Scotland Decides, Sort of

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On October 30th, 1995, Quebec held what was essentially an independence referendum. Voting was split in spectacular fashion, with the region voting to remain a part of Canada with only a 0.58 per cent majority. In a turnout of almost 5 million the destiny of Quebec was determined by a mere 60 thousand No votes.

Much to the anxiety of both Yes and No campaigners, Scotland is running a similarly close race. The recent fluctuations between slender Yes leads and tiny No majorities mean that every vote really does count this time.

Is this fair? Politicians on both sides of the debate say that the Scots who wake up disappointed on Friday will have to accept the decision and move on. But it seems almost certain that a significant proportion of Scots will be disappointed – no matter the result. Scotland won’t get what it wants, because Scotland doesn’t know what it wants.

The solution is more democracy; or at least, a more refined democracy. The referendum is on the 18th September – an arbitrary date in 2014. Any result of that referendum shows not necessarily what Scotland wants, but how its electorate felt at one particular moment on that day.

A better way to gather a mandate would be to hold three elections on the same question, at different points in the year – perhaps spread over a three month period. Everyone gets three votes and may vote whichever way they please in each election. Once the final set of votes has been counted, they are all added up and we see which side has the most votes. The advantage of this is that arbitrariness is reduced – if people keep voting in the same way then they really mean what they think; it also gives one the opportunity to change their mind and have that change formally acknowledged. One may think it patronizing to question whether voters are really sure about their decision, but given the enormity of Thursday’s referendum, which could result in the breakup of a 307 year union, I doubt that caution can be stressed enough.

But what if neither side has a clear victory even after these three elections? Well, it may be seen as unfairly tilting the balance in favour of the status quo, but one could demand a super-majority of some description. The United States, for instance, requires a two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate before making any amendments to its constitution. This is to prevent slight majorities from making colossal changes overnight.

Scotland’s referendum could have required a supermajority for an independence vote. It needn’t have been a two-thirds one, it could have been 60 per cent – so long as it meant that any mandate for independence would be built upon a solid majority, and not merely a microscopic section of the electorate.

Why should a supermajority favour the status quo? Because we know what the status quo is; the status quo is stability and certain; and if it is commonly perceived to be the least favourable option, then a supermajority for the alternative will be easily achieved. The alternative – in this case independence, is unknown and possibly unstable, and it would be foolish for a country to plunge into uncertainty on the basis of an insignificant majority.

I have my own opinions on Scottish independence, but I am not a Scot and I wouldn’t want to tell them how to vote. I want Scotland to get what they want, but in order to do this they must know what they want, and whether they really want it. I don’t think Thursday’s referendum is the best way of finding out.

 

Written by Gregory Pichorowycz