Two days to go and the referendum on Scottish independence is too close to call.
What seemed almost certain to be a “no” vote for separation from the United Kingdom just a few weeks ago is hovering around the 50-50 mark, with some polls even showing a small majority for the pro-separationists. The UK government is panicking, as evidenced by the sudden visits of Prime Minister David Cameron and other senior cabinet ministers to Scotland a few days ago, along with the cancellation of visits abroad by other members of the Cabinet just in case the vote goes the “wrong” way.
Panic and polls not only reflect public opinion on the matter but, in turn, create part of the momentum – convincing people who were previously undecided to vote in favor. But the polls also show that a significant number of Scottish voters – around the 20 percent mark – remain undecided and will only make their decision at the last moment. What does appear guaranteed is that, in a country where voter participation in both national and local elections is fairly low, there will be an extremely high participation rate – indeed, there are many who have already voted in postal votes going back a few weeks.
Prime Minister Cameron could be left ruing the day he decided to allow the separation vote to go ahead, sure at the time that there would be such a resounding “no” vote that this would bring the matter to an end once and for all.
And until a few months ago that appeared to be the case, but as the day has drawn closer, and the campaign has taken on a greater degree of immediacy, it is the pro-separationists, led by the head of the Scottish parliament, Alex Salmond, who have demonstrated greater vigor, fully aware that this is an opportunity which, if lost, will not return, certainly not in their lifetime and possibly not for generations.
In the two public debates between Salmond and the head of the “no” campaign, former Labour Party minister Alistair Darling, the pundits gave the victory to Salmond, although public debates of this type have never had the same appeal in the UK that they do in North America.
Polls indicate a potential generational divide, with the older population preferring to stay part of a UK which they have been part of all their lives, while a majority of the younger population is opting for an independent Scotland. If this is correct, then it is somewhat surprising, given the global orientations of a young, educated generation who, so we have been led to assume, prefer global to nationalist sentiment and desire to be part of a world economic, social and information community in which borders and nationalist compartmentalization are anathema.
But ironically globalization has brought about a parallel upsurge of regional nationalism throughout Europe, as ethnic regions, be they the Basques, the Catalonians or the Scots, have expressed their preference to be part of the world economy as proud nationalists, rather than being subsumed within the failing power and influence of the state system, be it the UK, Italy or Spain.
The arguments for and against Scottish independence have combined nationalism and economics.
The pro-separationists argue that as an independent state, Scotland will be entitled to enjoy the full benefits of its own taxes, not least the royalties from the North Sea gas and oil production – almost 30 years after the production began, and despite the fact that the reserves are already in a state of depletion. They argue that the revenue accruing from these royalties, which flow directly to the coffers of a central government in London, are not sufficiently redistributed back to Scotland.
The anti-separationists point to other important economic indicators in an effort to persuade Scotland to stay part of the UK. Not only do they negate the taxation argument, but they have also made it clear that an independent Scotland cannot expect to enjoy all the economic connections that they have had with the rest of the UK – be it the currency (the pound sterling), membership of the EU, or simply being part of a larger economy. In recent weeks, some major Scottish firms and banks have hinted that if Scotland were to become independent they would consider relocating southward, which could result in growing unemployment in Scotland as people would lose their jobs.
It all comes down to the price that people are prepared to pay for national independence; the ability to fly their own flag, sing their own anthem and directly control their own affairs. Another outstanding question concerns the role of the royal family, which has strong Scottish roots and connections, and whether an independent Scotland will opt to become a republic or apply for membership in the British Commonwealth.
The fact that all this is taking place within a democratic setting, where the Scottish parliament has taken root since it was set up by previous prime minister Tony Blair just over 20 years ago, and that it is taking place as part of an orderly process of debate and polling booths rather than violence and ethnic terrorism, is the reason why the whole world is watching and waiting for the result with bated breath.
This is not the Basque region, Northern Ireland or even Israel/ Palestine, where claims to independence have been fought out through bombings and bloodshed.
This is a rare case of a democratic system which has placed the pros and cons fairly and squarely on the table and is committed to honoring whatever decision is reached by the majority of the population.
It is exceptional in the contemporary history of Europe and will be used by other independence-seeking groups as a yardstick to further promote their own claims to autonomy or independence.
The wider global impact of the referendum will be apparent in coming years. Whichever way the vote falls, many other ethnic claims to independence, however dormant, will now be reassessed by their supporters. The possibility of secession from a stable, democratic, economically prosperous state will not be welcome in those countries where the governments have done their utmost to prevent such claims from being pursued. They will not be happy that the UK has, in effect, opened the door for the debate to take place in an orderly and civilized fashion as contrasted with the use of violence which can be suppressed and delegitimized.
It will also be watched closely here in Israel, where there are no such internal differences of opinion among the Palestinians concerning the desire for independence. They do not require a referendum or a vote to state their intentions. But they do require the State of Israel to display a level of maturity similar to that of the UK and to understand that a country cannot continue to control an entire ethnic or national groups who desire to separate. Given the fact that Israel’s control of the Palestinians has far less legitimacy than does the British control of Scotland, this week’s referendum, regardless of its outcome, would seem an appropriate occasion to reassess the ways in which independence can be granted, assuming the country’s security requirements, through an orderly process of negotiations rather than the futility of further violence and bloodshed.The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.