The Blog

Scotland as Test Case

On September 18, Scots 16 years of age or older will go to their local polling places and vote YES or NO on a simple proposition: "Should Scotland be an independent country?"
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In the 21st century, what's a nation state for?

If the nation state is an organizational technology, what is the technology used for in the 21st century?

It's only fitting that the Scots, who invented so much of modernity, should be debating this issue. And, Edinburgh, where favorite sons and philosophical giants Adam Smith and David Hume are honored with statues on the Royal Mile, is the epicenter of that debate.

On September 18, Scots 16 years of age or older will go to their local polling places and vote YES or NO on a simple proposition: "Should Scotland be an independent country?"

The long-simmering debate over independence and the imminent campaign are interesting for three reasons:

1. It is a case study of a people thoughtfully and without violence considering alternative futures for their nation.

2. The drive for Scottish independence is just one example of a wider countertrend toward smaller nation states, reversing the agglomerative trend toward larger nation states witnessed in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. For example, Catalonia wants out of Spain, many in Flanders want out of Belgium, and there is a strong secessionist movement within Venice.

3. The independence debate has opened a wider discussion of how small nations can be exceptional in the 21st century.

Will Scots vote in September to break from the 1706-1707 Acts of Union that bound them together in an astonishingly successful Great Britain?

At the moment it looks unlikely (unless 1. the polling is underestimating Yes turnout, 2. Undecideds heavily break to Yes or 3. there is a very strong surge of Scottish nationalism late in the campaign)

While there is very strong support for the Scottish National Party (SNP), the dominant and well-regarded party in Scottish politics today, the polling data suggests a majority NO vote on September 18th. Although the polls vary, all consistently find a No vote exceeding a Yes vote. The BBC has been helpfully tracking this.

Support for independence is well under 50 percent and history has found that late undecided voters in these types of referendums (see Quebec) tend to vote No.

This is exactly what happened in Quebec in 1995. By mid October 1995 polling support for Quebec independence began leading opposition, cresting at around 46-48% on the eve of the election, but ultimately failing in a very close vote of 49.42% Yes to 50.58% No. Here it appears that late undecideds broke No. With Quebec as a guide, we can expect a late surge of nationalism to power an increase in the Yes vote, but we can also expect late undecided to break toward a No vote.

Moreover, it is generally easier to defeat a referendum than it is to pass one. The No side in almost any referendum has many innate advantages, including (1) natural human skepticism towards change and (2) the ability of the No campaign to raise fears, uncertainties and doubts (FUD) culminating in a traditionally effective "death by a thousand cuts" strategy.

The No campaign, called Better Together, has generally employed a two step strategy of first focusing on how Scotland and Scots currently enjoy the best of both worlds in the form of local governance AND all the benefits of Great Britain - economic ties, the health system, the BBC, global diplomatic impact and national security. But, step two has been raising concerns about all the devilish details of a march to independence. Would Scotland retain the beloved pound? Would Scotland really gain immediate entry into the EU?

This is a very traditional No vote strategy. Typically the No campaign benchmarks voter attitudes and establishes in a survey the Yes percentage of the vote. Then the No campaign uses the same survey to test concern over detail after detail of a Yes vote, charting the decline in the Yes percentage. Those voter segments that withdraw their support over a certain issue are then microtargeted.
And the data suggests that this is Better Together's campaign to lose.

But, what exactly is victory in this context?

Better Together "wins" by keeping the Yes percentage below 50.1%. True.

But, even this might feel like a pyrrhic victory.

After all, even if the Yes campaign and the SNP fail to win independence on September 18th, they will almost certainly continue to win more devolved powers. This will further strengthen the Scottish Parliament and a national identity. And, importantly self-identification as "Scottish" appears to drive support for a Yes vote. The more Scottish a voter feels, the more likely they are to vote Yes.

In reality the September 18th vote is the third vote on devolution of power and/or independence. There was a 1979 vote on a "Scottish Assembly," a 1997 vote on a Scottish Parliament and this year's vote.

The Yes vote strategy has been far more interesting, arguing the merits of full independence as a means of solving local problems with local action. The Yes campaign has argued that an independent Scotland will better manage North Sea oil revenues, better represent the more Labour-centric and socialistic views of its inhabitants, craft a superior, written constitution more in tune with the 21st century, remove nuclear weapons from its territory, and build a successful, and agile 21st century nation. Interestingly, it is worth noting that many Scots that I have spoken with here during festival season speak admiringly of the Nordic nations to their east as a model.

And this is why thoughtful observers, politicos and futurists should pay attention to what is happening in Scotland. They should be focusing on the free-ranging debate on 21st century governance.

Economies of scale, communications and nationalism drove the trend toward larger nation-states. But, what will happen in our post-industrial era? The National Intelligence Council (NIC) struggled with this in its own Global trends 2030 report, noting that the traditional nation state may not be the right unit of analysis. In the 21st century the megacity or economic region could be the better unit of analysis, the true engine.

And the fact is that smaller governmental units, from cities to smaller nations have been pushing the envelope of innovative governance for some time, from experiments with crowdsourced laws to detailed and aggressive strategies for competitive advantage. Singapore, Norway and New Zealand are all small, but incredibly successful, nations. It may be that in the 21st century small and agile nations (or even cities) have an advantage over large nations with heavy legacy costs. They may be better positioned to mass the right brains and the right time and translate their culture into power.

As I finish this piece surrounded by Edinburgh's many world-renowned festivals (the arts festival, book festival, fringe festival and festival of politics) I am again reminded of the power of culture, of the ability of people like Adam Smith and David Hume to move the world not with a fulcrum, but with an idea.

And that's what I'll be discussing with friends new and old and with my fellow American Jason Boxt this weekend at the Scottish Parliament's Festival of Politics.