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The Scottish vote: Precedent or Pandora’s Box?

An opponent of the independence referendum spoke with a supporter in Glasgow.Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

Whatever the outcome of Thursday’s Scottish referendum on independence, the circumstances under which it will occur hold lessons for similar regions elsewhere.

First, the referendum question itself is a model of clarity. It asks simply, “Should Scotland be an independent country?” rather than offering ill-defined alternatives or vague references to “sovereignty.” People do know what they are voting for.

Second, unlike most secessionist votes, the Scottish referendum has been sanctioned by the United Kingdom’s government, in accordance with an agreement reached between the British and Scottish parliaments in 2013. The agreement does not promise immediate independence for Scotland, but the two parties are to “work together constructively in the light of the outcome of the referendum. Madrid, Rome, Mogadishu, Moscow, and Kiev would do well to take note.

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Some have criticized both the referendum question and the 2013 agreement as overly vague, and the debates over the precise conditions under which Scotland might become independent — including vital questions such as membership in the European Union and whether Scotland would continue to use the British pound as currency — have been heated. If Scotland opts for independence (and if the rest of the UK interprets working “constructively” as helping to pave the way for that independence), the Scottish National Party government plans to achieve full independence only in March 2016.

Third, while there is no explicit provision for a second referendum once the final conditions for independence are known, it would be consistent with the democratic claims of the pro-independence movement if this were the case. The devil is in the details, and voters in Scotland should be asked to ratify the final arrangements. The rest of the UK also should have a voice: Scotland has been part of the UK for 300 years, and those now living in the rest of the UK have a legitimate interest in the fate of the country as a whole.

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Fourth, the campaign for Scottish independence is unusual in that it is based primarily on economic and political arguments, not on allegations of discrimination or appeals to long-forgotten (and often mythical) national history or culture. There is no ethno-national qualification for voting in the referendum, which is open to all those who “live and work” in Scotland. This excludes people of Scottish heritage who no longer live in Scotland, and it includes non-Scots (in terms of ethnicity or identity) currently resident and employed in Scotland.

Fifth, Scots do not claim any “right to self-determination,” the battle cry of almost every other secessionist movement. Instead, the 600-page text prepared by the government to explain why it believes that Scotland should be independent relies on three primary arguments: the government wishes to “make Scotland more democratic,” “build a more prosperous country,” and create “a fairer society.”

The first and third arguments reflect the fact that Scotland is more politically liberal than England; there is resentment at being governed by a Conservative Party that has hardly any support in Scotland and that is perceived to have undermined the more progressive social policies generally favored in Scotland. The second argument reflects a wish either for greater economic fairness or simple greed, depending on one’s perspective. While there is no consensus on what the actual economic impact of independence would be, the SNP states simply, “Scotland is a wealthy country and can afford to be independent.”

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These arguments for secession and independence read more like a political party platform than like the usual 19th-century calls for the resurrection of national identity and culture — will this be enough? The demand for greater political and economic power just because inhabitants of a particular region want it is plausible and rational, but would Scottish independence then be seen as a precedent for wealthier regions in other countries, even if they do not suffer repression or cultural deprivation? A rump UK (England, Wales, and Northern Ireland) would hardly be poor, but a Spain without Catalonia and the Basque Country or an Italy without its more urban and prosperous north might pose more serious ethical questions about whether secession should be supported just so that those seceding will become richer.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Scottish referendum reflects the fact that secessionist aspirations need not always lead to violent conflict, at least when these aspirations are expressed within a reasonably democratic and rights-respecting society. However, rational political-economic arguments for separation know no boundaries, and if regions within Scotland differ significantly in their attitudes toward independence, these differences, too, must be recognized as legitimate. Thursday may be only the beginning of changing frontiers, and a newly independent Scotland will have no greater claim to everlasting unity than does the present United Kingdom.

Hurst Hannum is professor of international law at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.