Some Observations on the Scotland Independence Referendum

Thoughts on the Scottish referendum (and on the issue of thresholds and decision-making).

UK and Scottish flagsSteve Saideman has a post worth reading on the the pending independence referendum:  Why I Would Vote Nay.

He raises a number of points worth consideration, but he hits on one in particular that I was going to blog about myself:

a low threshold–50% plus one.  I find this incredibly problematic.  Why?  Because massive political and social change should require not just a few folks more being in favor than opposed–it should have much enthusiasm that most people desire it.  If 50% plus one wins the day, then a narrow majority can impose its preference on the minority in a way the minority cannot ameliorate without leaving.

While I have general opinions about Scottish independence (I share, for example, Saideman’s concerns about the the costs of secession), I do not have a set of complex arguments for or against.  However, as regular readers know, I have quite an interest in political institutions and especially electoral rules and I agree with Saideman:  this is the wrong threshold for this type of decision.

For something as dramatic as a shift in the sovereign status of a territory, which will have profound effects on large swaths of public life (and which do have costs) I would argue that you need significant public buy-in, rather than the potential for a narrow win.  Consider:  if independence wins by a percentage point or two, that is a pretty dramatic amount of power being given to just-over-half of the population over just-under-half.  And it isn’t as if in a few years there will be a chance for another referendum for re-unification in case that narrow minority that opposed secession has become a narrow majority (or, indeed, even if it becomes a large one).

Independence will create shifts in the economy, foreign policy, and the basic identity of the inhabitants of Scotland.  These are matters that should require more than just over half to decide.  The asymmetry in results is too large.  Consider that if “no” wins there is still room to try and negotiate more autonomy for Scotland within the UK but a “yes” win doesn’t create space for semi-independence.  In other words:  there is still room to address the issues that are driving the referendum in the first place under a “no” win but a “yes” win is pretty close to an all-or-nothing proposition.

As regular readers also know, I have often argued against super-majorities in the context of regular legislation (most specifically in regards to the fact that the US Senate currently operates more or less under a 60-vote rule these days for most activities).  I do think that the appropriate threshold for normal legislation ought to be 50%+1 and that it ought to reflect, within in reason and with caveats, majority sentiment.  For example:  basic rights cannot be settled by mere majority sentiment.  There are issues that clearly transcend issues of the preferences of the moment.  However, when it comes to basic public policy, the bottom line is this:  if a system has an appropriate feedback mechanism for registering changes in public opinion (which relate to the institutional design of both the  electoral system and the legislature) then there is a real corrective to shifts in public preferences:  another election.  Indeed, part of the problem with the current US system is that if (and this is a big if) a particular political faction is able to achieve a policy goal, reversing that policy is extremely difficult, even if majority preferences have shifted (but that is another discussion, so forgive the digression).

Following that logic, however:  there will be no such corrective possible if Scotland votes “yes.”   This is an all-or-nothing outcome if “yes” wins and that is why a “yes” vote ought to have more buy-in from the population.  I am not sure what the appropriate number ought to be off the top of my head, but it clearly needs to be higher than 50%+1 (maybe 2/3rds?).

These are just .02 from someone who spends a lot of time thinking about the interaction between rules and the expression of popular will.

Back to Saideman’s post:  If anything the post is worth a read for its “Difference between Scottish and Crimea Referendum” chart.

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FILED UNDER: Europe, World Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Steve Hynd says:

    There are historical reasons why a super-majority vote would have been politically unacceptable. Look up the referendum of 1979, where the Yes vote garnered a goodly bit more than half of the Yes/No votes but because everyone who didn’t vote or voted “Don’t know” was counted as against the motion. The Thatcher and Major governments then decided they were justified in giving Scotland no new powers and instead starting off the iniquitous “poll tax” there a year early in contravention of the Act Of Union. That in turn led Blair to promise more devolution as a bribe to Scots to vote for his party, but attempting to set up the Scottish parliament in such a way that no one party could ever have an overall majority – something his successor Brown blew when he wrecked the national economy (while refusing to give Scots the additional powers they clearly wanted) in such a way that Scots turned away from Labour to the SNP in large numbers. This referendum isn’t happening in a vacuum, y’know. There’s a long history of Westminister politicians failing to deliver except when they’re panicked that Scotland might leave the Union, and even then as soon as they get past the crisis point.

