LAST week Scotland decided its destiny. It came to the brink of independence and then pulled back. In the closing days of campaigning it was estimated that several thousands of the 4.2 million voters were undecided till the last. When the ballots were cast on Sept 18 over 55pc voted to stay in the union.
The 45pc who voted for change were overruled by the majority and conceded defeat. Alex Salmond, the first minister of Scotland whose Scottish National Party spearheaded the movement for an independent Scotland, announced his decision to step down.
Negotiations will follow in the coming months as more devolution of power is on the cards as has been promised by the Westminster parties in a last-ditch attempt to lure the Scots back from an irrevocable breach.
The referendum has been widely seen as a contest for power between the separatists and those leading the ‘Better Together’ campaign. In reality, it was more of a clash between two systems. Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz who understands the implications of neoliberalism for societies in a globalised world better than most economists, was spot on when he identified the basic issue in the landmark exercise as the Scots’ “shared vision and values”. At stake was the role the state should play in preserving values such as “fairness, equity and opportunity”.
With issues under discussion, people remained engaged in the campaign.
According to Stiglitz, these “are different from those that have become dominant south of the Border. Scotland has free university education for all; England has been moving towards increasing student fees … Scotland has repeatedly stressed its commitment to the National Health Service; England has repeatedly made moves towards privatisation”.
The referendum was a bid to stop the creeping forces of neoliberalism from swallowing up values of equality and compassion. Yet circumspection emerged as the dominant sentiment. The “scaremongering” by Westminster, to use the SNP’s term, had its impact.
Batool, a Scottish-Pakistani health professional, reflected the shared values and passion of the Scots succinctly when she told me: “As the world changes, what I see is a chance to influence that change for the better. To me the direction the status quo is taking us is scarier. There have been articles from ‘leading experts’ supporting both sides, which suggests there is no definitive answer. So for me it has to be about a principle and a strong belief in fairness, justice and equality. I want to live in a country that has these values enshrined in its constitution. … [M]ore importantly, we can be a country that uses its resources to look after those that need it and creates opportunities for all. To build this type of society we need to have the right foundations.”
Could Westminster ruled by the Conservatives build these structures? Shabbar Jafri, an SNP councillor from Glasgow, speaking a week before the poll, expressed scepticism. Its “leaders’ actions reveal they never really cared for Scotland’s well-being. They only want to keep Scotland in the union because it not only strengthens Westminster governments but also because Scotland is a very rich cash cow!” he said.
Obviously, the ‘yes’ campaigners believed that Scotland’s priorities about how to use its resources were different. Hence so much talk about childcare, the NHS, university education, unemployment and defence spending.
With issues — not personalities — under discussion people remained engaged in the campaign as their concerns were addressed. It was a popular movement and as Jafri pointed out, party lines were crossed. At the people’s level, opinions divided families and communities but that didn’t affect personal relationships. For the people, it was an opportunity of a lifetime to express their opinion on how they interpret their values.
One can expect a lot of squabbling in Westminster in the coming months as England, Wales and Northern Ireland ask why they should be left out of the devolution exercise. So the referendum has proved to be a catalyst and the shape of UK will inevitably have to change. That’s what democracy is all about. That’s how change is ushered through the ballot box. It is slow, sometimes painfully slow.
The day after in Scotland the disappointment in the ‘yes’ camp was palpable. But those who voted ‘no’ were not rejoicing either — barring some minor incidents that were quickly controlled by the police. The calls for reconciliation and healing have been louder. Churches had announced special reconciliation services in advance. Of course, in such an exercise one side has to lose.
Not in Pakistan. All pretend to be winners when actually all are losers. That is why no one ever accepts defeat. As for the people, they have no public engagement with politics as, in Batool’s words, “when people feel they can influence, they engage in the electoral process. It is this grass-root involvement that will carry things forward”. The man on the street emerges as the real loser in a nation of winners.
Published in Dawn, September 24th, 2014