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Winning the referendum is the easy part.

Winning the referendum is the easy part.

Over the last two weeks, Theos has hosted blogs from Nigel Biggar and Doug Gay setting out the cases for Union and for Independence. In the run up to the vote, Theos' Ben Ryan and, next week, Jonathan Chaplin, Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics stand back from the cases for and against, and pose some wider questions: what exactly the debate is about and, today, whether winning is all it's cracked up to be.

In cricket you sometimes hear commentators talking about a “good toss to lose”. Before the start of a game, cricket captains toss a coin and the winner gets to choose whether to bat or bowl first. Cricket being the overly complex sport that it is, this is not merely a matter of preference but involves assessing the weather conditions and the state of the pitch in order to make the right decision. Often the decision is obvious, but sometimes the consequences are so hard to work out that it’s almost preferable to lose the toss and be saved making the wrong decision by your opponent.

I wonder if the leaders of the YES and NO campaigns in Scotland are almost in the same situation. For all their bluster and confidence, in some ways the consequences of winning this referendum promise to be so difficult that it must almost be tempting to hope your opponent wins. That might seem ridiculous, but when you consider the scenario that awaits either side if it wins, not entirely ridiculous.

If the YES campaign wins they will be on the road to achieving the dream of a fully independent Scottish nation state, able to run its own affairs as a matter of right, rather than as a concession from a dominant partner. They will also have pulled off one of the shock electoral turnarounds in history, from being no-hopers a matter of months ago to legitimate victors today. However, once the celebrations are over major problems will remain. The economic problems are well documented, but they are also a red herring. The markets may dip and the currency will be problematic, but fundamentally there is no disputing that Scotland can survive as an economic entity in its own right. It may not be as easy as it was in the UK, but none of these problems are insurmountable.

The more fundamental problem will be its legitimacy as an entity. If the YES campaign gets a win of even 55% of the vote (which is generous based on recent polling) then that means that fully 45% of voters are opposed to the state’s very existence. When you consider that turnout is never going to be 100% of eligible voters then you are left with the very plausible scenario that the YES campaign wins with a mandate of less than 50% of its adult eligible population. Governing a country where up to 50% of the population fundamentally disagree with the very right of that country to exist is a far more significant problem than mere economic issues.

By contrast, if the NO campaign wins it will be faced with a similar situation, in which they might have won with a mandate of less than 50% (and certainly not much more than that) with the remainder being existentially opposed to the Union and the role of Westminster in Scottish politics. Tinkering with more devolution or beefing up Scottish national democracy is ultimately pretty hopeless unless that more existential issue is approached.

Whoever wins this referendum needs to recognise that winning is, in some ways, the easy part. Getting 50% of the electorate to back you is far easier than getting a country as a whole to buy into the legitimacy of the state’s existence. If YES wins, it will have to go about making a moral and identity case for legitimacy that appeals beyond the current slim majority to ever be sustainable. If NO wins they will need a model that is more than simply economic to convince Scots to buy into the Union as part of their identity. That’s a daunting task, and the major protagonists must know it, difficult enough to make this a toss, almost, worth losing. 

Ben Ryan is a researcher at Theos

Image from wikipedia available in the public domain.


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