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The Scotland Referendum and What it might teach us about Democracy

Saltire and union flagBy the now, the results are in.  Scotland has just rejected secession from U.K. in a historic referendum.  There have been impassioned” pleas on both sides, but through it all, Scotland will remain a part of the U.K.  If mainstream media is to be trusted, a big sigh of relief is heard around the world.

Personally I have no feeling one way or another although I will admit, the breakup of the U.K. – long the terror for much of the world – does not really bring a distaste to my mouth.  Whichever side you take, what I can’t stand is the suffocating self congratulatory praises that seem to now infuse editorials (see e.g. this piece by Roger Cohen in the NYT) and reader comments (see e.g. comments to this NYT article) about “democracy” and “rule of law.”

Oh … just look how the debates in Scotland (and U.K.) have been so “civil” even if “impassioned.” The U.K. and the West is truly different from others – especially rising powers such as China – because in the free democratic West, important, divisive issues can be settled peacefully, civilly, democratically, and in accordance “the rule of law.”

But is this really about the triumph of “democracy” and “rule of law”?  A little dose of reality might bring some sobriety.

Let’s look at history.  As author Michael Crichton remarked once, “if you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.”

Historically, Scotland never did possess a right” to self determination. The issue of whether England and Scotland should be one – before yesterday’s “referendum” – had never settled democratically but instead had always been settled by war, conquest, and the put down of rebellions. For much of the last one thousand years, Scotland had fought bitterly to free itself from England.  The Union between England and Scotland was imposed in 1707, with the Treaty of Union and subsequent Acts of Union.

If democracy is about “referendums” of self-determination, and if the U.K. is a shining tower of freedom and democracy, why did it take so long to get to the referendum?

The truth is that Scottish independence movement had already been effectively quelled by the 20th century.  Unlike Ireland, which rebelled in the Easter Rising and fought a War of Independence, Scotland never resisted London rule in the 20th century. There have been, however, persistent demands for more self rule. The “Scottish Office” was thus relocated to St Andrew’s House in Edinburgh during the 1930s. In 1949, some two million Scots (out of some 5 million Scots at the time) signed the Scottish Covenant to petition the UK government asking for self rule, but the covenant was ignored by all the main political parties. In 1950, Scotland’s Stone of Destiny was removed from Westminster Abbey by “nationalists.” 1

Despite the swelling of pride for Scottish culture in the lead-up to yesterday’s referendum, the 2014 “referendum” is not really about self determination. 2  There is no great political movement for independence. As noted in the Wikipedia, most “newspapers in Scotland opposed independence. This includes Scottish-based newspapers The ScotsmanScotland on SundayThe Herald, the Sunday Post,the Daily Record, the Sunday Mail, the Scottish Daily MailThe Scottish Daily ExpressThe Scottish Sunday Express, and Daily Star of Scotland; as well as UK-wide newspapers The Daily TelegraphSunday TelegraphThe GuardianThe IndependentThe EconomistThe Financial TimesThe Spectator, and The Sunday Times. In contrast, only one newspaper in Scotland has publicly backed independence: the Sunday Herald.”

Instead of being a grandiose redemption of histories, yesterday’s “referendum” was more about mundane issues such as Britain’s austerity measures, tax revenues and usages, the sharing of oil revenues from the North Sea, nuclear armament issues, E.U. austerity issues, etc. The referendum was at best an “opportunity” – at worst a “distraction” – put forth by politicians to detract from U.K.’s domestic gridlock, with everyone knowing full well that a “yes” vote was highly highly unlikely. (British politicians might think twice next time resorting to such tricks in the future.)

The voting statics belies some of the rhetoric.  The voter-turnout for this “historic referendum” in Scotland was around 84%.  While respectable, it is not that high – not considering Scotland’s small population and the “historic” occasion.  The U.K. 1950 general election also approached that number (it was 83.9%, and that was for the entire nation.)  The voter turnout for the Quebec referendum of 1995 was also higher – standing at 92%, despite it having an electorate some 20% larger than Scotland’s and despite Scotland’s referendum taking place during the social media Internet age when mobilizing people has become that much easier.  Yes, the Scotland referendum may be “historic,” but it is not about choosing Scotland’s history.

