On the 18th September 2014 Scottish residents voted in a legally binding referendum on their country's independence from the UK. Unlike many referenda, a citizens were engaged in dialogue and education in the months leading up to the vote. The 'no' vote won 55.3% to 44.7%.
Problems and Purpose
In 2011, leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), Alex Salmond, ran on a campaign to give citizens the ability to directly vote on the country's secession from the United Kingdom through referendum. The SNP cited many problems resulting from the country's continued union with the United Kingdom that would be solved through referendum. For example, independence would allegedly allow the Scottish government to provide better economic and social advances for their citizens.
Independence from the United Kingdom has been a long standing issue among Scots, may of whom see the 307-year-old union as fundamentally opposed to sovereignty. In the White Paper published in 2013 by the Scottish government, the SNP stated that “decisions about Scotland – decisions that affect us… – should be taken in Scotland to reflect the views of the Scottish people, rather than by governments at Westminster with different priorities, often rejected by voters in Scotland.” Believing the desire for independent control - ie. sovereignty - to be in the majority amongst Scottish voters, the SNP saw the holding of a referendum to be the easiest way to secure independence and democratic legitimacy for the country's departure from the United Kingdom. According to a 2013 Policy Memorandum, the SNP - who held a majority in the Scottish Government - claimed that “the main policy objective of the referendum [is] to be ‘a fair, open and truly democratic process which is conducted and regulated to the highest international standards.'"
Background History and Context
Scotland has been part of the United Kingdom since 1707. In 1934 nationalism grew in Scotland with the formation of the SNP, in which their primary aim was the independence of Scotland. Scotland went on to hold a referendum in 1997 which won in favour of having devolution of powers. A Scottish parliament was formed, and the Scottish government gained a wider range of power and control. However, Labour remained in power of Scotland which meant that a referendum was nowhere in sight. From 2000 the SNP changed their political strategy to advocating for a referendum rather than independence, which became more popular amongst Scottish citizens. This led to the victory of the SNP in 2007; they finally won the largest number of seats in the Scottish election, but failed to form a majority.
In the run-up to the 2011 elections, the SNP pledged to hold a referendum if they won a majority of the seats. After securing an electoral victory, plans were set in motion for the referendum on independence such as the mandatory signing of an agreement between between the heads of UK and Scottish Governments to transfer the ability to decide on constitutional matters - which falls under the purview of the UK Parliament - to the Scottish Parliament. Accordingly, the United Kingdom's Prime Minister, David Cameron, and the First Minister of Scotland and leader of the SNP, Alex Salmond, signed the Referendum Agreement on the 15th October 2012, ensuring the results of the referendum would be binding on both governments and be directly translated into legislation.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The Scottish referendum administrative cost was approximately 16 million pounds for count officers, electoral returning officers, postage costs and the Electoral Commission.
Campaigning costs were set in line by the electoral commission: “They allowed the two designated campaign organisations to spend up to £1.5 million each and for the parties in Scotland to spend the following amounts: £1,344,000 (SNP); £834,000 (Labour); £396,000 (Conservatives); £201,000 (Liberal Democrats); £150,000 (Greens). An unlimited number of other organisations could register with the Electoral Commission, but their spending was limited to £150,000.” The cost of campaigning totalled to £6,664,980. There was no public funding for campaigners.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
All Scottish residents aged 16 and over were allowed to vote in the referendum. This was the first time the Scottish Government had extended the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds. However, they had to have proof of Scottish residency and be a British, EU, or Commonwealth citizen. Voters were also required to be registered by September 2nd, 2014. Through this participant selection it is clear effective participation and equal voting opportunities were accounted for as the government allowed an opportunity for all eligible citizens in Scotland to have their say on their country’s future, in an inclusive process. UK citizens are also able to register as 'postal voters' through the Electoral Commission and, as of August 15th, 680,235 were set to vote in the referendum through the mail. By the registration deadline, 97% of those eligible to vote -- over 4.2 million people -- were registered.
Methods and Tools Used
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
From the announcement of the Scottish referendum to the referendum day there was a two year gap. This gap allowed a long period for a well deliberated referendum to take place. Referendums are usually criticised for having a deliberation deficit where there is no meaningful deliberation by the electorate, the process is easily manipulated by the elites, and minority group’s voices are lost in an overall majority decision.
The Scottish government put forward the Franchise Bill and Referendum Bill in 2013; these laid the foundations for a regulated process and careful deliberation by the Scottish parliament on the referendum process. The referendum bill highlighted: “the Electoral Commission must take such steps as they consider appropriate to promote public awareness and understanding in Scotland about— (a) the referendum, (b) the referendum question, and (c) voting in the referendum.”
The Scottish referendum has proven to ensure all these factors have been met to allow a fair, deliberative, and representative referendum to take place. The Scottish government sent their proposed referendum question to the electoral commission. They reviewed the question, and the Scottish government abided by any suggested changes. With this process put in place the question was ensured to be clear to Scottish citizens, and not deceiving. The political elites were not able to manipulate the process because the power lay solely in the hands of the Scottish people, which is a fundamental factor to democratic innovations.
