Why I’m voting...

I’m writing this piece to try to decide what I should vote for in the coming referendum on Scottish
Independence. As I’m typing this opening paragraph the title of the piece is incomplete; it reads
“Why I’m voting...” and won’t be concluded until I get to the end of my writing. I’m honestly not sure
which way it will go. Part of my would like to vote Yes. My heart says Yes, if you want to put it that
way. But another part of me just wants to get on with life as it is, the whole “if it ain’t broke don’t fix
it” point of view I suppose. I have no doubt that an independent Scotland would be a nicer place to
live, but, with already substantial devolution in place, and increased taxation powers promised in the
event of a No vote, I do wonder if the fairly small advantages of independence would be worth all
the bother. So what are the advantages, and disadvantages, of independence? Or, conversely, what
are the advantages and disadvantages of voting for Westminster rule? And I say “worth all the
bother” but what exactly is “the bother” and how can I quantify it’s “worth”? These are perhaps
questions I won’t find the answer to but let’s give it a shot.
Firstly, let’s forget about facts. There don’t seem to be any facts to be had. I was firmly in the
“undecided voter” category for a long time, with definite No vote leanings, waiting for more
information before I made my decision. What I got instead was a steady torrent of drivel from both
official campaigns and a load of so-called “facts” to support their nonsense. The Yes people say
Scotland would be economically better off as an independent state. The No people say that Scotland
would be better off in the UK. The Yes people say that there would be a currency union. The No
people say that there wouldn’t. The Yes people say that without a currency union an independent
Scotland wouldn’t be obliged to take on any of the nation debt, which after all is in Pound Stirling.
The No people say that Scotland would have to take its fair share of the debt. The Yes people say
that Scotland would retain EU membership, the No people say that she would have to reapply. And
so on and so forth. It got ridiculous, and then got boring.
I’ve been waiting for the details to emerge on the plan for an independent Scotland but I’ve come to
realise that there will be no details before the referendum. The details will be negotiated after the
decision has been made on independence. The vote must be made on principle alone, on whether
you agree, in principle, with independence based on the nature of democracy and the values and
ideals shared (or indeed not shared!) by the populations of Scotland and the UK. In the event of a
Yes result to the referendum negotiations will then begin for what will a long and draw out process.
How quickly would independence happen in this case? Within 5 years? Within 10 years? It certainly
won’t happen overnight, the day after the referendum. Asking the SNP to come up with a detailed
plan before the referendum, all the results for a process that will likely go on for years, is a more
than a little unfair in my opinion. It must also be considered that the SNP could be voted out of
government after an independence Yes vote, their mission accomplished, and it might be a Scottish
Labour government negotiating with Westminster on the terms of independence. The SNP can’t
possibly provide the details on the plan for an independent Scotland partly because the details will
be worked out in the years to follow and partly because it’s not necessarily their job to negotiate
with the UK government on behalf of an independent Scotland, since the government of that entity
does not yet exist.
Imagine one of your friends asks you if you want to meet up in the park this weekend. You’d maybe
like to know the details: when would you meet, what would you be doing, how much is whatever
you do likely to cost, who else is going to be there, and so on. These would be good details to have
but they’re not strictly necessary to answer the question “do you want to meet up?”. The
consideration is simply whether you’d like to spend time with them that weekend, in principle, or
not. Details can follow, it’s the principle that matters.
So let’s forget about facts. The economy is a big issue but it’s not the only one on the table. I don’t
think anyone on either side of the debate is seriously disagreeing that Scotland would be
economically sound as an independent country. There are many examples of other small,
independent countries that do just fine, even with their own currency should it come to that.
