The Scottish referendum is like ice-cream—but I’ll get to that later.
For the past year, one of the United Kingdom’s essential organs has been threatening to break off and leave the body disheveled and weak. Such threats were crushed two weeks ago when Scotland voted ‘no’ to independence, but it is instructive to imagine what might have been: the UK’s political strength curtailed, its seat on the United Nations Security Council revoked, its economy shattered—not to mention its citizens’ identities attacked.
So how did this start, anyway? After years of campaigning for Scottish independence, Alex Salmond, the Scottish First Minister and head of the Scottish National Party, called for a referendum in September 2014 deciding the future of Scotland. For the past year, the United Kingdom has been engulfed in heated debate about the issue of independence: unionists advocated a United Kingdom, and nationalists campaigned for an independent Scotland. On September 18th, Scotland voted 55% to 45% to preserve the 307-year-old Act of Union.
Why did the Scottish people vote this way, and what does it mean—“so what?”
Independence, as the nationalists argued, would have meant several things for Scotland’s economic future. Their argument always began with two words: oil and gas. In 2013, Scotland’s export of these resources was estimated at £30.3 billion. Most of the revenue goes to companies extracting the oil and gas, but the SNP estimated that 91% of appertaining tax revenues could be claimed by Scotland’s government. This, as well as the export of whisky and financial services, could provide an independent Scotland with a sustainable economy.
The next phrase that kept cropping up was “EU membership.” Scotland could have solved its currency problem by adopting the euro, and joining the Eurozone would stabilize the economy over the long-run. Finally, the SNP tried to appeal to the Scots’ sense of identity. “Why succumb to the UK with our money and our livelihoods?” they argued. “We will be stronger as a sovereign nation, with our own economy, policies, and identity.”
Why did the Scottish people reject this? Apparently, union was more attractive: first, unionists never needed to come up with futuristic revenue calculations; they just asked people to look around. The mention of independence scared many Scottish companies into considering relocation from Edinburgh to London. According to the Scottish Chamber of Commerce, 10% of Scottish firms considered leaving Scotland, and 8% outlined definite plans. Even scotch whisky production, argued the Scottish Whisky Association, would have been disturbed by unstable taxes in the case of independence. As for oil and gas, the unionists argued that it was only a matter of time: oil and gas reserves in the North Sea are expected to last until 2050, and revenue is already decreasing at staggering rates, from £11.5 billion in 2008-09 to a meagre £5.5 billion in 2012-13.
The unionist coup de grâce, however, was currency. The simple thought of instability in the currency post-independence scared off private investors in Scotland, who began pulling their money out of the country. The unionists used this fear to entice support for the financial stability of the Union.
In the end, the Scottish chose the Union: what does this say about them?
Scottish voters value tangible financial results. They prefer concrete facts and figures, instead of binding their future, as a nation, to abstract hopes and estimations. Independence was blurred—at least in the short term—with fears of fluctuation in investments, trouble with taxes, and economic volatility. Scotland chose financial stability.
“No” also reflects Scotland’s undying loyalty to, and appreciation for, unity. United, the UK is a pivotal player in the international community, a permanent influence in the United Nations, and a solid and robust economy. Divided, the Kingdom would suffer economic bedlam, and detrimental fluctuations in the political arena. The final verdict of the ballot box: the identity and individuality of Scotland do not matter as much as the unity and firmness of the United Kingdom.
Now for the final question: how does all this relate to chocolate ice cream?
The Scottish people were faced with a typical dilemma—choosing between two equally viable, and potentially detrimental options: chocolate or vanilla ice cream. What we should appreciate here, however, is not the savory taste of either option. Instead, it’s having the freedom of choice. The Scottish referendum embodies democracy at its finest. The nation’s future was not decided by armed revolutionaries, tyrannous colonels, or foreign intervention, but by the will of the people. In times characterized by the vicious repression of this essential freedom—don’t search too far—the Scottish referendum reminds us to appreciate the unequivocal justice of democracy, and rule by the people. Regardless of the consequences of September 18th, the Scottish referendum is an achievement in itself. In the end, it’s always either chocolate or vanilla ice cream: what really matters is the freedom to choose.