A blueprint for Scotland

The Scottish National Party devolved government of Scotland released yesterday its case for a “Yes” vote in the referendum next September that will decide whether Scotland resumes the independence that it relinquished in 1707.

You can read the whole thing – “Scotland’s Future: your guide to an independent Scotland” – here, with a summary version here. (Brownie points this time for the BBC: its story includes a link to the document. Fairfax’s, for example, doesn’t.)

Chief minister Alex Salmond calls it “the most comprehensive blueprint for an independent country ever published,” and he could well be right. The impressive degree of detail nicely complements the simplicity of the referendum question itself: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” Whatever their views, Scottish voters will be in no doubt that a yes vote will be a vote for actual independence.

It contrasts, for example, with the referendum on independence for Quebec that was narrowly lost in 1995. There, the question itself referred to “a new economic and political partnership” with the rest of Canada, sowing confusion in some voters’ minds about whether what was on offer was real independence.

Nor is there any real doubt that a Scottish vote for independence would be accepted by the rest of the United Kingdom. Although the British government has carefully avoided saying that, committing itself only to “continue to work together constructively in the light of the outcome,” there is no sign that English voters or politicians are willing to exert any great effort to make the Scots stay if they don’t want to.

For now, all this might seem academic, since opinion polls have consistently shown a solid majority against independence. A typical recent example shows 43% planning to vote no, with 25% yes and 32% undecided. But with ten months to go it would be foolhardy to describe it as a foregone conclusion.

The recent Irish referendum suggests a strong tendency for the undecideds to come out against change. Nationalism, however, is a strange beast, so the potential for a sentimental rally for the yes vote (stimulated among other things by the 700th anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn) should not be disregarded.

Either way, it’s a good thing that Scots will have the opportunity to make the decision. Salmond’s SNP won a clear mandate to hold the referendum, and events in many parts of the world over the last two decades have shown that secession is not always something to be feared.

Cases like the “velvet divorce” of Czechoslovakia have generally come to be seen as successes. They often raise difficult issues (the BBC has quite a good summary of some of those concerning Scottish independence), but the difficulties are not insuperable: the main task is to generate the political goodwill to work through them.

Some other regions in the European Union – foremost among them Catalonia, which wants to conduct its own vote by 2016 – will be watching the Scottish referendum with great interest.

And while on the subject of British referenda, don’t miss Matthew d’Ancona’s piece last week in the New York Times on the prospects of a vote to leave the EU. He asks, “How did Mr. Cameron, a self-declared pragmatist, end up in the role of geopolitical radical, promising a referendum on the European Union that could alter fundamentally Britain’s strategic, diplomatic and economic status?”

It’s a good question, and d’Ancona addresses it well.

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