Scotland isn’t a poor land: it’s full of well-educated, employable people and natural resources like
wind energy and oil and gas, it has top universities and international tourism attractions, a massive
whisky export industry, advanced infrastructure in things like transportation and health care, a fairly
big electronics and computer programming sector, a decent finance sector, etc. The obvious No vote
argument is that yes indeed, Scotland already has all of those things, and they contribute to the
wider UK economy and Scotland benefits as part of that larger economy. The debate is usually
framed, once you filter out all the low-level bickering, not as whether Scotland could or couldn’t
have a strong economy if it became independent, but rather would the economy be very strong or,
instead, slightly less than very strong...but does it matter? There are more important things to life
than deciding whether to be rich or slightly richer. When deciding to take or reject a new job offer
it’s not just small differences in salary that swing your decision, it’s what the job entails and whether
or not you’d be happy working there. Especially if nobody can tell you for sure in advance which job
would be the better paid.
So then, which would be the better job? Assuming they have much the same kind of salary, and
nobody can tell you for definite what the salaries would be anyway, which contract do you decide to
sign? Before we can answer that we have to address a problem with this analogy. We’re not
deciding between two new jobs, we’re deciding whether to move onto a new job or stick with the
one we’ve got. And there’s no denying that while the salaries may be comparable there will, in this
analogy, undoubtedly be a large cost associated with moving to the new job. Scotland will do fine
economically as an independent country but the transition years will be hard financially. So it’s not
quite a decision between two economically balanced options, there is a one-off cost associated with
independence that doesn’t apply to remaining in the UK. The question becomes then: are there
advantages to Scottish independence for which this cost will be worth it?
Again, the answer is that there are few facts and certainties to be had. Who knows what would
happen in Scotland during my lifetime should it go down the independence route. It’s difficult to
predict what will happen in politics a few months or years down the line, never mind trying to
predict the next fifty years. And it’s worth remembering that we also need to consider what will
happen in the UK over the next few decades, since we’ll be voting to endorse those changes with a
No vote. A vote for Scottish independence is a vote for a Scotland governed exclusively by a Scottish
elected Parliament, yes, but it’s also a vote to reject the governance of a majority English elected UK
Parliament. Similarly a No vote is not just a vote against the principle of Scottish independence, it’s a
vote for the Union and ultimate Westminster authority. As voters, we bear the responsibility for
whatever happens to Scotland over the next few decades, and a No vote bears the responsibility for
whatever happens in Scotland due to UK government policy should we remain in the UK, such as a
Yes vote bears the responsibility for whatever happens during the transition to independence. A No
vote isn’t simply a vote to say “let’s just forget about all this independence stuff”, it’s a vote to
endorse the UK government’s policies in Scotland for (probably) the rest of our lives. Either way,
there’s unlikely to be another referendum for a long time, so once we decide there’s no going back.
Having waded the murky depths of what a Yes or No vote really means (along the lines of the old
philosophical conundrum: are the consequences of our inactions the same as the consequences of
our actions?) and holding in our minds that there is great uncertainty on embarking on either path,
we need to get back to the main question: are there advantages to Scottish independence worth the
economic cost of the turmoil of the transition? The answer to this really depends on where you see
Scotland and England heading over the next few decades and how strongly you agree/disagree with
that direction.
But it’s also about democracy. It’s important to recall that, with less than 8 percent of the UK’s
population, Scottish votes don’t have much of a say in the way the UK is governed. Hence the fact
that there is only one Conservative party seat in Scotland but the UK is currently run by a
Conservative led government. Now, it could be said that, fundamentally, that’s simply how
democracy works. Democracy means that you don’t always get your way. You could pick any group
of 5 million people within the UK and point out that they also don’t get much of a say in the way the
UK is run. Democracy means you have your individual say and agree to abide by the majority
decision. Democracy means that in a vote with a 51 to 49 percent split on an issue, almost half of
your population are unhappy with the result. This is fine when the issue is small and so the
unhappiness is small. After all, the next vote might be won by the previously disappointed group and
it all balances out in the end as one big compromise. Democracy works when a large majority of
people agree on the big things and that’s what would govern national boundaries in an ideal world: a
nation state should be a place where the population agrees to abide by the majority vote, happy in
the understanding that they everyone more-or-less think along the same lines about the bigger
issues. Nation states start to fail when this agreement and happiness starts to crumble.
