What the Scottish Referendum Teaches the World

While the movieelicits eye rolls in Scotland for its inaccuracies (and marvel at its impact on tourism), William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, two key characters, are central figures in Scottish history.
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In less than 90 days, the sun may set on the United Kingdom. On September 18, the people of Scotland will vote on whether to secede from it, potentially altering far more than the Union Jack which currently includes the cross of Scotland's patron saint, St. Andrew. Whereas once the quest for an independent Scotland played out on the medieval battlefields of Stirling and Falkirk, now it will do so in ballot boxes from Aberdeen to Glasgow. Although the vote is expected to be close, victory will ultimately belong to a process that will have enabled a peaceful determination of sovereignty after a history of warfare -- albeit centuries receded. The example could not be more timely. From Eastern Europe to the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific, as land and water turns at gun point, the Scottish referendum reminds the world of another way to resolve its disputes.

From Hollywood to Holyrood Most Americans distill Scotland's relationship with England into battle cries of freedom from the Hollywood blockbuster Braveheart. While the movie elicits eye rolls in Scotland for its inaccuracies (and marvel at its impact on tourism), William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, two key characters, are central figures in Scottish history. Their statues flank the entrance of Edinburgh Castle, the historical embodiment of Scottish sovereignty. Whosoever controlled the Castle controlled Scotland, and bloodily did the Scots and English vie for it across the centuries.

Today, power in Scotland rests directly opposite from Edinburgh Castle at the Scottish Parliament, referred to as Holyrood. The journey along the road that connects the two, known as the Royal Mile, began when King James VI, King of Scots, acceded to the throne of England and Ireland in 1603 and when the Scottish Parliament merged with the English Parliament through the 1707 Acts of Union. Nearly three centuries later, the Scottish Parliament was reestablished upon the passage of the Scotland Act 1998 by the UK Parliament. As a clerk at Holyrood described to this author, the initial debates at Holyrood were "real school boy stuff;" a prior push to conduct a referendum on Scotland's political future failed. Yet today with the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) commanding a majority, independence seems tantalizingly within reach.

That is if the Scottish people want it.

Better Together?

With polls suggesting around 40 percent in favor of independence, a fierce tug of war over public opinion in Scotland is underway in the final stretch.

Leading the charge for union under the banner of "Better Together" are the UK's primary political parties: the Tories, Labor and Liberal Democrats. In a speech in Glasgow on February 7, British Prime Minister, David Cameron, made the "moral, economic, geopolitical, diplomatic and yes -- let's say it proudly -- emotional case for keeping the United Kingdom together." Citing the close personal connections after three centuries of union, he emphasized the enhanced ability to compete economically and to maintain global clout as a single unit. All three parties are unveiling proposals for devolving further power to Holyrood, including on taxation. In a colorful appeal to the wallet, the UK Treasury flagged the extra 1,400 pounds ($2,300) Scots will benefit from staying in the UK that could be spent on, for example, fish and chips and football season tickets - claims illustrated on its website using lego figures. Such carrots have been complemented by a heavy stick: an independent Scotland will not be able to use the pound.

Arrayed against "Team GB (Great Britain)" is the SNP led by First Minister Alex Salmond, Scotland's highest executive officer. Free from London's control, Scotland, the SNP contends, will be both viable and prosperous. Managing its own affairs, including taxation and defense, Scotland will also benefit from tapping oil and gas reserves and revenues from the North Sea, even as the scope of both remains a point of extensive debate.

Conversations with Scotland's residents anecdotally echo these views. One proud descendant of Robert the Bruce in the village of Fort Augustus, on the banks of the Loch Ness, noted -- likely to his ancestor's dismay -- that the Scots and English were too interconnected to separate. An Edinburgh bus conductor dismissed an independent Scotland's viability given that many of the companies based there would likely relocate. In contrast, the clerk at Holyrood visibly lit up when discussing the possibility of the ayes clinching it at long last.


Yet, the referendum's reverberations will extend far beyond Scotland. If Scotland remains in the UK, promises of devolution will need to be implemented, potentially generating similar demands by Wales and altering the role of the UK Parliament in England. Conversely, if Scotland leaves, according to Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who served as the EU envoy to the Balkans after the break-up of Yugoslavia, it could lead to the "Balkanization of the British Isles" - a statement dismissed by a leading Scottish newspaper, the Scotsman, as "arrant nonsense."

The United States and China have also weighed in. U.S. President Barack Obama expressed his desire for "a strong, robust, united effective partner" alongside Prime Minister Cameron at a press conference this month. Washington's preference partly stems from the fact that Scotland houses Britain's nuclear deterrent and that the Scottish government has pledged to remove the UK's submarine-based Trident nuclear weapons from Scotland in the event of independence; a split may thus compromise a key military partner's integrity. Little value to one Scotsman who angrily noted in a letter to the editor in the Scotsman, "[i]f independence is good enough for you, Mr. President, it will be good enough for us." Mr. Salmond's response was more diplomatic: an independent Scotland, he noted, would give the U.S. another friend across the Atlantic.

Similarly, during a visit to the UK this month, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang stated China's desire for a "strong, prosperous, and united United Kingdom" - a position likely driven by the harmful precedent that a vote in favor of independence may set vis a vis Taiwan. This time, the SNP's response was more blunt: "Unlike people in China, [the people of Scotland] will enjoy a free and democratic vote on September 18 when they will decide the future of their country."

The Road Less Traveled By

Despite the predilections of those outside Scotland, ultimately, as President Obama noted, "[t]here is a referendum process in place and it is up to the people of Scotland." This display of a peaceful determination of sovereignty through an independent political process -- molded by arguments not force -- is a breath of fresh air given events elsewhere. From a flawed referendum in the Crimea abetted and annexed by Russia to China's salami-style tactics in the South China Sea to the carnage unfolding in Syria and Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines, the process underway in Scotland is as noteworthy a study in contrast as it is easy to miss amidst the fray.

To be sure, important differences abound. Powerful third party interests are at play in Crimea, as compared to Scotland's bilateral dynamic with England. The South China Sea dispute encompasses water and barren land, enabling more aggressive assertions of sovereignty. The ideological dimensions of the Middle East and the artificiality of its borders contrast with those of the United Kingdom within which Scotland has resided relatively peacefully for over three hundred years. Nonetheless, the phenomenon of the pitched battles of yesteryear in Scotland finding a peaceful settlement in legislative fora is a welcome and laudable precedent.

"The English say the Scots know about whiskey. At least we agree on something." So quips a sign in a pub in the Isle of Skye in the north of Scotland. Yet the English and Scots have decided to agree on something far more important: the process by which to potentially undo their Union. Gazing down from the heights of Arthur's Keep in Edinburgh Park onto the Royal Mile Road with Edinburgh Castle at one end and Holyrood at the other end, the journey looks short. Yet on September 18, the world would be wise to zoom in on a road seemingly less traveled by today.

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