Friday, 4 July 2014

Scottish referendum: how clear is the question?

It is time to have a look at the Scottish referendum. So, assuming the main concern of the parties was the sovereignty over the territory, in our case the sovereignty over Scotland and all that it means in terms of territory−e.g. natural resources−, people, government, and law; what options should be considered for referendum?

The referendum in September will only have one question. In what is important here it will read:

“Should Scotland be an independent country?” and voters will choose yes or no.

For more details about the actual referendum, dates, and question see:


There are two points (at least) to be made:

Firstly, the referendum’s “value”. It is indeed important we are going to have a referendum as expression of democratic values and basic liberties. And it is also a way to start breaking the status quo Scotland has had for so long.

Secondly, the importance of the actual question. Because of the way is written and current international and local scenario, there could be but one answer. So, we all can foresee its result. That does not mean that the actual referendum is of no value. As stated before, it is a crucial moment−as it was the Falkland’s referendum in 2013. And it also ratifies the fact that Scotts can make use of their right to self-determination at any time and propose any other referendum and solution.

Why does the question have problems? The answer is simple, because although it may seem as if it offered a choice, it does not in reality. If the Scotts answered NO, they would still be considered as British Territory and hence would know what to expect−to continue living the way they live with the government and the law they know and all that this implies. However, if they answered YES, the consequence is but one: uncertainty. And who is going to choose uncertainty over something already known? Human beings are by nature conservative and between an uncertain situation and one that they already know; most go for what is within their knowledge, their experience (I am not saying that is wrong; I am only stating a fact).

Let’s compare the situation with a different and current example. Let’s suppose that the U.S. government proposes a referendum in relation to the private use of weapons. And they use the following question: Do you want the law for the private ownership and use of weapons to be amended? YES/NO? The question is very simple, yet tricky because either in favour or not of private ownership and use of weapons, if we opted for YES, the government may actually prohibit any private use and ownership of weapons. But they can perfectly do the opposite and actually permit any individual to own and use any weapon under any circumstances. And both these interpretations may be against what we really wanted. What is the problem? The way in which the question is written and the possible choices.

In this case as it happened with the Falkland’s referendum, it is not clear what the “alternative options” are. Therefore, there is a degree of uncertainty. In any case in which we have several options and some of them with uncertain result, how many of us are going to go for an uncertain future? Thus, even more skeptical if we have to think of the ones that may be affected by our decisions−e.g. our children.


The next post: we will discuss a possible way of addressing the indeterminacy and offer a clearer question. The intention is to actually let the referendum fulfill its objective, that is, be a democratic tool for self-determination rather than a tool for validation of predetermined and foreseeable decisions.

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