Lessons in democracy from Scotland

Matters of the Moment

The unequivocal success of the No vote at the Scottish referendum on independence held last week on 18 September carries so many lessons in democracy for Mauritius.

In 1707, in spite of past conflicts, differences and wars, the kingdoms of England and Scotland were united to form the Kingdom of Great Britain. Scotland has therefore been part of the United Kingdom for more than three centuries. The Union sealed by the Acts of Union passed by both Parliaments in the two kingdoms in 1707 created a new Parliament to succeed the Parliaments in Scotland and England.

The principality of Wales had already been integrated into the Kingdom of England since 1536. In 1801, the kingdom of Great Britain united with the kingdom of Ireland to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. With the creation of an independent Ireland in 1922, the appellation was changed to the kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The cultures, mores, traditions and national ethos of the composite elements of the United Kingdom (UK) namely Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England are quite distinct from each other. Yet they have managed to keep a cohesive entity respectful of their respective identities. However, Scotland preserved a separate legal system from those in the rest of the United Kingdom. As from 1999, in line with a policy of devolution more power has been transferred to the Scots. However, each material constitutional change in the powers devolving to Scotland was the object of due process through national consultations and a formal referendum to first obtain, in each case, the views and approval of the people of Scotland.

Thus, in the wake of a referendum in 1997, the post devolution Scottish Parliament was instituted in 1999 with authority over many areas of home affairs. In 2007, national consultations were held by the Scottish government on constitutional matters. The various proposed constitutional options included increasing the powers devolving to the Scottish Parliament, a federal system of government within the UK or a referendum on Scottish independence from the UK.

In 2009, in order to force the issue, the Scottish National Party tabled a bill moving for the organisation of a referendum on the independence of Scotland to be held in November 2010. Robust opposition from the other main parties defeated the motion. However, when the Scottish National Party won an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament at the May 2011 elections, a referendum on the independence of Scotland was scheduled for 18 September 2014.

The official consultative and explanatory process with the people of Scotland was launched on 12 January 2012. In an exemplary lesson in democracy, the national consultations extended over more than two and a half years and comprised comprehensive national explanation programmes, thorough analyses of the outcome of the Yes and No campaigns to enable an enlightened choice, an extensive consultative process cumulating in national live TV debates between the protagonists of the Yes and No campaign around the referendum.

Polls carried out during the campaign kept the people of Scotland au fait with the voting forecasts. In the face of the momentum gathered by the Yes campaign in the final stages of the run to the referendum, the proponents of the No campaign mobilised across the political divide to reverse the trend before the vote on the referendum. Gordon Brown, the previous Labour Prime Minister played a key role in building support for the No campaign as Labour is known to have a wide following in Scotland.

It must be noted that the polls showing that the Yes campaign was edging ahead in forecasts of the vote on the referendum had rattled financial markets with the British Pound Sterling losing 3,5% of its value and slumping to a 10-month low against the US$. It sent jitters to the FTSE and caused shares in companies with large interests in Scotland to fall sharply. Some firms suggested moving their operations and headquarters out of Scotland. It must be underlined that there were deep seated reservations regarding some of the proposals of the Yes campaign in respect of the uncertainties concerning the choice of the currency to be used and the immediate sustainability of the Scottish economy.

The other lesson to be derived is that the Scottish electorate fearing the dire consequences of a win by the Yes campaign on their lives and future mobilised massively to exercise their vote in order to thwart the latent risk of a Yes win at the referendum. Expert analysis had demonstrated that staying together within the UK would be more beneficial to Scotland.

In view of the high stakes in respect of the future status of Scotland and their own future well-being therein, a significantly high turnout of 84.6% of the electorate turned up to cast their vote at the referendum polls on 18 September 2014. The outcome was an emphatic vote of 55.3% of the polls in favour of and a win for the No to independence campaign of ‘Better Together’.

The incumbent Scottish government led by the First Minister Alex Salmond which promoted the Yes campaign was defeated at the referendum polls. His own constituency voted in favour of the No campaign. The UK Stock Exchange bounced back and the Pound Sterling rallied to a 2 year high in Asia markets although analysts warned of uncertainty surrounding further devolution.