A lot of pundits, such as Roger Cohen in his NYT piece cited above, contrasted democracy’s “civility” and “freedom” against that of “authoritarians,” especially China, even to the extent of citing Chinese suppression of Uighurs explicitly, with Tibet ringing no doubt in all Western readers’ ears.  This is a cheap shot – done with no regard to history.

Had Scotland really had that right, not only would Scotland have been able to exercise it’s right much earlier in a more meaning era of history, it would not have required the approval of the Edinburgh Agreement (2012) by the UK Parliament to go with its 2014 referendum or future referendums. 3

People like Cohen may want us to think that China and Russia are big evil empires that do not allow “self determination” of its sub-regions.  But lest people forget, the U.S. Civil War is itself fought to preserve the Union, not to cleanse the nation of an abdominal evil per se. As Lincoln admitted to in a letter to Horace Greeley: the primary goal of the War was to preserve the Union, not free the slaves.

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.

Under the U.S. Constitution today, there is a general consensus that no state (or group of states) has a right to  secede unilaterally from the Union.

For those who still want to believe in the high-aired toasts about democracy, I ask: did the U.K. just turn democratic yesterday?  To be a legitimate democracy, must U.K. also offer N. Ireland and Wales similar referendums?  When?

Also, yesterday’s “referendum” – while having global repercussions – is generally considered to be a product of U.K.’s domestic politics.  Would the referendums have been legitimate if the forces pushing for independence were sponsored by foreign governments – as in the case of China’s secession movements?

As for the U.S., was the U.S. a democracy when it has explicitly rejected state’s right to secede? Has it been a democracy when it has rejected time and time over Native American Nations’ right to sovereignty?   Has it been a democracy when it has rejected time and time over Black people’s right to sovereignty?

Some may assert, well, today at least, there are no credible Native American (including native Hawaiian) or Black movement to secede. That is true. But that is just a convenient result of history.

In the Native American case, over the history of the last three or so hundred years, their lands have been confiscated and their population diminished to the point of political non-viability.  In the case of Black Nationalism, throughout the last century or so, U.S. government has brutally suppressed the movement and assassinated its leaders. Nothing to be proud there.

Viewed properly in the context of this history, is it sincere for one to pronounce how “democratic” and “civilized” the U.S. is if one day there comes an opportunity for it to grant some native Americans or African Americans in the U.S. a right to vote in a “referendum” at “self determination”?

U.K. and U.S. aside – what about the bastion of the oft-touted “largest democracy” in the world – India?  If “democracy” and “rule of law” is all about using “referendums” to grant peoples’ right to “self determination” – where is that vote in Kashmir?

If India is too “economically backward” – what about “economically advanced” Japan – that “beacon” of Asian “democracy”?  Why has it not granted a “referendum” to the Okinawans?  Keep in mind, we are talking a government that has censored information about how Okinawa was “reverted” back to Japan control and arrested reporters who dared to disclose such information.

Take some Scottish Whiskey, but don’t let your head swim too high in the democracy toasts. The Scottish vote has brought up high emotions and rediscoveries of histories, but the vote is more about the petty fights of present-day politics than any grandiose historic redemption at self determination.

At the end of the day, the Scottish voters know that much of the political problems surrounding them will not be solved with independence: a Scottish oligarchy will not bring more to the people than the U.K. oligarchy.  So now that distractions are over, some pundits can’t help but itch for more.  Instead of talking about the real issues beneath the referendum, some have decided to take the easy way out and to take the opportunity to exult oneself at the expense of other nations, civilizations, and histories.

Such is the nature of today’s democracy….

