Scotland held a referendum on September 18 2014 to answer just one question: Should Scotland become an independent country? The voters decided by 55.3 per cent to 44.7 per cent that they would rather continue to be part of the United Kingdom. Heading to the referendum, the polls were too close to call, with some suggesting that that the “No” campaigners might carry the day by a narrow margin. The outcome is a testament that the loudest advocates of a cause may actually not be reflecting the wishes of the people they claim to speak for.
A very interesting question is why the passion for independence remains strong in Scotland, despite having been part of the United Kingdom for over 300 years and producing a number of Prime Ministers for the union, including Tony Blair (1997-2007) and Gordon Brown (2007-2010). The kingdom of England and the kingdom of Scotland, which were previously separate states with separate legislatures but sharing the same monarch since 1603 were joined together into a single kingdom of Great Britain through Acts of Union passed in 1706 and 1707 respectively by the Parliaments of England and Scotland.
It is generally believed that the desire for Scottish independence is rooted in current political differences between the country and the rest of the United Kingdom. For instance Scotland is believed to be more liberal than the wealthier but relatively more conservative England. This belief has led some Scottish nationalists to agitate for full independence so they would have more room to push for even more liberal political and social agenda. In essence, the independence referendum was not really about Scotland being marginalized in the scheme of affairs in the United Kingdom but about political differences. National pride was also a factor because Scots have a long history of scepticism toward the union.
There are several reasons why the “No” campaigners carried the day. The three major UK parties – Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats- had for instance promised more autonomy for Scotland if independence was rejected. It is possible that the so-called “devo-max” option helped to persuade some undecided voters in the run up to the referendum. Already Scottish Parliament has the right to set and administer Scottish policies in several areas of national life, including on healthcare and education. Under “devo-max” Scottish parliament would be given control over of the items that are currently reserved to the UK Parliament in Westminster. Will Nigeria be willing to consider such flexibility to some nationalities such as sharia to those who clamour for it? Canada has a similar flexibility in dealing with separatist agitations from Quebec.
The “Better Together” campaigners also used fear mongering as they harped on the risks of independence including that it could leave the country’s economy small and weak. The financial markets appeared to buy into such sentiments because when polls showed that the pro-independence campaign was gaining ground, stocks in Scottish companies fell heavily on the news – the Royal Bank of Scotland, Standard Life, and the SSE utility company each fell by more than 2 per cent while the Lloyds banking group fell by more than 3 per cent. This must have rattled the undecided voters.
Other “No” campaigners point out that the Union goes beyond economics to emotional issues of shared heritage, family ties and centuries of joint contributions to the building of the UK brand – in economics, politics, diplomacy, culture, scientific innovations and technological progress. As J.K. Rowling, the famous Scottish author of Harry Potter who donated £1 million to the ‘Better Together’ campaign emotionally put it: “If we leave, though, there will be no going back. This separation will not be quick and clean: it will take microsurgery to disentangle three centuries of close interdependence, after which we will have to deal with three bitter neighbours.”
Several lessons could be drawn from the Scottish referendum and its outcome.
One, the desire for some nationalities that make up a country to be independent is natural, and trying to use blackmail to suppress such feelings can only drive their canvassers underground and glamourize the cause they espouse. Just as there are several agglomeration of previously different nationalities that became successful nations – China, France, Tanzania and United Kingdom – there are also several federations and countries that have imploded after years, decades or even centuries of being together. Examples here include Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic and the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Even in the United States there are still groups that hoist the confederate flag of independence. The bottom line is that we need to find more creative ways of dealing with separatist tendencies as our current blackmail strategy appears counter- productive.
Two, referendum may be one way of resolving the apparently intractable ‘national question’ in Nigeria. There may be a need for a constitution which allows for the conduct of referendum among nationalities that want to secede from the union say once every 30 years. I believe that the idea of declaring that discussion about the unity of Nigeria is a ‘no go area’ to successive constitutional or national conferences is counterproductive as it only helps to romanticise the hush-hush agitations for independence.
In Scotland, when the separatist Scottish National Party lost the referendum, Alex Salmond, a long-time canvasser for independence, announced that he would stand down as Scotland’s First Minister and leader of the SNP. The outcome of the referendum was in essence an indication that his views on Scottish independence were not representative of the views of the majority of Scots men and women. How do we know if those agitating for separation in our country are truly reflecting the wishes of the people they claim to represent or merely presenting their personal agendas as the views of the people? Another advantage of a generational referendum is that it will force the country to be fair to all its constituent parts, knowing that those that feel marginalized may opt for independence during a referendum. It is instructive that the issue of ‘marginalization’ was not one of the issues of the ‘Yes’ campaigners in Scotland.
Three, if the ‘Yes’ campaigners had won; it would still not mean an automatic independence for Scotland. There will still be protracted negotiation around a number of knotty issues such as how to share assets and liabilities, the fate of the British Royal Navy’s Trident nuclear submarines which is currently based near Glasgow, whether there would be a closed or open border between England and Scotland and who would be eligible for Scottish or dual citizenship.
For Nigeria, any decision by any group to go its way will also involve very complex negotiations: How do we share our assets and liabilities? How do we define the boundaries of the new nations? How do we deal with the internal contradictions in the new country?
Four, the clamour for a sort of return to regionalism based on the six geopolitical zones could be in the short term an antidote to secessionist sentiments. But as the Scottish case has shown, it could also in the longer term sharpen the demand for separation. For instance Scotland has enjoyed considerable autonomy for over two decades as a way of assuaging the demands for separatism, including having its own parliament: Despite this (or partly because of it), there was the ascendancy of the Scottish National Party in 2011, which duly began demanding for referendum for full independence. The good lesson from them however is that both the “Yes” and “Nay” campaigners were allowed to trade their ideas openly and freely in the political marketplace. The victory of the ‘Better Together’ campaigners is likely to blunt the demand for Scottish independence for a long time to come. In fact, SNP leadership indicated in the run up to the referendum that it would abandon its push for independence if the referendum backed continued union with the UK, saying that the vote was a “once-in-a-generation opportunity.”
This should be a big lesson to Nigeria, especially those who feign anger at any suggestion that the country should be restructured to serve everyone better. The Scottish referendum and its outcome should be a good lesson to Nigeria on how to manage separatist agitations without bloodshed.