Scotland and beyond: Self-determination and implications

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On September 18, the Scottish nation went to polling stations all around their country to decide whether they would become an independent country or not. Turns out, 55% of those who voted wanted to stay in the United Kingdom (UK).

We have to interpret this result carefully. After all the difference between those who voted yes and those who voted no is about 400 000 people. This is not a small number; it represents 10% of the entire electorate. If you compare this with Quebec’s similar referendum in 1995, where the referendum failed by a mere 1%, you start to see the difference.

The 10% means that there was, apparently, no chance for the vote to go either way. It indicates a clear decision made on part of the Scottish nation, and it is very important to emphasise this. The referendum was not a victory for the British government, nor a loss for the Scottish government. It was a statement made by a nation in a democratic context.

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At least, that’s what they say.

Using human rights rhetoric, we can say that the victory here belongs to the concept of right to self-determination: the idea that the nations and peoples of this world have the right to decide their own fate. Even if the Scottish nation voted not to become an independent country, the fact that they were able to vote on it sends a clear message to the world: it was their decision.

Assuming that governments are the sole “official” representatives of nations, this is the only definition we can work with.

Thinking within the Western paradigm of countries and governments, this is all very great. Let the people vote and let them decide whether they want to be ruled over by a government of their own peoples, or a government of other peoples. However, we need to realise that the right to self-determination only matters for those who already have power.

Take for instance Crimea and their referendum to choose between Ukraine and the Russian Federation. The Crimeans overwhelmingly voted in favour of joining the Russian Federation. This is exactly where the picture gets a bit muddy, when the politicking of people in power is mistaken for the decision of a nation. Was it actually the average Crimean’s desire to become a part of the Russian Federation, or was it ex-President Viktor Yanukovich’s hesitance to say no to Vladimir Putin?

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Propaganda poster from Crimea. “On March 16, we will choose.”

The Crimean referendum happened within the context of a military occupation. Pro-Russian forces were occupying the parliament, when they decided to hold their referendum.

For the average Scottish person, the fact that Scotland will remain a part of the UK does not change much. But for Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond, the referendum also means that he has lost the chance of becoming the president of an independent state. And even if Scotland had become independent, Queen Elizabeth II would still remain the queen of Scotland.

Nevertheless, Scotland has made its decision; or more importantly was able to make a decision. There are other nations out there who cannot even get to that stage; let alone discuss the finer implications of the right to self-determination. The Catalonians living in Spain are denied their right to hold a referendum by the Spanish government, and the Kurds in Turkey cannot even openly talk about self-determination.

The world of politics loves to pacify people by making them believe their choices matter. The human rights rhetoric is the most perfect tool of legitimization in the 21st century. Argue that you are doing things to protect the rights of your nation, and for the betterment of the people you represent; and everybody seems to forget that you are in a position of power, and anything you do is technically in order to protect that position.

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