  2. Steve Hynd says:

    Oh wow, what a surprise! Just as I was commenting:

    “The No campaign’s vague promises of ‘more powers’ in the event of a No vote have been undermined as a Conservative MP pointed out that any such move would require the approval of the UK Parliament – and Tory MPs might not be willing to give Scotland further powers.”

    http://www.yesscotland.net/news/conservative-mp-confirms-no-vote-status-quo

  3. Rafer Janders says:

    If 50% plus one wins the day, then a narrow majority can impose its preference on the minority in a way the minority cannot ameliorate without leaving.

    But if it requires a super-majority, then an even-narrower majority can impose its preference on the majority, which seems even less desirable. If, say, 50% plus one of Scots want to leave, and 50% minus one want to stay, why should the side with fewer voters, the side with the least persuasive position, carry the day?

  4. @Rafer Janders: Because of the dramatic nature of the outcome.

  5. stonetools says:

    Can’t comment much about this because I don’t know much about the issues but this:

    his successor Brown blew when he wrecked the national economy

    seems overblown. Don’t think Brown wrecked the British economy all by himself.
    Can anyone lay out in bullet points just why Scotland wants to go independent? If that’s impossible , are there any resources people can link to?

  6. Brett says:

    I’m more troubled by the lack of a turnout threshold. I’m way more OK with 50% plus one on 80% turnout than 40%. Though it looks like the turnout here will be high, based on reports. I think the problem with requiring more than n absolute majority here is also that 50% plus one is more heavily ingrained in British political institutions than here. I mean, theoretically parliament could cast Scotland out of the UK with a simple majority, for example.

  7. @Brett: The turnout threshold is a fair point.

    And I take the point (as well as Steve’s above) about political forces being relevant to the actual outcome. I am thinking here in terms of a general principle.

  8. Brett says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Perhaps my point might be part of a broader argument that there shouldn’t be a general principle here, but that this should always be contextual. 50% plus one would be totally inappropriate in a place like Northern Ireland where there is a history of sectarian violence and a declaration of independence (or choice to join “Greater Ireland”) on such as low margin would likely trigger violence at the illegitimacy of the outcome. In Scotland, by contrast, there was a fear that putting more conditions on the referendum would further inflame nationalist sentiment and cause an increased likelihood of independence in the future. And whatever the vote, the chances of a violent response are virtually non-existent. I think institutional histories, the nature of a nationalist movement, a history of imperial rule, a history of previous independence, potential for the legitimacy of the outcome to be contested, and so forth might all need to play a role in any argument about thresholds in any given election.

  9. @Brett: I see where you are coming from, but I do think that there is a case for general principles in these kinds of situations. For example: the context of 1954 in the US would suggest a reliance on majority will in the matter of such issues as segregation. Nonetheless, the general principle that specific rights ought not be subject to majority vote ought to trump the specific context, yes?

  10. stonetools says:

    Would agree in general with Prof Taylor on the supermajority requirement here. Another problem with relying on the simple majority threshold that may not be relevant here- suppose the outvoted minority is concentrated in one region of Scotland? Suppose the Lowland Scots in the South are overwhelmingly in favor of remaining with the UK?
    The good thing is that the Scots and English are on good terms. We aren’t talking of a Kosovo,Sri Lanka or northern Ireland situation. I expect things to work out one way or the other.

  11. Brett says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Two points — first the issues you mention are of a different type, and I think this does prove my point that context matters. Scottish independence is not a matter of racial segregation, or an ethnic community trying to to create a state in an attempt to disempower a minority (think South African homelands as a contrast). It is driven by civic identities, and independence will not disempower a minority as say the independence of the Confederate States would have. The losing side will likely have as much say in a future Scottish state as those who vote yes. Indeed (this is part of a dissertation chapter of mine), many advocates of Scottish independence are arguing in favor saying Scotland would do more to empower the rights of a minority than the UK (through a written constitution, lack of parliamentary supremacy, etc.). I don’t think the need to protect the minority opinion in this case matters as much.

