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Scottish independence – how to do self-determination

Earlier last week, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, agreed on the terms of the holding of a referendum for Scottish independence to be held in autumn 2014. Analysis and comment on the referendum has focused on pure polling numbers (the latest poll shows 58% against 30% in favour of independence) and the probability of a Yes vote for Scotland to leave the Union. While this is worthwhile and helps to ground the potential of a Scottish exit from the Union, the question of Scottish independence raises many fascinating issues facing contemporary politics. Primarily, the main issue that Scottish independence forces us to address is the right to self-determination. When a sophisticated electorate have given a democratic mandate to a separatist party, should they be stopped?

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The electoral system (mixed member proportional representation) for the devolved Scottish assembly is specifically designed to make the emergence of a single dominant party difficult and to encourage the formation of a broad coalition to agree legislation. Over the four devolved elections the SNP has come to dominate Scottish politics (from 35 seats out of 129 in 1999 to 69 in 2011) despite a low base, institutional hurdles and three well-established nationally backed opponents. This electoral success has given the SNP the legitimacy to push for the holding of a referendum in the first place. Surprisingly, however, the question is rarely asked as to why the SNP have become so dominant in Scottish politics. Political science research has found that it comes down to a shift in ‘valence issues’ away from those associated with Labour, the Conservative and the Liberal Democrats – such as class, religion and national identity – towards new issues – such as competence in government and defending specifically Scottish interests. Quite simply the Scots have developed a clear political identity separate to that of England. The flagship issues of the SNP government – free university tuition, free prescriptions – are pointed in that these services are paid for, and becoming increasingly expensive, in England. The Scottish political identity is distinctly left-wing/centrist and it is not accident that public service policy is the dividing line between the Scottish and British governments. While the referendum is not until 2014, two further years of a Conservative led government policy of austerity will only serve emphasise this division between the two and bolster the argument of the nationalists. A Labour resurgence in England, however, could significantly derail independence plans as Scottish and British government policies would more than likely come back to alignment.

But perhaps the most interesting point of the referendum agreement is how the Conservative led government has dealt with the issue of Scottish independence. Acknowledging that their electoral success has given the SNP the right to ask for a referendum, the British government has worked within Britain’s flexible constitution to bring the issue to a democratic fruition in 2014. This is despite the ideological opposition of the Conservatives to Scottish independence, they are after all officially known as the Conservative and Unionist Party, and Prime Minister Cameron’s stated intense belief in the importance of the Union between England and Scotland. This situation can be contrasted to that of Spain where the question of Catalonia holding a referendum on independence is anathema to the Spanish constitution, the conservative government of Mariano Rajoy and also to the Spanish military. The lack of institutional flexibility with regard to the question of independence for Spain’s regions has ratcheted up tension as both sides compete for political legitimacy. Well over a million people marched on the streets of Barcelona to demand independence, while President Rajoy refused to even consider the legitimacy of the protestors’ requests for a referendum. The unresolved stand-off between the two sides is seen as further evidence of the precariousness of Spanish politics in the wake of the ‘Euroscrisis’.

Financial markets are becoming an important barometer of the depth of political crises and the comparison between the reaction of the markets to the mass protest for Catalonian independence in September and to that of the announcement of the Scottish independence referendum is stark – interest rates on Spanish debt jumped 32 basis points compared to no perceptible effect on British government yields. In a time of a great uncertainty the question of Scottish independence is an example of how these radical structural shifts in national politics can be defused using peaceful, democratic and constitutional means.