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Better Together

The Union Jack, hanging down, and the Scottish flag unfurled against an overcast sky
photo by Julien Carnot

The world watched with interest last week as Scotland peacefully and democratically decided that it did not wish to leave the United Kingdom.

A record-breaking 84.6 percent of the electorate turned out at the polls. The result was a clear, though by no means overwhelming majority against Scottish independence.

I had no strong personal feeling either way about Scotland’s referendum. After all, it’s not my country. I felt the Scots should decide for themselves.

However, like most non-Scots and, as it turns out, the majority of Scots too, I tend to think that both sides are better off for Scotland and the rest of the U.K. remaining together. The interesting questions now are what the country will look like going forward and what this model of reconciling national aspirations may mean for other places.

As many of those who voted against independence have pointed out, a vote to remain part of the country was not exactly a vote for the status quo. The three largest political parties in the U.K. joined in a series of pledges to Scottish voters, should they choose to remain, to grant greater powers to the Scottish Parliament on tax and spending issues. Though the nationalist dream of a sovereign Scotland has not come to pass, the side favoring independence did manage to secure more autonomy, as long as London keeps its promises.

In the not-too-distant future the U.K. may end up looking a lot like Canada, where provinces have a much greater role in citizens’ daily lives than do the states to their south. Not coincidentally, Canada too is a multicultural country, in which broad provincial powers have satisfied most nationalist aspirations in francophone Quebec. Quebec voted on secession twice, and the narrow margin in the second vote in 1995 was largely driven by failure of the Canadian federal government to follow through on reforms promised in the wake of the first vote in the 1980s. Quebec’s separatist movement is not dead completely, but this year’s election showed that many voters there today have little appetite for another referendum.

I think the French Canadian model is predictive. Last week’s vote is probably the high-water mark of the Scottish separatist movement, at least in our generation, rather than the first step on a path to eventual independence. It is, however, likely to be the start of movement in which the varied regions in the U.K. are given more sway.

Already, there is talk of establishing a separate English parliament with powers comparable to those of the Scottish legislature in Edinburgh including, no doubt, the new yet-to-be-implemented powers it has been promised. (Draft legislation for Scotland is due to be released no later than January.) Surely if England establishes such a body, Wales and Northern Ireland will follow. And though it is hard to picture in our time, so soon after Ulster has experienced prolonged civil strife, a day may come when people there will decided in a fair vote whether to stay part of the U.K., become independent or even reintegrate with the Irish republic to their south.

The Scottish referendum model, and its outcome, may serve as a guide for reconciling national aspirations elsewhere in Europe as well. In perpetually divided Belgium, the French-speaking Walloons are the Scottish to the Dutch-speaking Flemish’s English, though most observers believe it is Flanders that is the region more inclined to break away from the country. Support for independence in Flanders, however, is much lower than in Scotland, cited today at only around 12 to 15 percent, largely due to already increased regional powers and autonomy. If secessionist fervor in Flanders does grow, however, Scotland may serve as a template for how to go about handling the decision.

Spain’s Catalonia region, in contrast, has seen three years of demonstrations demanding a vote on independence. The Spanish government has staunchly opposed a referendum on the matter thus far. Catalonia is wealthier and more productive than the rest of Spain, representing a fifth of the nation’s overall economy, and many of its residents feel exploited economically after years of cultural repression under Franco. Polls have shown that while Catalan support for independence has not yet reached a majority, Catalans overwhelmingly feel that they should have the right to vote on the question.

The reasons for a potential separation are real, in all of these cases. But all of the issues that ultimately led the Scots to remain where they were apply elsewhere too. Even regions with marked linguistic or cultural differences can remain stronger together, as we in the United States discovered after our Civil War. I hate to think what would have happened to the world in the 20th century if the U.S. had divided along regional lines in the 19th.

But to their great credit, the British and the Scots resolved their issues peacefully, democratically, and after full and open debate. This is arguably the most important fact of the Scottish referendum. That the result is likely to be better for both the U.K. and Scotland than the alternative is an added benefit of allowing democracy to proceed unencumbered.

The winning Scottish campaign’s slogan was “Better Together.” It’s a point - and a process - that has merit elsewhere.

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