    Second — I think political cultures matter. The US has shown again and again that it is not amenable to majority rule. There is a political culture that has not acted on its own, generally, to respect minorities and has required checks such as courts to step in and guarantee rights. The UK, in contrast, has always operated on the basis of majority rule, and the Parliament has generally (especially in recent decades) been very good at acting in the interest of minorities. Theoretically, parliamentary majorities can do whatever they want, but in practice this has not led to tyranny of the majority. So, one might argue that this might mitigate the need for a principle such as requiring supermajorities on some issues.

  12. michael reynolds says:

    I have a philosophical objection to ethnic states generally. I was surprised when the US took the position that elements of the former Yugoslavia had a moral right to be separate ethnic enclaves. I don’t think this is how you go about building and maintaining civilization.

  13. Eric Florack says:

    @Brett: I venture that both your points center on culture, and cultural values.

    as for the tyrrany of the majority, I suppose thats exactly the objection to being in the UK since the Scotts will always be a cultural minority.

    Then, too, theres the obvious point that government always tries to grow beyond its current boundries. On that basis it seems a lead pipe cinch that the tyrrany of the majority will eventually happen, if goernemnt isnt either retrained or removed.

    as regards your comment on race and the lack of obvious racial input, here…. I agree, and I wonder about that as compared to the arguments about big government here in the states, where the bogus charge of racism is so often trotted out when proponants of big government are trying desperately to defend their positions. Ive been saying for quite a while that our differences here in the states are not racial, but cultural… which brings my response full circle.

    ps… as regards majority rule, youre assuming a majorty are involved with the process. Ive repeatedly argued and still hold the position they are not.

  14. stonetools says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Spoken like a cosmpolitan Mike :-).
    Can the Scots and the English really be thought of as seperate ethnic groups, though? its like sayiing that Minnesotans and Alabamans are seperate. Come to think of it, there maybe more differences between a resident of St. Paul and a resident of Selma than between a Londoner and a Glaswegian.

  15. Rafer Janders says:

    @stonetools:

    Can the Scots and the English really be thought of as seperate ethnic groups, though? its like sayiing that Minnesotans and Alabamans are separate.

    Yes, they can, and no, it’s not.

    The Scots — a Celtic people whose native language is Gaelic — and the English — an Anglo-Saxon people whose native language is English — are certainly ethnically and culturally distinct. To an American, from a distance, they may seem very similar. But in Britain, and to the Scots and the English themselves, the differences are quite clear and distinct.

  16. michael reynolds says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    Well, yes and no. The English are Angles, Saxons, Celts and Normans, just to name the top contributors. As a major trading nation for centuries they also have bits and pieces of everything on earth. And if you walk down a London street you see just how multi-racial it is.

    And given centuries of Scots interbreeding with the English, they too, are mongrels, as are just about everyone on earth outside of some lost Amazonian tribe.

    Ethnicity is more about a mawkish nostalgia and inflated self-image than anything else. The things separating the average Scot from the average Englishman are trivial.

  17. Eric Florack says:

    @michael reynolds: as I suggested to Brett I wonder if your focus on ethnicity isnt off base…. I suppose the real center of the issue is one of cultures which tend to, but are not limited to, each ethnicity..

  18. stonetools says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Don’t forget what the Romans did for the English too.:-).
    Scottish independence might might also bring up the issue of the Welsh, a Gaelic-speaking Celtic people who were independent of the English till cruel Edward Longshanks conquered them in the 13th century.
    At this point, I just think that the differences between the English, Scots, Welsh and Scots-Irish are too slight now to talk of them as a seperate ethnic group, but I guess it depends on how they feel about it. Are Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews seperate ethnic groups? They surely are more seperate than the Scots and the English -but they all consider themselves Jews. Then again, you can’t form an Orthodox minyan with five Ashkenazi and five Sephardic males, so…

  19. michael reynolds says:

    Cultural differences?

    Here’s a full Scottish breakfast.

    Here’s a full English breakfast.