The government also ensured that the public were engaged and informed with the referendum, to maximise voter turnout amongst the public. The Scottish government published the White Paper in November 2013. This was a guide published to the public on raising awareness of the referendum process, and giving them a picture on the implications of both a yes or no majority win. A path was aimed specifically at 15-17 year olds and a mass awareness campaign for all eligible voters, to interact with the public. From October 2013 to March 2014, ‘a young voter’s registration’ was issued to each household to ensure as many young voters were registered to vote, this ensured the voting process was made clear and easy. A voting guide was distributed to every household in Scotland, and was made available in public places, and online. To follow, a media campaign was also launched from August 2014; this ran the referendum campaign through television, advertising and radio. These steps ensured the public were engaged with the issue of the referendum, and aimed to maximise their political knowledge and interest, to ensure this was a successful democratic process.
On the day of the referendum - September 18th, 2014 - pre-registered voters turned out to polling stations which were opened at 7am. The deputy-head of the SNP conceded defeat for the "yes" campaign in the early morning of September 19th.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The outcome of the referendum was a clear ‘no’, with a 10.6% difference from the ‘yes’ vote. Therefore, the public had successfully decided the future of their country through a direct democratic process. However, the outcome of the referendum has paved the way for constitutional reform. Devolution for Scotland has been able to move faster and further in consequence to the referendum campaign. In the Smith Commission agreement, proposes were made for Scotland to have increased power over operations it its own parliament and local governments. As a result, greater devolution of power was given to the Scottish parliament policies such as income tax and welfare.
Also, the voter turnout for the referendum made the process a successful democratic innovation. There was an 84.59% turnout, which is the highest turnout rate for Scotland since universal suffrage. This has demonstrated that large scale democratic innovations can be a success, if the campaign is carefully deliberated and well planned out over a period of time. With a high turnout rate, it is clear the government and campaigners were successful in engaging with, and including participants who do not normally turnout, and the public. Therefore, this was a positive outcome in demonstrating how well democratic innovations can work for a democracy, where the public heavily influence a political decision.
The Scottish referendum also influenced calls for policy implications on the EU referendum in 2016. The Scottish referendum can influence research, and policy on engaging and mobilizing voters in a future British referendum. With the success of public engagement in the Scottish referendum, it acted as a good example in influencing the best ways to achieve a similar voter turnout in the EU referendum.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
While the outcome of the referendum was seen as a defeat for the pro-independence SNP and supporting nationalist groups, the referendum process was a victory for participatory democracy. Democratic governance emphasises the importance of “democratic engagement, in particular through deliberative processes.” The Scottish referendum engaged a large number of citizens, with an 84.59% voter turnout rate, which demonstrates the success of democratic engagement through this democratic process. Also, a referendum was an opportunity for nearly all populations to participate in deciding the future of their country, and it is important that this referendum not only attracted people who do not normally turn out to vote, but gave significant power to the people. Thus, with a success of democratic engagement, this referendum was successful in closing a power gap, and allowing meaningful participation where everyone votes mattered, and everyone’s voices were heard. And this demonstrates the Scottish referendum adhered to participatory governance which resulted in the process being a success for democracy.
Referendums have been criticized for handing a significant amount of power to the citizenry who may not be educated on the issue under scrutiny. Analysis of earlier referendums have shown the process runs the risk of creating a deficit in deliberative governance, being manipulated by elites, and losing the voices of minority groups, all of which are bad for democracy. However, looking carefully at the potential manipulation of elites, it is evident that the 2014 referendum did not suffer such abuses. Elitism entails a small group of people ruling over the masses, and creates issues of low public participation and inclusiveness in democratic innovations. But the Scottish referendum was far from being manipulated by elites, because this process ensured that important democratic innovations were met such as: inclusiveness, popular control, transparency and considered judgments. Citizens had popular control, were not deceived, they were presented with a fair campaign, and given access to information on both outcomes of the referendum through the voter guide, which was delivered to every household. Also, the public were represented and fairly included in deciding their country’s future, because they held the last say, which is important to democracy because they are listening to the voices of the people. Democratic innovations ensure that democracy remains a legitimate process, and in this case the Scottish referendum can be considered legitimate by meeting the key factors of democratic innovations.
Some lessons can be learned from the 2014 Scottish Referendum. For example, how does the referendum outcome account for the lost minority voices, and the significant number of people (44.7%) who wanted an opposite outcome of the referendum? It is an important democratic innovation that everyone’s voices are equally heard, and considered. But the Scottish referendum failed to successfully consider the views of all other groups who did not want to remain a part of the United Kingdom. Thus, what we can take away from the Scottish Referendum is if a large scale direct democratic process is to take place, then efforts or policies must ensure that all voices are heard and considered.
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