Long live Scotland!  Good luck to U.K.!  The world is fast a-changing.  I wish you best of luck finding your place in a new world… 


  1. See, e.g., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scottish_independence
  2. On a side note, I wonder: even though 55% voted for union, but what about the “self determination” of the 45%, what of the self determination of Scotland’s biggest urban areas such as Glasgow?  If self-determination is just about voting, who shall we draw the boundaries to tally the vote?
  3. As noted in the wikipedia, “[t]he legality of any British constituent country attaining de facto independence (in the same manner as the violent origins of the Irish Republic) or declaring unilateral independence outside the framework of British constitutional convention is dubious. Some legal opinion following theSupreme Court of Canada‘s decision on what steps Quebec would need to take to secede is that Scotland would be unable to unilaterally declare independence under international law if the British government permitted a referendum on an unambiguous question on secession.The SNP have not argued for a unilateral act, but rather claim that a positive vote for independence in a referendum would have “enormous moral and political force… impossible for a future [Westminster] government to ignore”, and hence would give the Scottish Parliament a mandate to negotiate for the passage of an act of the UK Parliament providing for Scotland’s secession, in which Westminster renounces its sovereignty over Scotland.
  1. N.M.Cheung
    September 19th, 2014 at 21:53 | #1

    What’s all the fetish about voting and democracy? Didn’t Athenians voted to hemlock Socrates for poisoning the minds of young? Didn’t Nazis come to power by voting? ( A national referendum held 19 August 1934 confirmed Hitler as sole Führer (leader) of Germany. ) Wasn’t Putin voted in as the President of Russia democratically 3 times? And if the Muslim voted, is there any doubt that Sharia laws will be the law for all and we’ll be back to Middle Age.

  2. N.M.Cheung
    September 20th, 2014 at 10:48 | #2

    It may seem I was ranting against democracy and voting, but I want to raise a question about self determination. When does any group has rights overshadowing other groups or larger group? Some in Hong Kong want to be more independent, have more rights than mainland Chinese, yet she can’t exist independently without New Territory. Does Uighurs have right to all the resources in Xinjiang when they lived only in small oasis in south and west, with large desserts never inhabited? Now that the migration of Hans due to capitalist development caused Uighurs become a minority, do they still have veto power? The Yangtze and Yellow rivers are the live line of Chinese civilization, do the Tibetans have the right to control the water resources? The only thing I can say is Mao did have the foresight to sent the army to Tibet and Xinjiang and leave Chiang in Taiwan alone. Looking at the world outside China, consider South Sudan, they achieved their separation from Sudan and now embroiled in a civil war fighting over the spoils, now no longer over racial differences but clan differences. And Syria, I wonder those face book revolutionaries, how to they reconcile with the article in NYT that now 12 year old girls in refugee in Jordan, forced to marry and not in school.

  3. September 22nd, 2014 at 01:36 | #3

    Does Uighurs have right to all the resources in Xinjiang when they lived only in small oasis in south and west, with large desserts never inhabited? Now that the migration of Hans due to capitalist development caused Uighurs become a minority, do they still have veto power?

    A quick note. I am not sure if the Uighurs ever was a “majority.” They have been at most a “plurality.”

    Historically speaking, the Han were among the earliest settlers of what we now know as Xinjiang, having settled in Xinjiang over 2000 years ago. The “Uighurs” did not come to scene until arguably 840 or so. (see e.g. http://news.xinhuanet.com/zhengfu/2003-06/12/content_916306.htm).

    I put the quote “Uighurs” in quote because the use of the term “Uighurs” to reference a modern ethnic group was actually invented in the 20th century. In the 19th century, the term meant nothing, referring only to an ancient, historic Turkish tribe. As wikipedia entry on “Uyghur people” noted:

    The term “Uyghur” was not used to refer to any existing ethnic group in the 19th century, but to an ancient people. A late 19th-century encyclopedia titled The cyclopædia of India and of Eastern and Southern Asia said “the Uigur are the most ancient of Turkish tribes, and formerly inhabited a part of Chinese Tartary (Xinjiang), which is now occupied by a mixed population of Turk, Mongol, and Kalmuck”.[30] The inhabitants of Xinjiang were not called Uyghur before 1921/1934. Westerners called the Turkic speaking Muslims of the Oases “Turki”, and the Turkic Muslims in Ili were known as “Taranchi”. The Russians and other foreigners used the names “Sart”,[31] “Turk”, or “Turki”[32][33] for them. These groups of peoples identified themselves by the oases they came from, not by an ethnic group.[34]

