Whatever the outcome of Thursday’s Scottish independence referendum, a nation will find itself divided. How significant this will be going forward, and the ramifications it may have for the United Kingdom, remains to be seen.
This referendum itself is unusual in that it has been sanctioned by the government from which the breakaway province is trying to secede. Many similar referendums have been conducted unilaterally, declared by the separatists themselves (as witnessed in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine recently) whilst being declared illegal and invalid by other states concerned.
In 1958, the French government announced a widespread constitutional referendum that would impact on its overseas territories. Accepting the constitution in a national referendum would make France’s colonies members of the French Community, with a view to future independence. A ‘no’ vote would mean a severing of ties with Paris and immediate secession.
Ultimately, only French Guinea would reject the constitution, 95% of the population voting ‘no’ in their referendum. For the other territories, a similarly large percentage voted ‘yes’ and joined the French Community without any serious debate. These results (with the exception of Guinea) show the ease with which unanimity can be achieved when there is little at stake in a referendum. In this case, the status quo was effectively being preserved.
However, in 1961, when the Algerian War of Independence had entered its eighth bloody year, France announced a referendum asking:
“Do you approve the bill submitted to the French people by the President of the Republic and concerning the self-determination of the populations of Algeria and the organization of the public authorities in Algeria prior to self-determination”.
69.5% of the Algerian population voted ‘yes’, 30.5% ‘no’. This substantial minority vote against the bill is testament to the more divisive nature of the issue at stake. Self-determination was not full independence. In principal it sounded appealing, and offered the potential for independence in the near future. But for some people, who had fought the French regime bitterly since 1954, it was not enough. It helped to stoke rivalry within the Algerian population, in addition to between Algerians and indigenous French colonists, in the final year of the War.
Scotland is not in a state of war like Algeria was in the 1950s and ’60s. Nor is it directly colonised and dictated to. Some might argue with the latter reality, particularly in a psychological sense (see Renton), however, and an issue of such importance to the majority of the population could quickly undermine a harmonious society.
Another comparative point is direct democracy, which makes frequent use of referendums. Switzerland (and some of its individual cantons in particular) is a prime example. Referendums can have a direct impact on law in Switzerland, including on contentious issues that in other countries would not be left to public debate. For instance, a 2009 referendum resulted in the banning of the construction of minarets, despite the country having a sizable Muslim population. Such political methods encourage division in a country which is far from homogenous given its ethnic and linguistic make-up.
A 2008 referendum in California led to the banning of same-sex marriages, a hugely divisive issue. Whilst the ban was overturned at the constitutional court it has had a lasting affect on community relations within the American state.
What helps whitewash over these incendiary issues (caused in part by referendums) is the economy. Switzerland and California both enjoy excellent standards of living in general and economic well-being can help silence even the most troublesome political issues.
The economic ramifications of Scottish independence have not been fully established and have been conveniently overlooked on the whole by Alex Salmond and the SNP. Whilst Scotland is unlikely to be another Northern Ireland, the divisiveness of the independence referendum could have worrying consequences should the ‘yes’ campaign succeed and the Scottish economy falls into freefall. What better way to create resentment in those who voted ‘no’?
As David Cameron has rightly publicised, a Scottish break will be permanent not a ‘trial separation’. If things don’t work out Scotland cannot simply rejoin the UK. This is a unique test, a situation unlike the other examples cited where populations were unanimous in their decisions or voting for single laws rather than a wholesale change in their existence.
A nation divided against itself? This is one referendum that will not be forgotten.