As is the case in intensely fought elections across the democratic world, there was no état d’âme about the 44.7% of the vote polled by the Yes campaign. In the highest democratic traditions, Alex Salmond immediately conceded defeat and is to step down soon as First Minister of Scotland and as leader of the Scottish National Party.

Due process and the power of the people’s vote

Apart from its lofty democratic values anchored on the standard procedure and due process of seeking the people’s views through a referendum on all issues of material importance to the country and its Constitution, Scotland has also showcased the resolve of its people to defend their democratic rights through the power of their judicious and disciplined vote to scuttle constitutional proposals which they disapproved, as being against their interests. The moment the Scots felt that Scotland’s union within the United Kingdom which had served their interests well was in danger, the silent majority decided to come out massively from their comfort zone to exercise their vote to protect the interests of Scotland and its people within the UK.

The Scottish people decided not to be complacent about their future. It aptly demonstrates how the power of the people’s vote bequeathed to the electorate as a result of the epic fight for universal suffrage is a powerful and determinant democratic instrument which must be intelligently used through the highest turn out possible and intuitive instinct to safeguard the interests of the nation against any attempt at undermining the people’s fundamental rights and larger interests.

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Damp squib rather than Big Bang

On the local front, the carefully choreographed 3 Act scenarios of announcement, ratification and signature of the Alliance Agreement document dutifully broadcast repeatedly by the publicly financed MBC in pre-election mode did not produce a Big Bang but a damp squib. It rather smacked of déjà vu as basically ‘on reprend les mêmes et on recompose’ from the ranks of the two parties to deliver on the tall promises made.

It is a daunting task as in essence the same people are asked to conceive the innovative ideas and strategies required to reform, re-engineer and stimulate the vectors of growth out of the present low growth levels and assure a truly inclusive and potent socio economic and sustainable development towards a high income economy. In the meantime, the leader of the MMM is setting up the agenda on priority issues to be discussed at the regular meetings between the two leaders in the period prior to the elections. There is also a gleeful and smug trumpeting of a 60-0 outcome at the elections when one of the driving arguments to justify electoral reform was to eliminate the risk of a 60-0!

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The Indian genius for numeracy skills

The genius of India in numeracy skills is well established. Mathematical concepts such as zero, the decimal number system, negative numbers, infinity, algebra, arithmetic, trigonometry, sine and cosine as well as pi or power series, etc., were developed in India. This has over the centuries to the modern age led to the marked presence and singular contribution of Indians in numeracy-driven scientific disciplines such as Mathematics, Physics, the financial services, engineering, innovations and inventions in computer technology and space exploration.

It is no wonder that in October 2008 India launched the Chandrayaan 1 (moon vehicle) mission and landed a lunar impact probe on the moon which explored the moon surface, sent data for 312 days and achieved 95% of its planned objectives. India became the fourth country to plant its national flag on the moon. Among its many achievements, the greatest achievement was the discovery of the widespread presence of water molecules in the lunar soil.

This week, the Indian space programme steered by ISRO (the Indian Space Research Organisation) reached another singular milestone by becoming the first country to successfully put an indigenously developed satellite in orbit around Mars on 24 September on its first attempt and at a cost of some US $ 74 million representing a fraction of the cost to NASA  of the US$ 671 million of the recent US mission to Mars.

India became the fourth country after the US, Russia and the European Space Agency to do so. No other country had been able to put a satellite in orbit around Mars on its first attempt before. The Indian Mangalyaan (Mars craft in Sanskrit) Robotic probe will soon start studying Mars’ atmosphere including detecting the presence of methane, a sign that would indicate that the Red planet may once have borne life.

These are inspiring and exciting achievements by mankind. However, they are so removed from the vacuous local political agendas which threaten our future. The Scots grounded in quintessential democratic values can be a source of inspiration to all of us to act accordingly if we want to write and own our own future.

* Published in print edition on 26 September 2014

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