Off the Map: The freedom of choice

One of the most fundamental aspects of humanity is the desire for self-determination — to be in command and control of your future and be free of external influences or distractions. This is as true for countries as it is for individuals. On September 18, 2014, the people of Scotland were given the opportunity to choose their future: to remain as part of the United Kingdom or to find their own path as a new sovereign nation, and I was there to witness the event.

As a geographer, I’m fascinated and compelled by self-determination and how a group of people combines their collective will to choose to move forward together as a country, with all the powers and global representation it brings. On a more personal level, my ancestry is 75% Scottish and like many people born in the United States, I have a fascination with my roots. So enamored am I with my ancestry that I even learned to play the bagpipes, and I drive a car with Scotland’s St. Andrews Cross flag on the roof. So my interest in Scotland’s independence referendum was both professional and personal. Ever since I became aware of the planned vote in the fall of 2014, I made plans to be there in person to witness democracy in action, and potentially the rebirth of a nation.

To set the context, let’s have a brief review of why Scotland reached this point in its political history. Scotland has been effectively its own country for much of its long existence, stretching back to the ninth century when it was united under a single kingship. The succession of that kingship would be challenged over time, culminating with England’s Edward I
taking advantage of the confusion in the late thirteenth century by attempting to subdue the Scottish people. This yielded the war over Scottish independence, in which the historical figures William Wallace and Robert the Bruce were made famous (even more so through modern dramatizations such as the 1996 film Braveheart). The end result of the conflict was Scotland’s freedom as a nation, a status that would persist until 1707 when the Act of Union combined the Scottish and English crowns and created the political entity of Great Britain.

While Scotland thrived as part of Great Britain and then later the United Kingdom (which is the aggregation of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), the distinct cultural identity of the Scottish people was never lost. Oftentimes, a cultural group eventually integrates and an aggregate, blended culture results. This has happened in the United Kingdom to a degree, but Scotland’s will and vision as a distinct nation-state never really faded. Then toward the latter half of the twentieth century, a rising dissatisfaction with economic issues and the centralized government in London fueled the emergence of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP). A devolution vote was defeated in 1979 but was followed by a successful vote in 1997, leading to the Scotland Act of 1998 in which Scotland was put on the path to devolution and the return of more powers to the Scottish parliament.

Fast forward to 2011 when the SNP achieved a majority presence in the Scottish parliament and the path was set for an eventual vote on independence. After vigorous negotiations with the UK government, the terms and date were set for a referendum on September 18, 2014, and I decided that this moment in history was too crucial to miss.

I arrived in Scotland on September 17, 2014, and stayed with a good friend of mine in Falkirk; she had struggled with the vote but eventually decided to vote yes because she felt it represented a more optimistic and promising long-term potential for her nation and a strong break from the status quo, which was chiefly characterized by too many local decisions being made by a distant government in London. The campaign in support of independence was simply the “Yes” campaign, countered by the “No Thanks” campaign that sought to keep Scotland as part of the United Kingdom.

The mood in Edinburgh on the eve of the vote was electric with a nervous energy; the people knew the monumental stakes and given the surge in the polls of the “Yes” camp in the few weeks prior, there was a palpable sense that independence could truly become a reality. Even The Economist magazine had a cover story the week before the vote entitled “UK RIP?”

On the streets of Edinburgh, the battle for mindshare was very overt. Various stations were established on busy streets to make appeals to potential voters, with a plethora of signs, pamphlets, “Yes” and “No Thanks” stickers and so on. Walking past residences on the streets, one could find an array of signage for and against.

The overall feeling was that the pro-independence supporters were far more apt to demonstrate their support, while the pro-UK adherents quietly held to their opinion and hoped for the best. Perhaps the best demonstration of this was the pro-independence rally that took place the evening of September 17. While some “No Thanks” supporters had purportedly gathered leading up to the vote, nothing was comparable to the display by those hoping for “Yes.” This rally in particular saw thousands of people gather to celebrate the idea of independence and make a very last effort to sway undecided voters toward a positive outcome for their side. Across wide demographic lines, people joined together in a spirit of contagious hope for what they perceived to be a far better future for their country. From a personal perspective, I cannot remember ever being in the presence of such positive political action, with so much optimism and yearning — even after having participated in many US elections and causes.

One of the most surprising things to see at the pro-independence rally was the great aggregation of similar causes that saw Scotland’s choice as a beacon of hope for their own aspirations. Representatives from around the world were present, including regions with similar independence hopes, such as Taiwan, Catalonia, the Basque Country and Azad Kashmir. There was a perception that if Scotland succeeded in its attempt at independence, it could open the possibility of a new wave of regional independence across the world. Indeed, this was being taken seriously by other countries, as the government of Spain was bracing for the outcome and making it clear that they wouldn’t easily recognize Scotland’s sovereignty, on the basis of what that could mean for Spain’s own territorial integrity. The government of Catalonia had planned its own unsanctioned independence vote on November 9, but has since delayed that plan.

We left the rally and met up with more friends to discuss independence over drinks. The opinions for and against were varied but unlike some of the political discourse in the United States (from my experiences), the conversations were civil and well-crafted; each side had valid reasons for taking the positions they chose. On the day of the vote, things in Edinburgh were pretty subdued; I visited a polling station with my friend who cast her vote and then we spent the day wandering Edinburgh and watching the democratic process in action.

And then came the most challenging part of the experience: staying up all night to anxiously watch the voting results. Will the sun rise on a reemerged country of Scotland, or on a United Kingdom that remains intact but internally fractured? Hour after hour slid by and we strove to stay awake. The answer emerged by 7:00 the next morning: Scotland would remain part of the United Kingdom, with a final 55% voting “no” and 45% voting “yes” — a margin that was closer than many expected, but not as close as the final polls had suggested.

Perhaps one of the most positive outcomes of the Scottish independence referendum, regardless of whichever side one was supporting, was the remarkable demonstration of democracy. Scotland achieved a staggering voter registration rate of 97% of the eligible population, and the referendum saw 85% of those individuals turn out to cast a vote. In the end, it was one of the most successful democratic actions in modern times, no doubt powered by an issue that the Scottish people took very seriously and for which they were impassioned on both sides.

To be in the midst of the process was a humble privilege. While the post-referendum mood for independence supporters on September 19 matched the gloomy, cool, wet weather, this immediate outcome slowly gave way to a rising hope that this issue is far from over. As of this writing, the SNP has seen their ranks swell by five times their pre-vote numbers, making them the third largest political party in the United Kingdom. There is a renewed sense of solidarity sweeping across those who desire to see Scotland create its own path and some politicians are hinting that another referendum could come again much sooner than people expect. This is fueled in part by a wide frustration over Westminster’s pre-vote pledge to devolve more powers to Scotland’s government that the London government quickly started wavering over immediately after the vote.

The path forward will be an interesting one for Scotland, as well as the other many regions of the world seeking self-determination. The message is clear: don’t get too comfortable with the world map “as is”; it remains as dynamic today as it has since the conception of the nation-state.