Here Comes Scotland, Ready Or Not

PETER LYNCH

New to the independence debate? Baffled by what you’ve already heard? Stirling politics lecturer Peter Lynch offers a more expansive view of the ‘who’ as well as ‘what’ of constitution-making.

Brace yourselves – here comes Scotland.

It’s 2014 and you’re going to be hearing rather a lot about us this year. Some good, some bad and quite a lot in between. Some cultural, some sporting and definitely quite a lot political. It’s a big year for us after all. We’re just not sure how it’s going to go.
If you live in Scotland, you might have heard a lot of the political stuff already. The media has been covering the independence referendum on and off for the last two years and you might even have met campaigners out on the stump in Bathgate, Linwood, Methil, Irvine and a host of other towns and villages across Scotland. If you live somewhere like Miami or Canada, you might be tuning in for the first time but you will be hearing a lot more about us this year and some of it will be baffling. What do the Scots want? And what are they actually voting on come 18th September?

Well, here are three different ways to think about the independence referendum and its significance.

First, it would be a fundamental mistake to adopt a minimalist view of the referendum – that it’s a simple Yes/No vote on independence come September. It’s a lot more than that. The way to understand the referendum more fully is as a process not an event and also an example of constitution-making, as state and citizens participate in a lengthy debate about the future and what it should look like.

Some of this is about government structures and policies – the constitutional nuts and bolts if you like – but it’s also about ‘who’ we are, what values we support and what kind of society we want to live in. The referendum has thrown all sorts of issues and debates up into the air, far more than the governments can control, and organisations and individuals at all levels will have their say.

Second, the referendum is about independence but it’s about a particular version of independence. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that the referendum is actually part of a process of turning the UK into a hybrid confederation – by democracy and negotiation. What the Scottish Government is proposing is NOT classical independence, but modern European independence. It proposes to retain the UK and EU single markets, keep the Queen as head of state and share the pound with the rest of the UK. The Scottish Government proposes a range of other, quite practical, arrangements for sharing institutions and policy and also seeks a share of UK assets. That’s not to say the UK government would accept all of this of course, but it does tell you about the ‘type’ of independence being advanced here.

Third, whilst it appears on the surface as though the referendum is all about governments and political parties, there is also a lot more to it than that. Whilst the referendum provides a tricky political problem for business – wary of offending customers at home or abroad by being seen to take sides – other organisations have seen the referendum as an opportunity for constitution-making and agenda-setting and sought to examine a wide range of issues and interests related to the referendum.

Take the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, which set up a Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy or the islands councils that used the debate to seek more autonomy within Scotland and the UK. Trade unions like Unison sought to use the debate to promote the devolution of more powers that falls short of independence but beyond those of the main pro-Union political parties – even though it’s not on the ballot paper.

The Network of Development Organisations in Scotland has used the debate to set out its stall for greater Scottish and UK engagement in international development issues and a range of charities and civic groups are also engaged in debating the issues around independence and what they want from a ‘Future Scotland’ across social and welfare policy.

Institutions and pressure groups are engaging and so are the public through public meetings, consultations and conversations with family, friends and neighbours. And that’s all before we get to the campaign proper over the summer months of 2014.

Peter Lynch is an expert on Scottish politics and is currently involved in a project on the devolution referendums of 1979 and 1997 with the Stirling-based Scottish Political Archive. He is also Director of the MSc in International Conflict and Cooperation; a second edition of his SNP: The History of the Scottish National Party appeared in 2013.

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