Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Minute With ... Brian Gaines, Political Scientist

This blog was originally posted on the A Minute With website on September 22, 2014.

Scotland and the United Kingdom seemed bound for a breakup last Thursday (Sept. 18), but stepped back from the brink. By a 55-45 percent vote, the Scots rejected independence. Brian Gaines is a political scientist at Illinois who has taught British politics and supervised a program that sent undergraduates to intern in the British Parliament. He even has Scottish roots through a grandfather. Gaines discussed the independence vote with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.

First, some basics: Americans often use England, Great Britain and United Kingdom interchangeably. Can you explain what the U.K. is? And how does this arrangement of four countries – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – differ from that of the American federal government and its states?

England is by far the largest of these countries, and it absorbed – or was “united with” – Wales, Scotland, and the neighboring island of Ireland between the16th and 19th centuries. In 1922, the south of Ireland seceded, following a violent rebellion, leaving the modern state as the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” (Great Britain being the island that contains England, Scotland, and Wales).

Legally, the UK is the sovereign nation state, but sports fans can be excused some confusion, because the four countries field separate teams for international competitions in sports such as soccer, rugby, curling, and cricket, though not for the Olympics.

In the late 1990s, the national (U.K.) government devolved power to regional governments in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, but not England. That asymmetry, and the fact that power was granted from above, not centralized from below, distinguishes American federalism from the ongoing British experiment in devolution.

Did you think the vote would go as it did? And if so, why?

A week before, I thought the “No” side (against independence) would win, but I was far from certain. It wasn't a simple forecast, because it wasn’t obvious which way polls would err. Pollsters always worry about “socially desirable” responses – people saying what they think the pollster wants to hear or what others regard as the more respectable answer, rather than reporting their true intentions.

Scots might have felt pressured to express nationalism or to demonstrate prudent restraint, or neither. Most polls showed a large “No” lead until mid-August, when the “Yes” support surged. A YouGov poll from Sept. 6 was the first to show “Yes” ahead, though within the margin of error, and it was blamed for causing a sharp drop in the value of the British pound. But the final polls from YouGov and others matched the eventual outcome well.

What were the central issues for Scots seeking independence? And for those who voted against it?

The “Yes” (pro-independence) campaign promised an economic boom, but also stressed differences in public opinion between Scots and the English. They painted a picture of Scotland as a potential Norway or Sweden – richer, more generous than England in social benefits, more equal, and further from the U.S. in foreign affairs.

The “No” camp stressed that divorce would harm both parties, but Scotland most of all. Disinterested observers mostly backed up the forecast that separation would be costly, but appeals to self-determination and Scotland’s distinct national character seemed to be drowning out the duller economic arguments from the summer until the final week of the campaign.

What are the likely after effects? Do things just go back to the way they were?

Definitely not. Alex Salmond, the leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party, has already stepped down. His successor will not have an easy time maintaining the party’s relatively new status as top dog.

More importantly, spooked by the surge in “Yes” support, U.K. Prime Minster David Cameron promised a very fast timetable for devolving still more power to Scotland. In a matter of months, the UK is supposed to give the Scottish parliament even more authority. The details are fuzzy, and immediately critics suggested that reforms to limit the powers of Scottish members of the British Parliament also need to be part of the package. Cameron is taking heat from fellow Conservatives for having made rash promises, while his erstwhile “No” allies from the Labour party, including former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, instantly pivoted to promising to hold Cameron to a “locked in” schedule.

Will Scottish separatists get another chance?


The first referendum on devolution took place in 1979, but failed, and it took nearly 20 years before a second opportunity, in 1997. That vote was overwhelmingly positive, and allowed the establishment of the present Scottish Parliament. With one failed vote on independence, in 2014, one might invoke this precedent and predict a second, different outcome in the next 20-25 years. Long-range forecasts are always risky, but if I had to guess today, I’d say that the U.K. will be intact until my toddlers finish university, and that Northern Ireland is the country most likely to pose the next serious challenge.

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