My interpretation of the Scottish Referendum published in Daily 'The News' Today
Interpreting the Scottish Referendum
Prof. Ijaz Khan
Today Scotland will hold a referendum to decide whether the country remains part of the United Kingdom or becomes an independent state. Whichever way the Scots decide, the very fact that the question was put to a referendum has its own significance – both in practice and in theory. Further, the decision will have a direct impact on Europe; however, it won’t just be limited to the continent.
The principality of Wales was incorporated into the kingdom of England in 1536. In 1707, the kingdoms of Scotland and England were united to form the Kingdom of Great Britain, which in 1801, united with the Kingdom of Ireland to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1922, five-sixths of Ireland seceded from the UK, leaving the present formulation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which was not very peaceful.
There was a popular and armed resistance to this by Scotland and a number of wars of independence were fought. Gradually, however, with the strengthening of liberal democratic institutionalisation, capitalism and industrialisation, the armed opposition to this union faded away. It appeared from the outside that Scotland had completely assimilated into the UK and had acquired a British identity in which a separate Scottish identity was just confined to ballads, football and history books.
That was not so, and there was always a simmering feeling among the Scots for their own state, which they believed had been forced to be part of the United Kingdom. That simmering feeling has now surfaced with enough strength to require a referendum on whether Scotland should separate from the United Kingdom.
Constitutionally a unitary state, the areas that joined to form the UK are referred to as countries. They have their own self-government which is closer to local government, and are not provinces as we know them in most of the federations or states as they are termed in the United States of America.
Over the years, many changes have taken place. The UK became the world’s most powerful imperial power and even after losing that status is one of the big international powers with permanent membership in the UN Security Council. It has also evolved to be the oldest democracy. Culturally Britain is one of the most modern capitalist societies. Its legal system is one of the best and most credible in terms of protection of rights of all its citizens.
Movement of its citizens between different parts is very normal. A very large number of its citizens have taken up residences in places other than where they were born. A large number of Britons would be of mixed parentage. Very few can claim a pure Scottish, Irish, Welsh or English ancestry. The difference in language is more of accent and pronunciation than anything as substantial as between, say, French and English.
Most studies on ethno national political movements have arguments of economic disparity, lack of political representation and administrative tilt in favour of one dominant ethno linguistic group. In the present UK, such issues do not have much substance.
Normally in such situations, the question of ethno linguistic identities should have evaporated. However, they have not. Even if they hadn’t, it should not have been of any serious political consequences. But the fact that it has, raises questions about our understanding of ethno linguistic question and its evolution. Taking this persistence of identity together with its melting into a homogenous whole in the case of the United States, we can see that history and geography give sustainability to identities. The voters in the Scotland referendum are all those domiciled in Scotland, including the later immigrants whether from other parts of the UK or elsewhere, currently residing anywhere. At the same time, it excludes even those Scots who are now permanent residents of other places. This criterion was established with the agreement of the Scottish nationalists.
The Scotland referendum, if it results in an independent Scotland, will mark a new phase in nationalist movements. This independence will be achieved peacefully and democratically. It is yet to be seen how future relations between the remaining UK and the independent state of Scotland will be, but one can make some predictions.
Over the years the physical infrastructure of Scotland as well as its economy has developed as an integral and interdependent part of one whole – the UK. Both states have come to work on their separation or maybe even continued joint management. Then, Scotland will in all probability be a part of the European Union. If both manage their separation more like friends than enemies the European Union will be strengthened as well. Their bilateral relations may become a basis for new international interdependent management, redefining sovereignty, and security.
Nationalism has arrived with this referendum, irrespective of the outcome at a new stage. It is not racial; it’s not even a default option for nations living under the political and economic domination of another nation in the same state. Nationalism has a combination of historical identity and territorial base. It is simply the collective belief of a people of possessing a unique identity, living in a specific territory, and having a shared history. Language is a cementing tool, but not an essential requirement as much as history and territory. And racial purity has very little, if anything, to do with it.
Another important feature of nationalism today is that it is also no more isolationist. Nationalism is more globalist today, bringing people together rather than separating them. It was the territorial sovereignty based state that separated people. Nationalism cuts through those sovereign barriers.
However, one must be clear, this is happening in Europe – and in a country that had spilled blood to avoid any such thing in the past. The issue of separation of territory from a sovereign territorial state being decided so peacefully is possible only in a very developed democracy.
This is said even though Czechoslovakia had earlier decided to break up peacefully. That can also be attributed to the very strong democratic movement that brought down communism there.
We have to yet see whether this new phase also reaches other parts of the world and how long it will take – if ever. This referendum also establishes democracy’s capability to decide on serious contentious issues peacefully, which in most parts of the world would without much debate justify use of violent force.