Scottish Independence: How and Should You Vote?

Modern Studies Day, University of Stirling, 2013

If you are a Modern Studies student in Scotland, the independence referendum presents an unusual opportunity to take part in the very thing you are studying. You can look into the background of the referendum and the main issues in the debate and then use that information to make a choice. This is rare. The added bonus is that you can vote if you are under 18 (and at least 16). This is also a rare opportunity. In that context, three main questions arise: should you vote; should you be allowed to vote; and, what should you consider when you vote?

Should You Vote?


Should you be allowed to vote?

The debate about voting from 16, rather than 18, does not cause fights to break out in pubs or supermarkets, or even come up very often in polite conversation – but it can often seem like a polarised discussion. The issue became party political in Scotland (briefly) because the vote-at-16 proposal came primarily from the SNP Government, prompting some to wonder aloud if the measure was being used to boost the Yes-to-independence vote. However, the evidence seems to suggest that 16-18 year olds are no more likely to vote for independence than (many) older people; the under 18 population looks likely to produce a No vote (you can track these polls on the website run by John Curtice – What Scotland Thinks). Further, this move has since been proposed by other major figures, such as UK Labour’s leader Ed Miliband (calling for 16 year olds to have the vote in UK General Elections).

The handy thing about this kind of polarised discussion is that it is based on (albeit well-reasoned) simple assertion on both sides. Some of the arguments are set out in a Democratic Audit post – and I summarise them below*:

On the one side is the argument that people are not knowledgeable or mature enough to make important decisions at that age.

On the other side is the argument that voting is a fundamental human right.

On this basis, the debate revolves around making these claims consistent with this sort of evidence:

  • The age of maturity. People can make other major decisions (such as join the army) and do important things (such as pay tax) when they are 16, so giving them the right and responsibility to vote is consistent with their other rights and responsibilities. However, in many cases, under-18s need parental permission to make major life choices (although in Scotland you can marry at 16) and tend not to pay meaningful amounts of tax at that age. Further, 18 seems like the major symbol of maturity in this regard – voting at 18 may be the ‘international norm’, and recent decisions by the UK and Scottish Governments (such as raising the smoking age to 18, the same as the buying-alcohol and buying-fireworks age) suggest that they see 18 as the dawn of maturity. The choice of 18 may be both an arbitrary and consistent position supported by the majority of the public.
  • Many people are disengaged from politics. So, lowering the voting age may encourage a sense of citizenship at an earlier age. It may also encourage younger people to seek a political career, which might help reduce the average age of elected representatives. Or, in the absence of a fundamental shift in culture/ attitudes, in which voting and other political participation feels like a civic duty, it will just exacerbate low voting rates and low participation in politics. Much of the argument may relate to the symbolism of extending the franchise. Social groups given the vote for the first time (such as women, social classes and ethnic minorities) may have given it great symbolic value and felt compelled to use it wisely as a result – but would this feeling apply to young people in the same way? Can we identify the same demand for representation based on a widespread perception of injustice?

If I were you, I’d use this discussion to be quite chippy. When I voted, I’d feel like I was sticking it to someone making half-baked claims about my maturity. Ironically, it’s not a mature approach to life, but you can’t have everything. The half-handy thing for you is that you only have to worry about this issue when you study it, not when you engage in politics. Like anyone else, you can now vote even if you have no knowledge of Scottish politics and/ or no maturity whatsoever. The only major difference with over-18s is that, legally, they may vote after getting quite drunk in the pub and/or buying sparklers for the walk home.

What should you consider when you vote?

Let’s say you want to make a mature, well informed, decision. How would you decide? What should you consider? We can identify a range of issues, from the philosophical to the self-interested to the psychological.

The philosophical questions

What does independence mean? In the olden days, independence used to refer to the autonomy to direct all domestic affairs within a well-defined territory**, ***. Now, we are much less certain about where domestic affairs end and international affairs begin. For example, an independent Scotland would be subject to a wide range of binding international commitments, particularly if it was part of the European Union (examples include migration, agriculture, fishing, environmental policy, and rates of many taxes – all determined largely at the EU level). If it kept the pound, or joined the Euro, it would rely on a central bank (almost certainly outside of Scotland) to direct monetary policies (such as setting interest rates).  In an age of ‘globalisation’, it would also be unable to simply ‘direct all domestic affairs’ since national governments rely upon other governments to produce collective, international, policy solutions. They might even make domestic policy with one eye on their neighbours, since it is difficult to contain policy effects within one’s borders (think, for example, about the effect of independence on HE tuition fees – what would happen?). They are also influenced by major transnational corporations which tend to prioritise minimal government regulations and corporation taxes when they seek to invest in countries. These complications are currently a big feature of the independence debate (and we tend not to focus on the, often messier, complications to further devolution, largely because we don’t have to worry about that just now). People sometimes argue that we shouldn’t bother with independence (or ‘indy lite’), since we’ll just be keeping the Queen, the pound, the BBC and inheriting international commitments. Other people argue that it’s OK to vote for independence because we’ll be keeping the Queen, the pound, the BBC and inheriting international commitments.