In a democracy a minority will always be disgruntled, since they have no power to change anything.
That minority has several choices. For one, they can fight for self-governance. This is the strongest
course of action but perhaps necessary in some circumstances. Imagine you’ve met up with a group
of friends in the park and there’s suddenly a vote on whether or not to throw you into the nearby
pond. You obviously vote against it, but with five votes in favour for the motion you’re defeated and
they grab you to throw you in. You would want out of that democracy pretty quickly. This is the
course of action for major, irreconcilable differences. Now imagine you’re in the park with a group of
friends and there’s a vote on whether to get ice creams and sit on the bench, or go to the pub and
get beers. You’re pretty happy with either but at that moment you’d prefer to get an ice cream and
sit in the sun. There’s a vote and you’re defeated, quite dramatically, and there’s five votes in favour
of going to the pub. You’re in the same minority, one vote to five, but since the issue is smaller, the
difference in your happiness fairly small between either option, you’re fine with going along with the
democratically decided course of action.
A nation state should be comprised of the latter, a group of friends with differing opinions who
nevertheless agree to go with the majority vote on a course of action, since they’re more or less
happy with all the options, or if not they at least know that there’s a fair chance the next vote will go
in their favour. As a No voter you’re asserting that that’s the case with the UK, that although
Scotland is a small minority, so is any group of people within the UK, and we all share similar
principles and values, the same ideals for our country, and that the present democracy works fine.
As a Yes voter you’re asserting that the democracy in its current state isn’t working, that the
differences between the Scottish minority to the rest of the UK are greater than can be reconciled by
the “it’ll all balance out in the end as one big compromise” and the “any unhappiness caused by not
getting the result of your vote is comparatively small” concepts. Instead the Yes voter is asserting
that we don’t all agree on the big issues, and don’t share the same principles and values and ideals.
Back to trying to answer our main question. It’s true that there’s uncertainty for the future, that
nobody can tell you what will happen in an independent Scotland just as nobody can tell you what
will happen in the UK, but at least in an independent Scotland the future of the country is decided by
the people of Scotland and not the majority vote of the UK. The future is uncertain but at least at the
referendum you can vote to say that you want a bigger say in how it goes. The future is uncertain
but not directionless, someone will be steering the country down a particular path, and you have to
decide who it should be steering Scotland through that uncertainty: the majority vote of the UK or
the majority vote of Scotland.
Those two things are the same if you believe that the populations are of the same mind. If we all
mostly share the same principles, values and ideals then it doesn’t really matter, Scotland will be
steered down the same path regardless. It’s evident however that that’s not the case, thanks to
devolution we can already see differences in approach to policy. Scotland values free education and
heavily subsidises the costs of higher education for her citizens, while England introduced and then
increased tuition fees. Scotland values nationalised health care, England is part-privatising the NHS
to drive efficiency. Scotland would like to significantly scale back the military, England would not.
Scotland would like to significantly expand the use of renewable energy, England’s not so keen.
Scotland highly values EU membership, England’s holding a referendum on leaving the EU. Scotland
welcomes immigration to contribute to the growth of the country, the Conservatives seem to hate
immigrants (note added in proof: this is not really backed up by evidence, this is just your opinion).
Scotland loves the welfare state and generally lies on the political left, England is wandering towards
the right and seems disinterested in modern socialism. These are gross generalisations but they do
show a difference in thinking.
Note added in proof: via devolution Scotland already has power over things like education and
healthcare. So these differences in national population preferences are already reflected by
differences in policy. What advantages would independence offer here? It just sounds like you’re
making the case for devolution.... I suppose the answer is that it’s not so much these individual issues
that I’m trying to highlight differences in, it’s an overall difference in thinking, or (to use the terms I
keep re-using shamelessly) a difference in principles, values and ideals. I’m making the point that
democracy breaks down in a fundamentally divided population, where a well-defined minority loses
faith in the rule of the majority, and that the populations of Scotland and England have been drifting
apart since the 1960s.