    The name “Uyghur” reappeared after the Soviet Union took the 9th-century ethnonym from the Uyghur Khaganate and reapplied it to all non-nomadic Turkic Muslims of Xinjiang,[37] following a 19th-century proposal from Russian historians that modern-day Uyghurs were descended from the Turpan Kingdom and Kara-Khanid Khanate, which had formed after the dissolution of the Uyghur Khaganate.[38] … According to Linda Benson, the Soviets and their client Sheng Shicai intended to foster a Uyghur nationality to divide the Muslim population of Xinjiang, whereas the various Turkic Muslim peoples themselves preferred to identify as “Turki”, “East Turkestani”, or “Muslim”.[31]

    On the other hand, the ruling regime of China at that time, the Kuomintang, grouped all Muslims, including the Turkic-speaking people of Xinjiang, into the “Hui nationality”.[41][42] … After the Communist victory, the Chinese Communist Party under Mao Zedong continued the Soviet classification, using the term “Uyghur” to describe the modern ethnic group.[31]

    In current usage, Uyghur refers to settled Turkic urban dwellers and farmers of the Tarim Basin and Ili who follow traditional Central Asian sedentary practices, as distinguished from nomadic Turkic populations in Central Asia. However, the Chinese government has also designated as “Uyghur” certain peoples with significantly divergent histories and ancestries from the main group. These include the Loplik people and the Dolan people, who are thought to be closer to the Oirat Mongols and the Kyrgyz.[51][52]

    Historically, Xinjiang has always been a crossroad of peoples, music, trade, religion, ideas, and thoughts. The Uighurs are a combination of different groups of people. Throughout the history of Xinjiang, I dont’ believe any one fixed ethnic group/religion can be ascribed to have dominated and made the region its home.

    I thus find it particular troubling when people say that the resources of Xinjiang must by natural rights belong to some ethnicity or religious group.

    Beyond history, a note on geography might also helpful. Only 4.3% of Xinjiang is fit of human habitation. The control of Xinjiang has traditionally been carried out with outposts and forts, not the occupation of the 4.3%. Xinjiang is not an oasis that is uniformly populated. IT is a sparsely populated region.

    Does it really make sense to say that whoever occupies the 4.3% (assuming they are populated by a homogeneous group of people) ergo must control the resources? Strictly speaking, “democracy” only says that the 4.3% should control the area where they live … it does not say anything about reaching out to the 2230% (i.e. 95.7/4.3) of the surrounding areas outside where people live.

    Remember, Xinjiang as a geographic region is actually artificially drawn by the Qing dynasty…

  4. September 27th, 2014 at 15:14 | #4

    I simply want to add on to what Allen has said. Since the Han dynasty this region was simply know as “Western Region” to all subsequent dynasties. The Qing renamed it to symbolize their re-incorporation of this area.

    IMO, it is high time the PRC referred back to the old and more aptly named Western Region. In fact the name showed how little territorial ambition subsequent dynasties had (including the Yuan whose western extremities ended here).

    The disciples of Xuanzang wrote the book Great Tang Records on the Western Regions which inspired the much more popular Journey to the West.

    Han dynasty generals, from Wei Qing, Huo Qubing (Jiuquan of Gansu was so named because of him), Chen Tang, Ban Chao were all very active in this region. The Tang was also very active in this region until an ethnic Korean general in the service of Tang, Gao Xianzhi was defeated by the rising Muslim forces.

    Until that time the Uighur group wasn’t even active in that region. It is not true that Chinese was never present or native to Xingjiang. Ethnicity should not be a criteria to judge who is entitled to live in the Western Region. China was never an ethno-religious centric state.

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