Lessons from the Scottish nay

Steve Saideman on why the referendum will have little effect on separatist movements elsewhere.
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September 23, 2014

In the aftermath of the Scottish referendum, it makes sense to consider what we can learn from it – or at least what it can tell us about the future of Scottish and UK politics. To be clear, the No vote in Scotland has little relevance beyond the UK. Let me explain why before I address what lessons we can take from the result.

The Ethnic Domino Theory received renewed attention in the run-up to the vote. The idea is that a successful secession in one spot will encourage groups elsewhere to engage in similar efforts. So, the media, both traditional and online, were chockfull of lists of who would be inspired by a Scottish Yes. This included the Catalans, who are already pretty primed, and the Flemish (Belgium is always close to breaking up), as well as Venice (?) and even Bavaria (?!). Closer to home, Quebecois separatists swarmed to Glasgow in hopes of rekindling the embers of their independence movement.

So, are all these real and imagined separatists going to be discouraged and give up now that the Scots said nay? Well, the imagined are the imagined, and the real still face the same situations as they did last week. These contexts vary widely, so, yes, the Catalans are moving ahead with their referendum despite opposition from Spain. Belgium will continue to hang on. Bavaria? It was never going anywhere.

And Quebec? Quebec reminds us how short-sighted we are. After all, wouldn’t two failed referendums in Quebec teach the Scots not to bother? Shouldn’t the most recent provincial election, where the Parti Quebecois went down in flames precisely because the idea of another referendum was raised, have discouraged the Scots? No. Why not? Because people draw the lessons they want to draw from events elsewhere.

There is rarely a single lesson to be learned from a complex event, so people draw the lessons they want to draw. Ethnic domino theorists ignore the negative lessons when they should be expecting less separatism in the aftermath of the referendum. Instead, separatists elsewhere with significant motivations will think that they can do it better than the Scottish National Party or that they have more grievances or that their central government is unlikely to offer concessions at the last minute as London did. Those opposed to secession will point to the late mobilization of the No side and argue that this is inevitable, that people will always vote against uncertainty.

My point is that no one outside of the United Kingdom will really learn any lessons from this that might change their behaviour. But inside the UK is another story. David Cameron went along with the referendum because he thought it had no chance to succeed. The polls were heavily on the No side for much of the process, with the Yes side only gaining momentum late in the game. So, will Cameron look at the vote and say: “Wow, we got lucky, I need to do something to accommodate the Scots” or will he say: “The polls were deceptive. 55% is a good margin of victory. No need to give too many powers away”? Again, multiple lessons to draw. But if he chooses the latter and reneges on the promise of greater devolution, the UK will almost certainly face another referendum in the near to medium future.

If, on the other hand, the various British parties agree to devolve power to the Scots, then the Scottish National Party may not be able to mobilize enough support for another referendum. One of the things we can learn from the Canadian experience is that if you give a group more autonomy, it makes it harder to argue for secession. The benefits of independence become lower, which means that they get out-weighed by the uncertainty of the transition process and the costs of becoming independent.

Will British politicians learn these lessons? Only if they want to learn them. And of course, there will be other lessons to draw as political scientists examine the actual voting outcomes as well as the many polls taken. The fact that older folks tended to vote No and younger folks tended to vote Yes should keep Cameron and the other major actors in Britain on their toes. That is very much the opposite of where things stand in Quebec.

Of course, if the Scots fail and fail again over the next 30 years to win a referendum but manage to gain a significant devolution of powers from the centre, then in 30 years, the only nationalists left might be the folks who are young today.