Note added in proof: remember there’s more to the UK than England and Scotland. Use the rUK
expression? Well, since the point I’m making is about democracy and majorities, does the difference
made to Westminster policy by Wales and Northern Ireland votes mean anything? Not really.
The same question is as yet unanswered: do these differences generate enough unhappiness, via the
democratic process, to really make a case for separation, and are the benefits of that separation
worth the economic cost of the transition period?
The difficulty we run into here is putting a price tag on our values. How much money would you
sacrifice to follow your ideals? How much better paid would one horrible job have to be than
another enjoyable job for your to take the horrible job for the increased salary? If the job was
designing better bombs, to more efficiently kill a greater number of people, and you had moral
objections to contributing that that kind of work, how high would the salary have to be before you
put your morals aside and accepted that employment? How high does the financial reward of
remaining in the Union have to be before you put aside your concerns about its governance, and
also concerns about your limited role in determining the future of that governance?
Ultimately that’s an individual choice. There’s no correct answer, no facts and figures to consult,
nothing for either side of the debate to make a case on. That’s probably why the debates on this
issue quickly become uninformative and ultimately a bit pointless . It depends how misaligned your
personal values are with the values of the UK voting majority, how different your principles are from
those of the Westminster government and potential future UK governments. Equally it depends on
how closely aligned your values are to the Scottish voting majority in a potential independent
Scotland, how similar your principles are to what you expect future Scottish governments to hold.
For me, I’d like to vote Yes. The economic cost of being independent is unknown, unknowable, and
probably either small or actually an economic gain. The economic cost of the transition to
independence is more substantial but in my opinion might be worth it to create a nation state in
which the majority population holds more similar goals to me as to the kind of society and culture
we would like to live in. Economics isn’t everything.
The end?
I’ll keep going; I don’t feel satisfied yet.
We concluded with economics isn’t everything. Well fair enough. There’s also things like defence to
consider. Domestic, social policy is mostly devolved, so a No vote or a Yes vote will have little impact
on things like the NHS or schools. But defence is one thing that isn’t, and has no plans to be,
devolved. I said that the populations of England and Scotland have been drifting apart since the
1960s but it could be said that they’ve been drifting apart in the absence of any serious threat of
war. Support of the Union was very high in Scotland around the time of the First and then Second
world wars, the advantage of being part of a larger nation state at that time obvious. The country
was more able to defend itself with a larger army, and a joint effort was also better for war-time
necessities such as managing rationing, supporting and supplying troops and manufacturing stuff for
the military. However, the effect of those war-time efforts was more combined, centralised control
of the UK, which is what causes civil unrest (if I can use such a term) now.
The question arises then: if the Union was so popular at the beginning of the previous century due to
the threat and the reality of war, are we now talking about dissolving that union just because we’ve
had a (pretty much unprecedented) number of decades of peace? Is the current support for a Yes
vote simply because we’ve forgotten what it feels like for our country to be threatened? Is there a
credible threat in the future, in the modern age, that should deter us from independence? Both from
a military strength point of view and also from a war-time economy point of view?
I believe an independent Scotland would aim for a reduction in military size, and with nuclear
disarmament a policy of the SNP, assuming that they retain control of the government after the next
election and actually follow through on their policies (a crazy assumption to make in politics!), and
assuming that nuclear disarmament makes it though the independence negotiations with
Westminster, then Scotland’s military strength would be significantly diminished. It’s all very well
saying we don’t need much of an army and nuclear weapons in today’s worldwide political climate, I
think Scotland’s pretty safe, there’s no obvious people who would attack Scotland, but you need to
take the long view and wonder what might be the case in 50 years. In a third world war Scotland
might be very glad to be a part of the UK.
