Thursday, September 18, 2014

Scotland the Brave (and the Angry and the Young)

EARLY REPORTS indicate a robust turnout for the Scottish independence referendum. The results aren’t expected until Friday, but the turnout, perhaps as high 90 percent of the 4.3 million people registered to vote, according to The Wall Street Journal — ought to be a bit of an embarrassment to the participatory democracy on this side of the Atlantic.

Some election analysts and other seers of Scottish voting trends have tentatively predicted a narrow win for the No side, which proposes to keep Scotland as part of the United Kingdom. But two parts of the Yes cohort (those backing independence) bear special consideration, for different reasons. They jointly represent the extremes of the Scottish electorate; combined, they could create an accidental coalition that would make Scotland a new nation on the world stage.

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The Yes side is composed of older Scots, those who’ve cultivated reasons (largely economic) for ending the 307-year linkage to Great Britain. In modern times, the itch for Scots to have a government that responded to their needs without the interference of London — this in the face of an economy that declined for a time after World War II — gained steam in March 1979, when a referendum seeking more Scottish independence from Westminster passed but was repealed in June 1979, due to low overall turnout.

The passion for the Yes of independence achieved its greatest populist traction in 1989, when then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher imposed the Community Charge, a taxation scheme that imposed one single, flat-rate, per-capita tax on every working adult in parts of the United Kingdom.

Thatcher imposed the Community Charge first on Scotland, making it a testing ground for its implementation in England and Wales the following year. The tax plan, seen by many Scots as an attempt by Thatcher to use them as guinea pigs for British economic theory, aroused bitter resentment and laid the groundwork for a call for more direct control over Scotland’s own affairs.

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THE COMMUNITY Charge led to massive protests, including the so-called Battle of Trafalgar Square, a massive protest in London in which 200,000 people participated. Four hundred people were arrested, with another 113 injured, according to The Independent.

The tax was eventually overturned in 1993, after broad outrage from Scots who refused to pay it. But the bad feelings lingered, in no small part because, due to tax laws as a consequence of the Thatcherite venture, non-payers could be pursued for years. One Scottish financial expert wrote, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the tax’s imposition, that local governments were still chasing hundreds of millions in delinquent Community Charge payments, despite the formal end of the practice years earlier.

In more recent times, Scotland experienced other problems arising from being a “devolved” government working from within the UK’s constitutional monarchy.

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Scotland's deficit in fiscal year 2012–13 was £12 billion ($19.6 billion at the current rate of exchange), a £3.5 billion ($5.7 billion) increase over the previous fiscal year. The UK's deficit declined by £2.6 billion ($4.25 billion) over the same period. As of July of this year, the Scottish economy grew by 1 percent, according to BBC News.

While welcomed by UK government officials, the news wasn’t seen as universally positive. Grahame Smith, general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, told BBC it was “good that Scottish GDP is now above pre-recession levels. However, it is complacent and somewhat misleading to crow about record levels of output.

“The truth of the matter is that the economy may never recover output lost due to the recession and the prolonged period of stagnation that followed,” Smith said. Earlier economic forecasts say any Scottish recovery could be hampered by effects of Eurozone deflation, declining real wages and, ironically, the steady rise in home prices in London, BBC reported.

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AMONG OLDER Scots, then, it’s the feeling nurtured in the Thatcherite era that “Scotland makes, the UK takes,” coupled with an economy seen as growing more slowly than it should, that’s powering much of the passion for independence playing out in Scotland today.

For younger Scottish voters, the frictions of the Thatcher days may not matter as much, for perfectly understandable reasons. It’s harder to object to something you weren’t alive to experience firsthand.

Figures from the 2011 census, the most recent available (Scotland conducts a census once every 10 years), show 6.25 percent of Scots between 15 and 19 years old, and another 6.8 percent between the ages of 20 and 24 years old. Moving each age cohort forward three years, to 2014, it means that at least 700,000 Scots were either too young to remember, or weren’t alive at all, when the Thatcherite government imposed Community Charge on Scotland a quarter century ago.

For them, there’s no personal memory of the impact of the Community Charge that’s thought to be a prime mover, and a major emotionally galvanizing factor, driving the expected record turnout in today’s vote. Add to that the fact that Scottish citizens 16 and older can vote in today’s referendum. In a close election, that could make the difference between independence or union. Between Yes or No.

As previously published at BuzzFeed. Image credits: Scotland flag: (Trinity College).  Thatcher: BBC News. Scottish vote real-time visualization: Trendsmap.

UPDATE: 11 PM PT: The blue in the Union Jack stays where it is. So does David Cameron: The No voters prevailed over Yes independence supporters by a wide margin (better than 10 percentage points at this writing). The United Kingdom stays intact, though with changes expected as a result of the election. 

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond conceded defeat in a moving speech: A turnout of 86% is one of the highest in the democratic world, in any election or any referendum in history. This has been a triumph for the democratic process and politics. … The initiative by which 16- and 17-year-olds were able to vote has proved to be a resounding success. I suspect no one will ever question their right to participate in democratic elections. 

Scotland will expect pledges to devolve powers to be honoured in rapid course. We’re being promised a second reading of a Scotland Bill by March 27 next year. Not just the 1.6 million Scots who voted for independence, but all Scots will demand that timetable is followed. 

The most moving thing I saw was the queue of people in Dundee patiently waiting to vote. I met a ... 61-year-old lady who’d never voted in her life… These people were inspired to enter democratic politics… Whatever else we can say about this referendum campaign we’ve touched sections of the community who have never before been touched by the democratic process. ... We shall go forward as one nation.(Graphic: BuzzFeed)

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