Scottish independence: Turn off, tune in, drop out?

Roslyn Fuller
Dr. Roslyn Fuller is a lecturer in International Law based in Ireland. She is the author of Ireland’s leading textbook on International Law ‘Biehler on International Law: An Irish Perspective’ (Round Hall, 2013). In addition to her academic work, she has also writes for the Irish Times, The Irish Independent and The Journal on topics of law, politics and education. Roslyn has been researching democracy for over a decade and is the author of “Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed Its Meaning and Lost Its Way” (October 2015, Zed Books). She tweets at @roslynfuller and can be reached at
Scottish independence: Turn off, tune in, drop out?
With less than two weeks to go to a Scottish referendum on independence from the United Kingdom, the number of voters indicating that they will vote ‘yes’ to independence has surged ahead for the first time, with 51% for as compared to 49% against.

With less than two weeks to go to a Scottish referendum on independence from the United Kingdom, the number of voters indicating that they will vote ‘yes’ to independence has surged ahead for the first time, with 51 percent for as compared to 49 percent against.

Whatever the margin of error might be, the upshot is that more Scots than anyone previously thought are seriously contemplating separation from the United Kingdom.

Unsurprisingly, the fact that this referendum definitely has a realistic chance of passing has led to a lot of speculation about what would be “the better deal” for the Scottish people. The Scottish financial industry, North Sea oil and the cost of services like healthcare and third-level education have all come under scrutiny, not to mention the future of Scottish trade links with Europe and the UK under an as-yet-unspecified currency. Even Yes Scotland’s website focuses on the economics, claiming that a yes vote will “unleash” Scotland’s economic potential. The message would seem to be that the Scots should do the math and figure out where they are going to get a sweeter deal, in the UK or outside of it.

Opposing supporters for the Yes (L) and No campaigns, argue in Edinburgh, Scotland September 8, 2014.(Reuters/Russell Cheyne)

Which is quite ironic, because it’s basic game theory that the person who gets the best deal is always the person who is generally “in” but occasionally threatens to get “out.”

Studies conducted at the UN General Assembly show that developing nations who often vote with Western countries but occasionally vote against them receive the best foreign aid packages – better than countries who consistently vote against foreign aid donors, but also better than countries who always vote with them.

So from a purely materialistic point of view, the best outcome for Scotland is an “almost yes.” In fact, the current “almost yes” state of affairs is already paying dividends with alarmed British politicians promising to give Scotland greater autonomy over taxes (meaning it could potentially undercut other regions of the UK on top tax rates), the moment they vote “no.” Clearly, there are some big questions about Scotland’s economic future riding on this referendum.

In fact, there are generally big questions about just what this referendum is about.

While the “yes” side has campaigned on an anti-nuclear, anti-imperialist and socially inclusive platform focusing on green energy, it also apparently wants to keep Queen Elizabeth II as head of state (nothing, apparently, says “freedom and equality” like a hereditary foreign monarch technically running your country), stay in NATO (known to have a nuke or two lying about), stay in the EU (where judges estimate that about 95 percent of all national laws now originate), is advised on economic affairs by billionaire James McColl, who has been known to complain that Scotland just doesn’t offer the same attractions, as say Canada or China where his businesses don’t have to do pesky things like pay tax, and wants to fund its social equality programs with oil revenues (not the most uncompromising eco-warrior message I have ever heard).

So Scotland, I see your plan to stand up to the raving imperialists by laundering their tax dollars and wailing a thoughtful ballad or two about the empty materialism of corporate accountancy in your off hours, but I have news for you: Ireland got there first. That niche is filled, my friend.

So with the economics and politics of the situation failing to deliver what one would normally consider clear-cut alternatives, why are so many Scottish people leaning “yes”?

Cakes are seen at a tea-party organised by members of the group 'English Scots for YES' near Berwick-upon-Tweed on the border between England and Scotland September 7, 2014. (Reuters/Russell Cheyne)

It is, I would say, a sign of the general malaise of a bankrupt political system where most people – not just Scots – simply want out. Or maybe in. Or somewhere other than the place they are currently at. Somewhere where it feels like they aren’t just swimming in treacle in an endless circle of doom. Somewhere they might actually be able to affect their own life, just a little bit (and as long as Scotland stays in NATO and the EU, I guarantee you, it will be “a little bit”).

According to the deputy leader of the Scottish National Party, Nicola Sturgeon, every single person in Scotland could vote Labour and still end up living under David Cameron’s Conservative government. This is entirely correct, because Scotland simply doesn’t have enough seats in parliament to sway an election. In the last national election Scotland did vote overwhelmingly Labour and did end up living under a Conservative government, so it is unsurprising that they are beginning to wonder why they bother going to the polls.

But did you know that much of the UK could vote Labour or Conservative and still end up with the opposite party in government, because of the possibility of a manufactured majority? A manufactured majority means that the party that got the most votes actually forms the opposition. This is possible, and even prevalent in first-past-the-post systems like the UK, because the political system rewards parties that win seats, instead of those that win votes. Manufactured majorities occurred in three of the last 15 British elections (so one-fifth of the time). The rest of the time (all the rest of the time), British people live under a relative majority government, which means that most British citizens vote for a party other than the winning party, but the winning party still wins more votes than any other single party. Tony Blair’s New Labour, for example, generally received around 40 percent of the vote, but managed to get over 60 percent of parliamentary seats. What this means is that whatever government you live under, chances are you voted for someone else. It’s no wonder people tend to feel a bit disgruntled.

'No Thanks' badges are displayed during campaigning by Alistair Darling, the leader of the campaign to keep Scotland part of the United Kingdom, in Edinburgh, Scotland September 8, 2014. (Reuters/Russell Cheyne)

And that is before you factor in that even if your vote and MP temporarily match up, chances are you won’t have much in common with them. In 2005, out of 561 seats in the UK House of Commons, 72 were held by either barristers or solicitors, 44 by professors or lecturers and 87 by politicians or political organizers. In addition, over 33 percent of MPs attended a fee-paying school, while the national average of children attending such schools is 8 percent. Seventy-five percent of MPs held a university degree, with 25 percent of them graduating from just two universities: Oxford and Cambridge. It’s hard to see the link between these “representatives” and their constituents, and it all adds up to those constituents not so much being violently oppressed as just ignored; consistently pacified with cheap gestures and easy platitudes from a political class so focused on winning election that it has little time left over to even try to comprehend the priorities of ordinary voters who live under a set of conditions that they themselves have never experienced.

It’s not just Scottish people who don’t have a real stake in our democracies – everyone in Britain lives under a politics that rarely reflects true majority preferences and which uncompromisingly gives those with the most money the most say. Scottish people are fortunate enough to have a national identity that allows them to give expression to their disenfranchisement in rather a constructive way.

And perhaps the fact that modern politics sweeps the inconvenient under the rug with the illusion of representation instead of confronting it head-on like a proper feudal lord is why the Scottish referendum feels less like freedom’s last stand and more like a quest to sit down with a cup of herbal tea and “find” oneself. Like the California hippies, Scotland might not have a crystal-clear idea of where it’s going – just that it isn’t there yet. Time to turn off, tune in, drop out and see what happens next.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.