Also, military strength makes people listen to you. Part of the economic strength of the UK is based
on its military strength. The global deals and contracts and trading alliances and unions that the UK
has negotiated over the years are partly based on a show of military assistance and intervention
abroad and the overall projection of strength. Could an independent Scotland, and especially an
independent Scotland who decides to reduce her armed forces and reject nuclear weapons, secure
the same kinds of international deals? So there’s consequences even if Scotland never fights another
war for the rest of history.
Note added in proof: you have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about here. You know nothing
about the military or any negotiations within global politics. You should ignore pretty much
everything you’ve written over the last few paragraphs and await the input of more knowledgeable
I suppose I’m drifting back to economics now and the question of uncertainty in the future. There’s
always uncertainty though. The UK might end up dragged into various wars in the Middle East, for
example, that an independent Scotland would stay out of. How’s that for the economy? Very
difficult for me to say if such wars help or harm finances in the long run (I’m not an economist...
there’s probably a library’s worth of books to read on the topic). The UK might get dragged into
some kind of military action against an aggressively expanding Russia (unlikely, I know). What would
an independent Scotland do in that case? If no-one in Scotland wanted said military action, and the
UK went ahead and did it anyway due to a majority vote by English MPs, what does that say about
democracy? We end up with the same issues as I’ve already gone into.
But are the principles of a working democracy worth it? Worth the worry about losing the military
strength of the UK. Worth the worry over the one-off cost of transitioning to independence. Worth
the worry over whether the economy of an independent Scotland would leave people prosperous
enough to feel happy -- not that they’d necessarily be happy in the event of a No vote, with the
widening rich-poor divide happening in the UK, which is of course another reason for, rather than
against, independence. With significant devolution already in place, and in fact planned to increase
slightly with the introduction of more taxation powers, what are the advantages of independence
really? Independent armed forces, Scotland’s own defensive policy and assets? Is that actually a
good thing? Most of the benefits for independence are, in my mind, social rather than to do with
economics or defence, but these are the main things that would change after a Yes vote. With
devolution, perhaps the different social attitudes of Scotland to the UK majority don’t really matter,
they’re taken care of already. This is why I was up for the “Devo-Max” option.
Of course that was before Westminster removed Devo-Max from the referendum despite the fact
that most people in Scotland wanted it. Recalling things like that reminds me why Scottish self-
governance might be a good idea.
Okay, stop writing.
After all of this my mind is getting muddled and the questions I’ve been raising are getting more, not
less, difficult to answer. I was meant to be writing towards a conclusion but instead I’ve written
myself into greater uncertainty.
At the end I haven’t answered anything.
But somehow (and re-reading the piece it definitely comes across I think) I feel like Yes voter. Ask me
why though and I’d be hard pressed to come up with a snappy answer. However, I’ve been reading,
and listening, and watching, and discussing stuff about Scottish independence for months now and it
must have all been absorbed somewhere in my mind. Then out of that corner of my mind has come
this four-thousand-word stream of drivel that merges perfectly with the steady torrent that I alluded
to at the start of this piece. It’s fair to say that it hasn’t answered anything, it doesn’t even follow a
consistent and coherent logic, and I’m sure everyone could find many things to legitimately disagree
with, but it’s made up my mind.
I’m going to vote Yes...
I’m not going to recommend that you do the same, since I made the point a while ago that it’s an
entirely subjective, personal comparison of advantages and disadvantages to either course for the
future that depends on your own (I’m going to use those words one last time) values, ideals and
I am however going to recommend that you take the time to think about your vote and try not to
base your decision on nonsense pressed upon you by over-zealous campaigners who like to think
that they have absolute certainties and facts to tell you.
Okay, time to change the title of the piece, post it to Facebook, and prepare myself for being
absolutely destroyed in the comments!