Why Did England Allow This Vote?

The thought they'd win big and silence the Scottish separatists. They were wrong.

Political scientist Barbara F. Walter asks, “What Was England Thinking?

The vote this Thursday for Scottish independence is going to be close, closer than the signs indicate. That’s because many more people will vote “No” than are willing to admit to their neighbors. Still, the vote is too close to call and that makes the U.K. government ‘s decision to allow for the vote so puzzling. Either way, Westminster loses. If the Scots vote for independence, the U.K. loses a third of its territory and becomes a shell of its former self. If the Scots vote against independence, Westminster keeps the territory but with a much more nationalistic and divided population. Management 101 would have said that a vote should never have been allowed on an issue this risky and divisive.

So why did England agree to it? It agreed because it thought it would win by a large margin. A big no vote in Scotland would have silenced the separatists and given Westminster more bargaining power when negotiating with the Scots over such things as North Sea oil. But that’s not going to happen. Instead, the Scots will emerge from Thursday with more bargaining power to demand even greater autonomy even if the referendum is defeated.

Alas, this didn’t account for irrational nationalistic sentiment. My hunch is that it’ll prevail and that Scotland will become independent, making both themselves and the UK worse off in the process. And that it’ll have negative ripple effects throughout Europe, with other separatist movements (Catalonia, Flanders, etc.) getting renewed life.

FILED UNDER: Europe, Political Theory, World Politics, , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. andy says:

    You have no idea what you are talking about.
    I am not a ‘Separatist’ and I am not irrational. I have just cast my Yes vote.
    This stance against the elite of the South east of England is just the beginning.
    I hope that the Scots can show the way forward to the rest of the UK and beyond.
    Times are changing and we will not be governed by the elite few and multi national companies, that the people of this country don’t vote for.

  2. gVOR08 says:

    @andy: Interesting comment. Finished reading Chris Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy last night. He closes talking about the Tea Party and Occupy both really having the same complaint, that the game is rigged and even though they play by the rules, they’re falling behind. The difference is that Occupy recognizes the problem as “the elite few and multi national companies” while the TP has been distracted by “the elite few” into blaming the supposed “takers”.

    So I see your point and sympathize, but will separation really change anything? Or is this just another example of people being willing to die for the right to be oppressed by their own kind?

  3. legion says:

    My understanding is that England “allowed” the vote because Cameron is an arrogant ass who never thought he’d be called to account for what was, in his mind, a throwaway political promise. Basically, he (and through him, England) finally insulted Scotland enough that they’re about to say “Oh yeah? Well f*ck you too, Limey!” At least, that’s what it sounds like from my Scottish friends.

  4. Steve Hynd says:

    “Why did England allow this vote?” Well, the Act of Union was supposed to be an equal partnership and in such a partnership one side doesn’t get to allow or disallow the other side’s decision to stay or leave. That the referendum can even be framed this way shows a large part of why so many Scots will vote YES.

  5. Management 101 would have said that a vote should never have been allowed on an issue this risky and divisive.

    It seems to me that politicians who see themselves as managers rather than servants, deciding what the public will be “allowed” has more to do with the success of the independence movement than the decision to hold the referendum did.

  6. gVOR08 says:

    @Stormy Dragon: They’re also expected to be leaders. This bunch seems to have led very badly.

  7. Rafer Janders says:

    Alas, this didn’t account for irrational nationalistic sentiment.

    Objection to the loaded language — both “irrational” and “nationalistic” (as opposed to the more neutral/positive “patriotic”).

    James, do you consider your love for America to be “irrational”?

  8. grumpy realist says:

    @gVOR08: As said, this might be the first secession movement that comes about because of the absent-minded-ness of the other party. (“Oops, I mislaid Scotland….”)

  9. Burt Likko says:

    other separatist movements (Catalonia, Flanders, etc.) getting renewed life.

    “Hi diddley-ho, remainder of Belgium!”

  10. Ben Wolf says:

    @andy: My perception as an American is that english elites have spent the last three decades snubbing the scots when they weren’t entertaining themselves beating up people with red hair, and many scots are sick of it.

    Certainly Cameron is the poster boy for privileged contempt.