Freedom? Yes, no, maybe, from Canberra to Holyrood

Seventeen long years ago, Scottish nationalism stumbled upon a champion with a truly global profile; a gobby warrior hero smeared in sky blue, with the face that launched a fistful of blockbusters throughout the 1990’s. The liberties Braveheart’s producers took with history have provoked some controversy, but its success proved to be manna from Hollywood heaven for Scotland: the year after the release of the film and its Oscar triumph, tourist numbers skyrocketed. The Wallace Monument in Stirling saw visitor numbers explode from 40,000 to approximately 1,000,000 in 1996, the year after the film’s release. Mel Gibson may well have drawn and quartered his own acting career and reputation since then, but at least for a time, Scottish independence had a modern, universally recognisable personage that they could rally behind as a nation. The freedom that Gibson fought for on cinema screens, with his shaggy hair, and his abominable attempt at a Scots accent, was still a freedom that seemed worth fighting for.

Contrastingly, it would seem that the jury is still out on the particular brand of freedom that Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond is fighting for. On Monday 15th October, the Scottish National Party leader signed an agreement [PDF] with Prime Minister David Cameron in Edinburgh sanctioning a “yes/no” referendum to be held on the question of Scottish independence from the United Kingdom before the end of 2014. The referendum represents a “once in a generation” opportunity for Scottish people to decide whether or not they should remain part of the United Kingdom. As an Australian, it is difficult not to compare the unfolding Scottish experience to my own country’s recent experience. In 1999, the Australian people, in their infinite wisdom, decided in a similar referendum to vote against the formation of an Australian republic, retaining the role of the Queen of the Commonwealth realms as the country’s titular Head of State. A strange result indeed – particularly for a post-colonial Western nation with its own vibrant cultural identity, floating at the foot of South-East Asia as the so-called “Asian century” dawned. Why did Australia say “no”, and why, at this early stage, does it seem most likely that Scotland is going to say “no” in two years time?

In Australia, the 1999 referendum result was a clear product of the framing of the question. A Constitutional Convention convened by the conservative Howard Government in February 1998 provided nominal support for the push towards a republic, and indeed a preferred republican “model”, whereby an Australian President, elected by a two-thirds majority of elected members of Australia’s Parliament, would replace the role of the Queen in Australia’s Constitution. Technically, few could rationally argue that the model endorsed by the convention was not the best model. Pragmatically, this would prove to be a classic case of death-by-committee writ large. Monarchists – few in number in Australia – effectively united in an unholy alliance with supporters of different republican models to defeat the referendum and set the cause of mature Australian nationhood back decades.

In Scotland’s case, as it was in Australia’s case, the binary question put to citizens will be both deceptively simple and fearfully complex; it will contain multitudes. Faced with the weight of history, the warm enveloping tendrils of a shared British culture, and all the complicated political repercussions of the choice, do we seriously expect ordinary citizens to respond with a simple “Yes” or “No”? What an answer to be compelled to give to such a profound question! Polling on support for Scottish independence already reflects the confusion and polarisation of the electorate: support for outright independence in Scotland is hovering weakly at around 30%, which it has done for some years. Support for more devolved powers for Scotland (short of full independence), however, appears consistently 5-10% stronger, and in fact represents the most broadly popular choice for Scotland’s future. As Lesley Riddoch has lamented for the Guardian, it is surely some sort of madness a “greater devolution” option will not even be on the referendum table. Combining support for outright independence and support for “devo-max”, as it has been labelled, it is clear that a majority of Scots would like their nation to be more independent from the United Kingdom than it currently is. Sadly for Scotland, this is not the question that will be asked in 2014. This is not the question that Scots will be allowed to answer.

True democracy surely must demand more than giving citizens a choice between a few bad or uninspiring options every few years; on questions of national significance, simply asking a question is not enough. If the questions being asked of citizens by their governments are so clumsily framed as to restrict the power of the people to speak their own personal beliefs – their own personal truth – to the nation, we may well come to question just how democratic our modern brand of democracy really is.