The sheer numbers are impressive. Out of an electorate of 4,285,323 registered voters 84,6 % participated in the historic popular vote on September 18. This is the highest voter turnout in a UK popular vote since 1945: ”The atmosphere was brilliant”, stated a 16-year old student from Aberdeen after having visited a local ballot station for what was probably her most important decision in a lifetime: ”Wow, I have a say in this country”. The total number of votes cast was 3,623,344: 1,617,989 voted yes (44.65%), 2,001,926 said no (55.25%).
Having a say on such an important issue and being part of a conversation in public has been a feeling most Scottish citizens felt happy and proud about in this referendum process. And both the yes- and the no-campaign made it very clear in the last days before the vote: people in Scotland and across the UK and Europe need more democratic powers, not less. In a last-minute attempt to swing the vote towards the Union even the ”three amigos” from London – David Cameron (Conservative Party), Ed Miliband (Labour Party) and Nick Clegg (Liberal Party) – came to Edinburgh in the end to underline this.
Exaggerations and spins
To be sure, the official campaigns on both sides have had their exaggerated spins. Some tried to undermine the broad approach in public conversations around all kinds of challenges linked to national security, the welfare state, which currency an independent Scotland should have, and how the issue of EU membership should be dealt with. This was also reflected in statements by many foreign observers and commentators, possibly in the hope of transforming the Scottish referendum into some sort of blueprint for their own cases in favour of or against more autonomy and independence – including Russian politicians’ attempts to instrumentalize the vote for their own ambitions in Crimea and Brussels leaders warning against a ”balkanisation of Europe”.
What many of those campaigners and observers missed, however, is the very process of the referendum. The democratic maturity it displayed offers an extraordinarily exemplary case of a true popular vote process. Three aspects are especially interesting: the extent of public involvement, the overall agreement, and the conduct of the electoral process as such.
Never before in modern UK history have so many citizens taken part in so many public debates and demonstrations in such a long process as the one leading up to the September 18 vote. The people understood that this referendum was not about giving their vote away to someone else, but about strengthening it for themselves: ”I have voted in every election since I was 18 but I have never felt like this”, an elderly man confessed after voting in Kirkwall, Orkney. Very obviously the citizens were able to differentiate between a decision on a major substantive matter and the usual choice between various managerial stakeholders in a election.
You need an agreement!
Second, there was the so-called Edinburgh Agreement between the Scottish and the UK government – signed on October 15, 2012 – which prepared the way for the popular vote process as such. One weakness of sovereignty referendums that is common to the UK and many other polities around the world is that they are not provided for in a written constitution – or can be triggered by a citizens´ initiative. However, the UK and Scotland overcame these limitations by agreeing on the right to vote and other cornerstones of a referendum. This again is a major difference to many similar attempts across Europe to organize sovereignty referendums, such as for example in Catalonia or the Italian Veneto region: as long as you have no agreement on a referendum process with the entity you wish to leave, it will be most difficult to organise a free and fair popular vote as such.
Scotland’s referendum process is much more than a yes or no to independence, it is the expression of a new political culture – a true victory for people power!
Third, the very conduct of the ”Indyref” – as the Scottish Independence Referendum has been labelled on social media, where only during the hours of vote nightly counting more than seven million #indyref tweets were sent -offers a model for how to organize and conduct such a democratic decision, including broad public information campaigns, strict transparency requirements and the setting up of a comprehensive infrastructure for participation in both the debate and especially the vote as such: for several weeks before voting day it was possible to vote by post and on September 18 no less than 5,579 polling stations were open for 14 hours across Scotland. And it was not only the public services which made the opinion-making process an informative and empowering one, but also the efforts of many media organizations, including citizen-driven ones such as bellacaledonia.
Having experienced all these benefits of a great public debate concluded by a binding popular vote, even many ‘losers’ of the vote are happy today: ”This is just the beginning, not the end”, a yes-supporter stated in the early morning of September 18 after learning of the negative outcome; and he added proudly, ”the people of Scotland have won”. But this ”victory” is nevertheless just one step, as many challenges and problems adressed remain intact, and there are not guarentees that the promises made by London will be kept – especially if there should be a Tory/UKIP coalition taking over in the UK next year after the general elections. Furthermore, unlike in Switzerland, there is no formal constitutional process available to the people of Scotland to restart the whole process.
And indeed, more change will (have to) come. After September 18 active citizenship and participative democracy will play a more indispensable role than before this popular vote – not only in democracy in Scotland, but also in other parts of the UK, Europe and the World. So, even if some voices and forces will now try to abandon their promises of more democratic powers to the citizens, they will have to learn something: Scotland’s referendum process is much more than a yes or no to independence, it is the expression of a new political culture – a true victory for people power!
By Bruno Kaufmann, board member of Democracy International and editor-in-chief of the online-news portal people2power. This piece originally appeared on the website of people2power, see here
Credit of Image above: By Dauvit Alexander, Flickr, Source here.