An independent country? Scotland and direct democracy

Tuesday, Aug 12, 2014, 04:58 AM | Source: The Conversation

Glyn Davis

The Scottish independence referendum shows it is possible for a nation to debate fundamental questions of national identity in an intelligent, informed and inclusive way. EPA/Graham Stuart

History resonates in Edinburgh. The 2014 International Festival opened last weekend with the James cycle of plays by Rona Munro. It is a study of the first three Stewart kings named James, and a timely commentary on Scottish history.

Central to Munro’s work is the question of identity. Can Scotland be a free and independent country, poor but free to chart its own course, as James I proclaims proudly in the first play? Or, as James II later decided, is it necessary to find some accommodation with England?

The playwright is careful not to express a direct view. When Munro proposed the series some years ago, she said:

I didn’t realise they would be staged at quite such a historic moment.

Yet Munro’s scripts seek to illuminate rather than persuade. Plays about Scottish history, she argues:

… would not be doing their job if they failed to show all sides of the issue.

At least one Edinburgh local agrees. After a marathon day watching all three plays, she concluded:

You can read the plays in either direction.

They can be a call to arms for Scottish independence. Or a reminder that every time we get control of our own affairs, murder, theft and mayhem follow.

Scotland votes on independence on September 18. The referendum question is simple and clear: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” Any person over 16 on the Scottish electoral roll is entitled to vote.

Like a good history play, a legitimate referendum process must show all sides of the story. In representative democracy, full-time politicians have time and incentive to understand a complex issue before making a binding choice. When a key issue is settled instead by direct democracy, a good process and an informed electorate are essential.

To date, the Scottish referendum has proved an impressive engagement. Scottish National Party leader and first minister Alex Salmond has argued the case for independence but ensured other voices find a place. There have been numerous publications and many public meetings, including cabinet meetings in local communities, to discuss the implications of independence.

Last week, Salmond and Alistair Darling, a former Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer and now chair of Better Together – a coalition campaigning for a no vote – squared off over the issues in a two-hour televised debate.

Above all, the Scottish media’s coverage of the referendum has been detailed, sustained and committed to informed debate. Over the past month, the issue of the moment has shifted from defence to European Union membership, NATO responsibilities, economy, health care and funding for universities.

The currency dominated discussion in last week’s debate. The argument has dominated a further week of coverage in The Scotsman, with economists and business groups competing for space with those who feel the future Scottish currency is a minor and solvable question.

Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling, representing both sides of the referendum debate, squared off on television recently. EPA/Peter Devlin

Whatever the topic, the Scottish media have invited an impressive array of voices to participate. Numerous opinion pieces from experts have examined arguments and speculated about implications of independence. Some key national publications have contributed also to the discussion. As the University of Aberdeen’s Michael Keating noted in a Conversation UK essay on the referendum, Scottish independence offers a:

… simple question – but no easy answers.

In Australia, only eight of 44 referendum proposals have passed since Federation. Occasional moments of national consensus, such as the 90% of Australians who voted in 1967 to give parliament the ability to make special laws with regard to Aboriginal Australians, remain rare.

The reason may be simple: governments keep advancing unpopular proposals for popular vote. Yet few proposals before the Australian electorate benefit from the sustained focus Scotland is investing in this independence referendum.

Whatever the result, the Scottish example shows it is possible for a nation to debate fundamental questions of national identity in an intelligent, informed and inclusive way. Politicians speak with courtesy but passion about their view of Scottish history. Media enlighten rather than divide. The long lead time before the vote ensures the public enjoy sufficient time to grasp the stakes.

This is impressive participative politics. It seems likely most Scots will see the process as a fair reflection on the proposal, settled after an extended debate surprisingly free of partisan point scoring.

On stage, James I finds his nation exasperating. As he complains, people keep acting before they think – cutting off the conversation by slamming an axe in the middle of the table. He yearns for a more rational time, a moment of reflection and deliberation. The king would be impressed by Scotland on the eve of its referendum.

The Conversation

Glyn Davis attended the Edinburgh International Festival as a guest of Festival Director Sir Jonathan Mills.

University of Melbourne Researchers