    I can see why a whole separate country is vital.

  20. Eric Florack says:

    @michael reynolds: heh.
    Well, the Scots as a culture have the reputation of being more self-reliant, whereas in England, well …….

  21. stonetools says:

    @Eric Florack:

    LOL.

    The Scots take more in tax revenue from the English than the English do from the Scots, so I have no idea what you’re on about.

    The British (mainly English) subsidy to Scotland is £25 billion ($41 billion). The revenues from oil would be at best £7.2 billion ($11.9 billion). State subsidised spending per head in Scotland is 28 percent higher than in England, a difference of about £1,500 ($2,500).

    Stop press. There’s a debate on that,generally based on whether you live in England or Scotland.

  22. Rafer Janders says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Well, if that’s your metric, may as well say that there’s no differences at all between, say, a Canadian and an American.

    And yet there are.

  23. michael reynolds says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    Well, Canadians don’t shoot people, so there’s that.

  24. michael reynolds says:

    New polling has the No vote up by 8 points.

  25. PJ says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I have a philosophical objection to ethnic states generally. I was surprised when the US took the position that elements of the former Yugoslavia had a moral right to be separate ethnic enclaves. I don’t think this is how you go about building and maintaining civilization.

    Yugoslavia didn’t exist before 1918, and the idea behind the country has its roots in the idea of creating a state for all South Slavs… an ethnic state.

    —-

    On the subject of referendums and percentages. In Slovenia, the turnout was 93.3%, 94.8% of those voting supported independence, so 88.5% of eligible voters supported independence. Croatia had a lower turnout, 83.6%, of which 93.2% voted for independence, which means that 77.9% of eligible voters voted for it.

  26. Trumwill says:

    Arguably, they sense of dramaticness that comes with a Yes vote works against it getting a majority. People who are unsure are probably likely to vote against. This does make @Brett:’s point about a threshold important. Perhaps a way to figure on both of these is to count a non-vote as a “no” vote, though that might be setting the threshold too high.

    I also want to second @stonetools‘s comment above about majority and minority populations. I am actually amenable to the request of a US state wishing to secede if that is its desire, depending on the “why”, the caveat being that if it is overwhelmingly opposed by a minority of the population, that would be an important consideration.

  27. bill says:

    @michael reynolds: i don’t think the scots will cleanse the country if they secede! that it’s even so close has gotta be disappointing to the ethnic crowd- i mean who wouldn’t want to get their country back?!

  28. Dave Schuler says:

    As readers of my blog know, I spent most of the last month in the United Kingdom. The vote on Scottish independence is a major topic of news there—you hardly hear of anything else.

    And as I wrote in my post on the subject I think it’s none of my business, a matter for the Scots and English to work out among themselves. I do, however, think that Scottish independence would neither be good for the Scots nor for us, although, again, it’s a matter for them to work out.

    Something not mentioned frequently enough is how Scottish independence could put wind in the sails of some of the many secessionist movements in Europe. Just about every European country more than a few square miles in size has a secessionist movement or two. France has almost a dozen. Spain is in the middle of its own completely illegal referendum on Catalan independence.

    I do think that a serious discussion of sovereignty is in order. What is the unit of measure of sovereignty? Whatever territory you are able to hold? The city? The individual? What definition is most conducive to human freedom? I don’t think the answers are obvious or that everyone has the same preferences.

  29. Eric Florack says:

    @stonetools: So, they’re trying to remove themselves from dependence, which they see (correctly) as a path to their destruction.

  30. Barry says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: “For example: the context of 1954 in the US would suggest a reliance on majority will in the matter of such issues as segregation. Nonetheless, the general principle that specific rights ought not be subject to majority vote ought to trump the specific context, yes?”

    You are contradicting yourself (in the main post: ‘I do think that the appropriate threshold for normal legislation ought to be 50%+1 and that it ought to reflect, within in reason and with caveats, majority sentiment. For example: basic rights cannot be settled by mere majority sentiment. ‘).

  31. trumwill says:

    @Barry: I don’t see a contradiction as much as a distinction between specific rights and “normal legislation”.