By Sir Ronald Sanders
The winner of Scotland’s agonising referendum on 18 September was undoubtedly and impressively, democracy.
The leaders and members of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) set an example to nationalists in Northern Ireland and the rest of the world, by the manner in which they approached the fight for Scotland’s independence from the United Kingdom.
The SNP did not plant bombs in London nor arm their supporters or attack government buildings. They did not kill anyone and no campaign of terror was mounted to intimidate and paralyse the rest of the UK.
On the flip side, the UK government didn’t send troops into Scotland; no SNP leaders were arrested and detained, and no-one in Scotland was stopped from openly, vociferously and stridently denouncing the UK government and the England-based UK Parliament.
There was not a drop of blood shed in the hard-fought campaign; no children were left maimed, their lives unalterably marred; no areas of either country were destroyed; commerce and trade were not disrupted; and there was no long-term destruction of the economy of Scotland or the UK as a whole.
Advocates of each side of the contest over whether Scotland should become an independent, sovereign state or remain part of a union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland, campaigned alongside each other using the emotional summons of nationalism and self-government against the cold logic of the overall benefits of staying together. The different positions of the Scottish people, permeated into families. But it did not, for instance, stop a father and daughter who live in the same house setting off to vote at the same polling station – she for independence and he for remaining in the Union.
In the end, 84.59 per cent of the 4,283,392 people in Scotland entitled to vote chose to reject independence. The final result saw the no campaign win 55.3 per cent of the votes compared to 44.7 for yes.
‘I accept that verdict of the people’
The pugnacious leader of the SNP, Alex Salmond conceded defeat by saying: ‘Scotland has by a majority decided not at this stage to become an independent country. I accept that verdict of the people’. And five million Scottish people went to bed peacefully – some disappointed and frustrated for sure that nationalist sentiment did not win the day, others relieved and thankful that life has not been irreparably disrupted.
It could have been very different as the UK’s long experience of contending with nationalists in Northern Ireland for decades attest. The nationalists in Northern Ireland – led by the IRA – left a trail of death and destruction in their wake and, by their creation of insecurity and fear, they damaged the UK economy and the wellbeing of millions of people.
By contrast, on the morning of the day after the referendum (19 September), shares on the London stock market rose. And the pound, which had weakened in recent weeks amid fears that the referendum would give Scotland a mandate for separation from the UK, rallied against the US dollar and the Euro.
The business community welcomed the peaceful and orderly result of the referendum. Large financial institutions such as RBS (Royal Bank of Scotland) and Lloyds, which had said they would move out of Scotland, announced their intention to remain. Asset managers also greeted the ‘end of uncertainty’ and looked forward ‘to growing the economy’.
The Scottish referendum has taught the world a lesson. That it is possible to resolve tribal, ethnic, religious and political differences peacefully and orderly – however strongly felt and deeply embedded such differences might be. What is required is the will and maturity on both sides of the divide to resolve issues peacefully by the creation of transparent machinery that gives voice to the people and by accepting the verdict once it is given.
The world is safer place today
In setting this example, both the SNP and the political authorities in London deserve the admiration and acclaim of the rest of the world, including societies in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Caribbean where ethnic conflicts and lack of political maturity stymie their progress.
Of course, there is now much work to be done in the UK to continue to address the deep concerns of a large number of the Scottish people over their governance from London. For, while the vote to stay within the UK was won, the margin was just a little over 10 per cent. This means there is residual unhappiness with accountable-government in London and the politics that leave communities feeling excluded. It also means that the voters, who were undecided in the run up to the vote on 18 September, were willing to give the UK government an opportunity to fulfil the promises they made to devolve greater powers to the Scottish Parliament on matters such as taxation, spending and welfare.
The political parties in the UK can now breathe a sigh of relief that Great Britain remains intact. Further, there can be no efforts by its enemies and detractors in the international community to dislodge it from the dominant positions it holds in the UN Security Council, the European Union and the global financial institutions. But this depends on the political class in London devolving the new powers they promised – powers that according to Gordon Brown, the Scottish-born former Prime Minister of the UK, pledged would be ‘as ambitious as possible’.
If the devolution of these powers do not occur soon and convincingly, there is every possibility that the question of separation would rise-up again and the UK would be faced with ‘never-end-ums’ with all the instability, uncertainty and volatility that threatened it over the last few months.
The world is a safer place today for the maturity of the people of the UK and their political leaders – all of them, Scot, English, Welsh and Northern Irish – for adhering to democracy and the will of the people to overcome a major challenge to their national cohesion. It should be a lesson to all other nations – large and small.
Sir Ronald Sanders is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London University and former Caribbean diplomat who publishes widely on Small States in the global community.