Lessons In Democracy


They say that God moves in mysterious ways, but by golly he would have to get up early in the morning to beat the people who organized the recent referendum in Scotland.

The question being put to the electorate was a simple one: should Scotland become an independent country. If you supported the idea, you voted Yes, if you wanted the country to remain part of the United Kingdom you voted No. It was framed as a straight up and down choice: specifically ruled off the ballot paper was the idea of a kind of middle of the road option where Scotland would remain a constituent part of the UK but with even greater autonomy than it has already.

The Scottish National Party put the case for Yes, the present UK coalition government comprising The Conservative & Unionist Party (its full official name) and the Liberal Democratic Party argued for No, though in a sign of solidarity the fight for unity was led by representatives from the opposition Labour Party.

Who had the right to make such an important decision? The first surprise to outsiders at least was bringing down the voting age to 16 instead of the more usually accepted age of majority which is 18. (I remember when it was 21, but then I am rather old). No rationale was offered, at least that made its way to an overseas audience.

The second group making a surprise entry were persons of any nationality who happened to be resident in Scotland at the time. You didn’t even have to be British, let alone Scottish, to play a part in determining the future of a country not your own. There were reports that some Hong Kong students studying in the country’s excellent schools and universities did vote. I wonder if they were impressed by the argument that if Scotland stayed part of the UK it would continue to enjoy a high degree of autonomy. Possibly not.

Just as interesting as those ruled in were those ruled out. All bona fide Scots living outside Scotland were denied the chance to vote. Naturally this provoked all manner of outrage around the world. After all, many Scots make their living abroad during their working years but then return to their own country on retirement. Surely they were entitled to a say in which country that would be.

Another excluded group also had strong grounds for complaint: the rest of the inhabitants of the British Isles. It was common ground on both sides of the debate that there would be serious consequences for the whole of the United Kingdom if Scotland broke away. In which case, it must be asked, why was the decision being left to the 5 million plus living in Scotland but excluding the 60 million plus in the remainder?

If the first casualty of war is truth, it also limped badly injured out of the debates over Scottish independence.

The Yes team insisted that once free, Scotland would be able to continue using the British pound as its official currency. The No team said this was absolutely impossible. Both sides were being extremely economical with the truth.

There are many precedents for countries using another country’s currency as their own. Ecuador and Panama, for example – the latter for over 100 years – both use the US dollar though they each issue their own coins. So wheeling out the Governor of the Bank of England to claim the opposite served only to undermine his own credibility.

But the Yes team did no better. One of the first things an independent Scotland would have to do is apply to enter the European Union (Brussels made clear its present membership was only as part of the UK). It is a condition of entry for new applicants to the EU that they must adopt the Euro as their official currency.

As the campaign reached its climax, the Yes vote suddenly surged in opinion polls and briefly took the lead. Panicking admirably, the leaders of all three major political parties rushed to Scotland to promise an even higher degree of autonomy than the country enjoyed already. This effort proved decisive and the No side won the day by 10 clear percentage points.

So the outcome was that the electorate actually rejected both options on the ballot paper and chose the one that had been specifically left off. There is a moral there somewhere but I’m still struggling to find it.

 
Mike Rowse
email: mike@rowse.com.hk