Scottish Independence Part 1: The How and the Why

In place of today’s expected Required Readings, I’d like to offer the first of a series of four articles about the forthcoming Scottish independence referendum.


On September 18th, the people of Scotland will vote to determine whether their country remains as part of the United Kingdom or becomes a fully independent and completely separate nation. There is less than a month left before the voting date and the country is alive with debate and campaigning. Over the next few weeks I will be posting a series of articles related to the referendum, with a special focus on how it has affected and been affected by education.


This article will provide the basic facts about the issue. I’d like to remain entirely neutral and objective for the moment; my purpose just now is simply to explain what is happening and why it is happening. Although I do have strong personal views about the issue and I am definitely firmly on one particular side, I want to keep my own views out of it until my final post.


Posts two and three will consist of interviews with two high school teachers, one being a very strong supporter of independence and one being a very strong opponent. I’ll be asking each of them the same set of questions and will be relaying their responses verbatim. Finally, in my fourth post I will attempt to lay out exactly what my opinion on the matter is and why I hold it. Both of the interviewees and myself will be ready and willing to enter into debate in the comments sections after our respective articles.


Scotland’s a small country. We have a population of just under six million people and our entire country is roughly the size of the state of Pennsylvania. We’ve been a part of the United Kingdom since the Act of Union in 1707 and for the majority of that time our affairs have been managed from the UK parliament in Westminster, London. We’re a discrete country but we’re also a part of the United Kingdom. When I lived in the USA, the best way I could think of to explain the relationship between Scotland and the UK to people who weren’t familiar with it was to compare it (poorly and quite erroneously) to the relationship between a given American state and the wider USA. A discrete entity with its own character and identity which is part of (and mostly managed by) a larger “parent”. It’s a pretty terrible comparison but it gets the rough idea across.


The idea of Scotland breaking away from the rest of the UK, or at least striving for more autonomy, is not new. There was a referendum in 1979 to determine whether or not Scotland should have its own devolved parliament with various law-making powers. This referendum was ultimately unsuccessful, although unsurprisingly there were some very vocal criticisms of various aspects of the process from certain quarters in the aftermath.


A second devolution referendum was held in 1997 under Tony Blair’s UK Labour government, and this one was successful. Scotland gained its own parliament in Edinburgh and thereby took control of some (but by no means all) of its governmental affairs.


The road to a full independence referendum was truly embarked upon in 2007, when the Scottish National Party won enough seats to form a minority government in the Scottish parliament. The SNP (not to be confused with the ultra-racist right wing British National Party, thank you very much) are a centre-left social-democratic party and had been a relatively small but important force in Scottish politics for many years. Disillusionment with Westminster politics amongst Scottish voters led to far more people voting for them in 2007 than ever had before.


The SNP had always been strong proponents of turning Scotland into a fully independent country. They had always been very clear that if they were ever elected into power, they would do everything they could to call a referendum on the issue as soon as possible. There had been some support for independence across Scotland but until 2007 it hadn’t really been viewed seriously on a national level. Having been brought to power in the Scottish parliament, the SNP now argued that they had a mandate from the Scottish people to proceed with plans for an independence referendum.


These plans went ahead and, after much wrangling and back-and-forth negotiating, we have arrived at this point. The referendum is happening and there is the possibility that Scotland is about to become the world’s newest independent state.


There are two main political campaigns in the process. The SNP and the Scottish Green Party formed “Yes Scotland” and are obviously the pro-independence camp. The Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties formed the pro-union group under the name “Better Together”. These groups have been campaigning across the country for the last several months, each fighting aggressively to sway voters to their cause. The “Yes Scotland” campaign is led by Alex Salmond; Scottish First Minister and leader of the SNP. “Better Together” is headed by Alistair Darling; Labour MP, former Chancellor of the Exchequer and former Secretary of State for Scotland.


One feature of the referendum which has made it particularly relevant to those of us who work in high school education is that the voting age has been lowered from 18 to 16. This means that between a quarter and a third of all Scottish high school pupils will be eligible to vote. Both campaigns have been invited into schools across the country, usually together at the same time, to speak to pupils. Teachers like myself, however, have been under strict instructions not to attempt to convince pupils to vote in one way or another. This is understandable given the nature of our possible influence over some of the young people we work with, but I admit that it’s been frustrating not to be able to engage in debate with pupils to the level that I would have liked to.


The polls are ridiculously close. The numbers keep on fluctuating but what began as a fairly significant lead for the “No” side has shrunk to the point where it is essentially impossible to predict what the result will be. The extreme tightness of the polls is both exhilarating and terrifying; things really could go either way.


I hope that I’ve managed to lay out the basic facts surrounding what is essentially the single biggest political event in several hundred years of my country’s history. Please feel free to ask questions in the comments or to correct me if I’ve made any factual errors.


In a few days I will post an interview with a teacher who is a supporter of the “Yes” side, followed quickly one with a teacher on the “No” side. In an attempt to be impartial, I used the highly scientific method of flipping a coin to decide which one to put up first. After that, I’ll outline my own views. Please feel free to comment, question, criticise, evangelise, or just fawningly agree in the comments.



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Alasdair is a high school English teacher in Scotland. He's a passionate skeptic and science fan, which is why he runs a discussion club for young skeptics in his school. He loves space and astronomy more than pretty much anything and is studying for a physics degree in his spare time in order to become qualified to teach science.

He lives with a cat made of distilled hatred and spikes.


  1. August 31, 2014 at 8:59 pm —

    Was the drop in voting age coincidental? 16 seems low as a voting age.

  2. September 1, 2014 at 10:31 am —

    No, it’s most definitely not coincidental. It was specifically lowered for this vote; the standard age for all other UK elections is 18.

    Each side tells a different story as to why the change has been made. The SNP government, who are the instigators of the referendum, were the ones who originally proposed the idea of lowering the age. They cited the fact that 16 is a major legal watershed age in Scotland. It is the age of sexual consent, the age when a person can get married without parental consent, the age when a person can change their name, apply for their own passport, leave school, have a full time job, stand for election as a community councillor and many other things. Their argument was that 16 year olds should also be allowed to have a say in their nation’s future.

    The Better Together campaign colour the decision slightly differently. They argue that the SNP were simply looking to capitalise on a perceived sense of “Braveheart” style patriotism in teenagers and that the change was no more than a cynical attempt at vote grabbing. The lowering of the age was very controversial earlier in the process but it’s not really been discussed much lately. I have my own strong views about why the change was made, but I’ll save those for my final post.

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