We will soon know whether the Scots voted for their country’s independence or whether they will remain citizens of the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.” What was already clear, though, was that according to the last opinion polls before Thursday’s vote, the Scots were evenly divided. The call to their patriotism has raised issues regarding their identity and unity.
Are the “true Scots” those who voted to break away from the UK, with all the unpredictable consequences this may bring? In which case, what are those who voted in favor of maintaining the union? Weak-kneed lackeys who bought the threats from London that an independent Scotland would not be able to use the British pound, would have to pick up part of Britain’s debt, and would have to keep sharing its North Sea oil wealth with its former partners? If Greeks can so easily be split between “patriots” and “traitors,” what will happen in Scotland when one side criticizes the other for depriving the nation of self-determination, while the latter accuses the former of recklessness?
A referendum is always divisive. It demands a yes or a no without the nuances that reflect life in all its complexity. “Should Scotland be an independent country?” does not question how dependent Scotland is now, nor what will follow the breakup of the UK. Citizens are called on to weigh the pros and cons of each choice – in a personal referendum – while the simplicity of the question steamrolls over the complexity of their reasoning. If someone believes that his country is already independent and votes to maintain the union, does that make him an enemy of independence?
The Scots’ yes or no, however, will affect not only their own lives and their country, but also the rest of Britain and Europe. If Scotland stays in the UK, the British parties’ (belated) promise of greater devolution of powers will lead to greater autonomy of other parts of Britain too. Separation would lead other parts to seek independence, while the absence of many Labour deputies who are elected in Scotland would leave the House of Commons with a very high number of Tory and other Euroskeptic MPs. A rise in English nationalism could speed up Britain’s exit from the European Union, undermining the whole EU project.
Much depends on the Scots’ role of the dice. Sometimes it is better not to ask a question, because the answer might set off a set of unpredictable events. Pressuring people to decide on their identity and that of their country could have results that are positive or negative, that promote union or division. If the Scots come out of this test united, it will be the strongest evidence that this nation will succeed, whether independent or part of any union. The real bet is now on.