The Scottish Independence Debate Isn’t About Olympic Gold, It’s About Democracy

During the hazy, early hours of the morning in a west end pub, a friend of mine told me that he had learned to ‘never trust nationalism.’ On the face of it he had a point; there are few ideological strands that have unleashed as much needless suffering on the world as nationalism. However, context is everything, and in this case we weren’t discussing far and distant wars or an age of empires, rather we were discussing the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence.

Unlike nationalist movements from around the world, the Scottish one is not about armed struggle or romantic insurrection. The case for Scottish independence is a very rational one and has nothing to do with fighting oppression or tyranny. Instead the debate is a pragmatic one about decentralisation and which government should be making the key decisions that impact upon Scottish people.

As a London-dwelling Scot I’ve been living right in the heart of the recent renaissance of Britishness which has taken over the capital. I’ve seen the Olympic flame passing through our streets and cheered in awe as Mo Farah, Andy Murray, Bradley Wiggins and Chris Hoy proudly lifted their gold medals to the rhythms and strains of God Save the Queen. If referendums were fought on pomp, pageantry and sporting glory alone then it would already be game, set and match to the unionists. This triumphant mood was captured by a number of high profile commentators, and during the flurry of euphoria that followed the games there were an endless array of articles that proclaimed a great new dawn for the unionist cause and suggested that the referendum, still two years away, had become a foregone conclusion.

What the talking heads are missing is that the vote will have little, if anything, to do with the sporting prowess of British athletes. If anybody really believes that the flags worn by Andy Murray or Chris Hoy are as important as who is responsible for running the welfare state or the military budgets then they are mistaken. By the time that the referendum comes along Scots will have endured more than four years of a government who they didn’t vote for, the unpopular austerity agenda will still be government policy, and for many outside London the Olympics will have become little more than a pleasant memory with no real legacy.

As for the referendum campaigns themselves, they are increasingly becoming more polarised as Salmond and Cameron have both suggested they are nearing an agreement on what will actually appear on the ballot paper, with reports suggesting there will only be one question: Yes or No to an independent Scotland. This would be the start of a new stage of the process, as every single poll has shown that Scots want more powers, and with a second question off the agenda both sides will have to battle to win the hearts, minds and votes of those who are undecided on the issue of full political independence. Regardless of the outcome there will be change, whether it comes in the form of a ‘YES’ vote or in the promise of greater powers that unionist politicians would almost certainly need to make in order to win.

There are historical reasons to believe that, like the rest of the country, Scots have benefited from the union, but there are very few to suggest that this will continue. As I wrote in a recent article, the threads that once held the union together have become less and less, and the polarisation of governments and voting patterns north and south of the border has only become more pronounced. There are definitely strong cultural bonds between the people of all the islands that make up the UK, and these will continue regardless of the outcome. However, those who argue for the current setup will find themselves in the difficult position of having to defend a system that allows a government with little accountability to set the budget for a country that has voted against them. The situation is hardly unique, in fact the Scottish electorate has voted against British governments in nine elections since 1945. Devolution may have gone some way to addressing this democratic deficit, but many feel that it doesn’t go far enough.

Indeed, support for the union itself tends to be soft and reactive rather than dogmatic. This is supported by a now notorious survey from ScotCen which found that two thirds of Scots would vote for independence if it meant that they would be £500 a year better off. What this survey shows is that Scots are likely to take a pragmatic decision rather than an ideological one.

Despite this, in in order to win the ‘YES’ campaign will need to be the biggest, broadest, most inspiring and best organised campaign ever seen anywhere in Britain. Equally, the pro-union campaign is stuck in a corner in which it will either need to go even more negative and hope that it works, or they will need to present a positive and inclusive image that concretely explains why they believe that Scots are benefiting from the status quo.

There are a number of outstanding questions about independence; what would happen to the debt? What would happen to the nuclear weapons? Would Scotland be given automatic EU membership? These are all big questions, but they feel like the discussions that surround a divorce rather than the ones that get asked when renewing vows.

Andrew Smith
Author and Communications Professional

This article was originally published at The Huffington Post.