ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Scottish Path to Independence

The outcome of the Scottish referendum vote on 18 September notwithstanding, the major legacy of the vote would be the transparent and democratic nature of the process leading to the vote. 

The outcome of the referendum on Scottish independence from Britain is certainly of huge significance for Britain, Europe and even beyond but what has been missed in the debate on Scottish independence is the significance of the process leading to the outcome. The process of arriving at the outcome determines the legitimacy and the quality of the outcome. In the Scottish case, the process has been so democratic, open, and transparent that it is close to being exemplary. The decision to have a referendum has been arrived at after a long period of debate and negotiations. That Scotland, which became a part of the United Kingdom in 1707, has a distinctive identity is very well recognised by all sides on the debate. This recognition of distinctive identity was given further boost during Tony Blair’s prime ministership when the long standing demand of Scottish people to have their own parliament was accepted and the Scottish Parliament with devolved powers started functioning in 1999. This devolved power was partly aimed to weaken the demand for full independence which was at that time a minority political tendency.  The decision to create the Scottish Parliament by the Blair government was not seen as a party partisan initiative but was arrived at in a consensual manner by all sides of the Westminster-based political establishment. The three mainstream British political parties - the Conservative, Labour and the Liberal Democrats - all agreed on the need for a Scottish Parliament with devolved powers.

The role of the Scottish National Party

The Scottish National Party (SNP), formed in 1934, has been the main champion of complete independence although subsequently the demand for independence has been supported by the Scottish Socialist Party and the Scottish Green Party.  SNP remained a minor political current in Scottish politics which for a long time has been dominated by the Labour party. Even the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 did not enable the SNP to become the largest, ruling political party although it emerged as the second largest party and the main opposition party.

However, in 2007 the party emerged as the single largest party in the Scottish parliament and formed a minority government with support from the Green Party. In 2011, it gained an absolute majority in the Scottish Parliament but still did not claim that its electoral victory should be seen as an evidence of Scottish people’s support for complete independence. It put forward a case for Scottish independence with a demand for referendum on the issue. On the opposite side, the UK government did not ignore the electoral victory of the SNP and gradually came to accept the need for referendum to determine Scottish people’s choice regarding independence. This eventually resulted in the UK government and the Scottish government agreeing in 2013 on the arrangements for the referendum. 18 September, 2014 date was agreed for the referendum vote and the question on the vote agreed was: Should Scotland be an independent country? It was also agreed that there would be only two choices for the voters: Yes or No. Although the SNP wanted a third choice of greater devolution of powers to Scotland short of complete independence, it eventually agreed to the UK government’s insistence on making a clear choice between Yes and No.

Secession – Military suppression or political solution?

There are not many examples of such agreed way of resolving the demands for secession. The closest one before this has been the Quebec referendum to secede from Canada in which the secessionists lost the vote. Most demands for secession get resolved either by military suppression of the secessionist movement or by the secessionists winning the military battle and achieving independence. In both cases, the legitimacy of the outcome remains a contested issue. The most well-known example of peaceful secession (“the velvet divorce”) is the separation of Czech Republic and Slovakia but here the elites of the two regions agreed to separate; the democratic choice of the people of the seceding region Slovakia was not ascertained.  

In the case of Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, these states got independence through peaceful means of massive mass mobilisation but no vote was allowed. Russia, the dominant region of the crumbling Soviet empire, that had economic and political interests in keeping control over the Baltic states, was not in a fit state-militarily and politically- to suppress the independence moves of these states but now it constantly resents in different ways, as seen most starkly in the recent Ukrainian case, that these former Soviet republics managed to become independent.  The disputed outcome is significantly due to the lack of perceived legitimacy of the process of achieving independence in the case of some of the former Soviet republics.

The most recent case of secession (South Sudan) is also interesting from the view point of the process of achieving secession. Although there have been violent conflicts due to personal political rivalries, the legitimacy of the secession has not been doubted due to the referendum vote that had led to secession.


In the Scottish case, almost every aspect regarding the case for and against independence has been debated and most significantly in the form of nationally televised debates between Alex Salmod, the First Minister of Scotland, arguing the case for independence and Alistair Darling, a Labour leader, arguing the case against independence on behalf of all the three mainstream British parties. Whatever the outcome of the referendum vote on 18 September might be, the major legacy of the vote would be the transparent and democratic nature of the process leading to the vote. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Scottish example might become the template for resolving secessionist disputes in the process. The very high intensity of interest shown by Catalonia, the region with a demand for secession from Spain, in the Scottish referendum debate and vote is a pointer in this direction.

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