Through the radical and rapid shifts in how Scotland is governed (and how, indeed, it governs itself), the Scots have barely raised their voices, let alone thrown punches and smashed windows. Perhaps what is most remarkable about the upcoming referendum is how normal it feels. ‘Independence’ was, in the 1970s, something rather exotic. Yet here we are, with a White Paper, and a Red Paper, and the ‘guarantee’ of substantial new powers if we vote ‘No’, and of a new – but unthreatening – dawn if we vote ‘Yes’. Independence is one possible future, one to be discussed, debated, weighed and judged soberly and democratically. It feels less a matter of ‘freedom’, or of the destruction of a hallowed unity, than of how to find the best fitting governing mechanism to meet Scotland’s aspirations.
In making sense of the referendum Scottish Affairs has produced a Special Issue intended to make an accessible contribution to the debate. The Issue has two main parts. In the first part, John Curtice – key contributor to What Scotland Thinks – describes the difficult tasks of polling companies in predicting public opinion whilst satisfying the ‘relentless’ demands ‘from an impoverished media for polls to be conducted as cheaply as possible’. Lindsay Paterson then unpacks a broad historical view of Scottish political culture and its paradoxical foundation upon an insistence on a universal humanity. ‘Perhaps more than any other small nation,’ Paterson avers, Scotland has ‘the inclination to universalism inescapably at the heart of its identity’. Frank Bechhofer and David McCrone then provide a welcome antidote to casual assumptions about national identity and constitutional politics. Unionism and nationalism, they remind us, ‘are intertwined and not polar opposites’ and ‘one cannot read off constitutional aspirations from how people construe [national] identities’.
The following four articles then address specific aspects of the referendum: Meryl Kenny explores how the ‘engendering’ of the new Scotland after 1999 has proved, in many ways, a disappointment. She warns that ‘Women’s issues are constitutional issues’ and that ‘gender reforms can easily slip off the political agenda’. Michael Rosie then tackles some ‘tall tales’ about religion, not least against a deeply secularised background. Evidence suggests that religious belonging plays little, if any, role in shaping constitutional opinion. Jan Eichhorn presents results from the first comprehensive and representative survey of those Scots, aged 14–17 in 2013 and who will be eligible to vote in the Referendum. The survey punctures several myths, not least about voting intention, attitude formation and interest in politics. Eichhorn also cautions that, regardless of the result in September, Scotland must ‘think about how to better harness the interest of young people in politics’. Here the essay by Ellen Stewart, Iain Wilson, Peter Donnelly and Scott Greer makes an important contribution since it focuses upon the experience of young (potential) voters in the pilot Scottish health board elections of 2010.
The first section is rounded off by Daniel Kenealy’s discussion of the vexed ‘European Question’. Kenealy concludes that a ‘Yes’ vote would put ‘tremendous pressure on all EU Member States to avoid a sudden and sharp dislocation to the single market’. That pressure will lead to negotiation: statements which call into question Scotland’s post-independence membership of the EU ‘have utterly failed to engage with the deeply impractical scenario’ of a Scotland even temporarily out of that Union.
The second part of the Special Issue consists of four essays on the theme of Scotland seen from (near or) afar. Euan Hague and Alan Mackie note how little discussion the Referendum has excited in US media, but also describe how different viewpoints mould the ‘meaning’ of the Referendum to their own purposes. Within the
Diaspora there seems to be a significant disjuncture between the ‘historical narrative’ preferred by some ancestral Scots (a narrative that parallels America’s own founding myths) and the social democratic claims of the SNP. Ilenia Ruggiu reports a broadly similar reshaping of the Referendum in several Italian regions. Here, in places such as Sud-Tirol, Sardinia or Veneto it is the fact of Scotland’s referendum, rather than its detail, that provides inspiration for groups seeking greater autonomy within, or outright secession from, the Italian state. Keith Dixon describes the lack of a clear French understanding of what the United Kingdom actually is and, therefore, on the politics of territory within it. That, more recently, has shifted and Dixon describes a ‘relatively well-informed and even-handed presentation of the referendum debate in the French press’. Closer to home, Keith Shaw, outlines different reactions to the prospect of a more autonomous Scotland of whatever form) in the North East of England and in Cumbria. These reactions span anxiety, envy, regret and hope – all reflective of the common bonds shared in the Borderlands on both sides of the Tweed-Solway.
In the first ever editorial of Scottish Affairs, back in 1992, Lindsay Paterson insisted that, should Scotland’s movement for self-government prove successful, ‘then the form of that autonomy, and the strategy needed to reach it, must be subject to much stricter scrutiny than has been available hitherto’. Scottish Affairs has contributed to that scrutiny both during the campaign for self-government, and across the subsequent life of the Scottish Parliament. Whatever the result in September, there will be continued – indeed in many ways more pressing – need for scrutiny of policy and politics through well evidenced and accessible research. Scottish Affairs relishes that challenge.
The full table of contents for the Special Issue (and access for subscribers) can be found at the Edinburgh University Press website.