GLASGOW, SCOTLAND: The old Scotsman handing out leaflets isn’t very official-looking. Neither are the leaflets. Stubbly and wearing a ball cap and shorts, the sort-of-campaigner gets knocked around by shopping bags that teenagers swing along the street. His campaign materials, cut with scissors and punctuated with urgent italics and suspenseful ellipses, beg Scots to “just think”: “Isn’t it important to make your Scotland … a normal country?”
“Normal” is relative, though, and an independent Scotland could help make democratic reform the new normal.
While the self-made pamphleteer on Glasgow’s Buchanan Street isn’t official, he isn’t alone: ordinary — normal — Scottish people are plastering their city’s tenement windows with YES signs printed on sheets of lined paper, on magazine covers, on anything to which ink will stick.
Meanwhile, searching for NO signs has become the Where’s Waldo? of Glasgow. (I hear they exist. I believe they exist. I. Just. Can’t. Find. Them.) In Scotland, of course, the Yes campaign is the rallying cry for separation, but across the water in Canada, France and Spain, the Yes campaign is the “Yes, but how would Scottish separation affect us?” crisis. Badly, we think — it would affect us very, very badly. The political scorcher of Scottish independence, some fear, could reignite the embers of our own separatist movements. But in Canada’s panic-induced myopia, we’re blinded to another selfish and hypothetical concern. Separation, if it occurs, will spark an intense constitutional conversation in Scotland that could light a fire under our own.
For Scottish separatists, Scotland isn’t an abnormal country merely because it’s a non-independent country; it — like Canada — is abnormal because it lags behind the democratic mean to which consensual(ish), Continental European style political systems sidle up. A Normal Democracy, according to many separatist advocates and academics, is a Not Very British Democracy. To join the ranks of “normal countries” like the Netherlands, Germany, Norway and Denmark, separatists propose not only breaking from the United Kingdom, but snapping the remaining threads that keep Scotland knotted up in the type of democratic system that the United Kingdom established and embodies: the top-down, winner-take-all, Westminster parliamentary system.
The Scottish Parliament, established in 1998, is already separate from Westminster in both mandate and principle — while Scotland is still represented by 59 seats in the British Parliament, the Scottish Parliament has devolved powers over matters like agriculture and health, and its comparatively consensus-seeking members are elected through proportional representation. But Scottish independence would publicly reaffirm, if only implicitly, the fact that Scotland rejects legislative and electoral systems similar to Canada’s.
Ironically, this rejection may be formalized through a participatory constitutional convention partly inspired by the British Columbia and Ontario Citizens’ Assemblies — which both advocated proportional representation. Participatory institutions bring citizens, not just elected representatives, into decision-making spheres, and they’re slowly becoming a more integral part of democratic life in established liberal nations. But an independent Scotland would actually begin with one.
As Yes campaign spokesperson Stuart MacDonald tells me, “Voting Yes will not only mean that all decisions about Scotland will be made in Scotland, but that the people of Scotland can have their say in designing the very fabric of our nation.”
The fabric that might be spun out of Scotland’s Constitutional Convention would feature a particular arrangement of economic and human rights. But the convention could also be open to the design of any democratic system, including Westminster and first past the post. That’s in theory. In reality:
“We seek independence to build an improved political system — not copy the old one!” MacDonald says. This week’s referendum is part of a decades-long fight against too much prime ministerial power, on not enough consensus, on a whole chamber of unelected representatives, on distorted voting results. “Why would we want to replicate Westminster and first past the post?”
Canadians should ask themselves the same question. And if Scotland terminally renounces some our most basic political traditions by separating from the country that created them, we probably will.