Do I feel Scottish and/ or British? People often argue that the independence vote is not about national identity, partly because a reference to nationhood is portrayed, by many, as some sort of reflection of bigotry. One might be invited to picture a large, dirty-bearded, ginger man in a kilt telling the English to get out of their country (let’s call this ‘ethnic nationalism’).  A more subtle strategy is to brand people as ‘nationalist’ to mean parochial and extremist. The more acceptable form of nationalism is ‘civic’. It suggests that, if a clear nation exists, it should share a boundary with the state; if we feel that we live in the Scottish nation, we should have a Scottish Government to represent us. This is where national identify comes in – surveys have suggested for some time that Scots’ primary identity is Scottish rather than British (however, you ask the question – click on the table in this post).**** However, surveys also suggest that most people favour devolution (current or further devolution) over independence. They may feel Scottish and British, seeking some kind of governing autonomy and inclusion within a wider Union.

The self-interested question: would independence benefit me?

A lot of the debate surrounds the idea that independence will save or cost people money. I have seen reports that it will either make everyone at least £500 better or worse off (the Scottish Daily Mail, 26.3.12, wins the prize for hyperbole – ‘Breaking up Britain will cost every Scot £20,000’). I have heard one ridiculous suggestion that it will cost everyone £1 each. Each and every calculation seems a bit shifty to me, but they are based on things like: Scotland’s future share of North Sea oil revenue; its share of UK Government debts and assets; and, the effect of independence on economic behaviour (such as foreign investment in Scottish business, Scottish trade with other countries, and the Scottish Government’s credit rating). John Curtice’s research suggests that this economic question is often at the forefront of peoples’ minds when they think of independence. However, given that we don’t know the economic effect of independence, people are basing their preferences on their perception of an uncertain future. It presents one of those classic causality problems: perhaps you are more likely to vote for independence if you think you will benefit; or perhaps you are more likely to think you will benefit if you plan to vote for independence.

The psychological question: how should I deal with the uncertainty?

Much of the debate is driven by various attempts to worry or assure people about the uncertainty of Scottish independence. Questions include:

  • How would Scotland be a part of the European Union and a member of international organisations?
  • What would an independent Scotland look like? For example, might it become a high-tax-high-spending social democratic state (something we associated with some of the Nordic countries)? Or would it simply inherit the culture and institutions of the UK?
  • Could an independent Scotland have survived the economic crisis?
  • What currency would Scotland adopt?
  • How would independence affect Scotland’s security (from its defence, to its supply of energy and other resources)?

To a large extent, this uncertainty is a better resource for people arguing for the maintenance of the Union as a ‘security blanket’ (have a look at that term again – it’s loaded with double meaning, isn’t it?). However, we can also see the potential to exploit the uncertain future of the UK. This is key feature of the debate on the ‘bedroom tax’ and other welfare reforms – people may argue that only an independent Scotland would have the powers to maintain the welfare state as a ‘security blanket’.

So what can we conclude?

I reckon that, if you have read this far, you have already paid more attention, and given the issue more serious thought, than most people. If so, I wouldn’t worry about being mature enough to make the right decision.


*Please note that, if you were using this kind of material to produce coursework, you would give more credit to the individual authors, not just list the website.

** I lifted that phrase from a book I helped write. You shouldn’t do that – we frown upon that sort of thing when marking your essays.

***in fact, just to be safe, don’t use this blog post as a model for any sort of assessable writing. Especially all that ‘some people think’ nonsense – that’s just annoying.

**** ah, you might say, but what is Scottish? Do you have to be born and / or raised in Scotland? What if one or both of your parents or grandparents are Scottish? Is it enough to simply live in Scotland to be Scottish? All I can offer is a hopefully-dull, pragmatic answer: the issue of Scottish independence may not have arisen without these self-identified perceptions of Scottishness (even though there are other reasons to want more local government – for example, it might be more flexible and responsive to local demands, or you might – and maybe 7% of people living in Scotland would describe themselves as English). However, a shift away from ethnic to civic nationalism is reflected in the referendum rules: if you live in Scotland, and are registered to vote, you can vote. You do not need to have been born or raised in Scotland. Instead, by living in Scotland, you have a stake in its governing arrangements. Then I’ll offer you this post from Jo Shaw.

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