, has gone one step further and called for similar steps for all parts of the UK i.e. Northern Ireland, Wales, England and Scotland. It seems after decades of dilly dallying on the issues of devolution, the conservatives are on the same page as the Liberal Democrats and Labor.

While the UK learns its lessons from the Scottish Referendum, rest of the world can pick up on crucial points too. To start with, any Union or Federation that still does not have devolution of powers needs to sit up and take note. What happened in Scotland has been happening all over the world i.e. separatist movements fighting for independence. Around the world these movements are generally taken head on and civil war erupts. Scotland’s experience teaches us that instead of launching in to violence, the solution lies in greater economic equality in the Federation. More devolution means better governance. The more resources that are available at the local level, the better the ability of local leadership to address local concerns.

Now if this sounds familiar that is because countries like Pakistan, India, Bangladesh or even Kenya and Nigeria suffer from the same problems. With diverse populations, each of these countries is fighting internal battles between different parts of the country that want more leeway to take their own decisions. The solution in each case is what the UK had to do i.e. provide more powers to the local level. That is what I have been arguing for in the case of Pakistan specifically i.e. need for local body elections so people can focus on their immediate problems instead of turning local level issues in to national level problems.

Devolution, ‘Devo Max’, Baldiyati Nizam or Local Body System – call it whatever you want – it is the need of the world we live in. No union or federation can sustain itself without going down this route especially given the fact that this is how democracy is strengthened in the long run. The lesson from Scotland is simple, it is up to our leaders to pay heed and understand.

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