THEM and the Scottish Referendum

During 10 days of walking the 96-mile West Highland Way in Scotland, we were inundated by a cacophony of signs from both sides of Scotland’s September 18th independence/devolution referendum.  The majority of the signs we saw along the Way were Yes, though an Innkeeper who supported remaining a part of the United Kingdom told us that people did not put up No signs out of fear of getting a brick through their window. Both sides demonized the other as THEM, frequently making rational conversation between opponents difficult to impossible.  In the time leading up to the vote, polls showed the outcome swinging like a pendulum.  The results finally revealed that Scotland would not become an independent country and would remain a part of the United Kingdom.

Before the vote, the Yes side seemed to be winning the visibility and positioning war with a powerful positive message that is pro independence and democracy. They spoke about freedom, Scotland’s unique culture, and the need for their liberal votes to count.  The core of their message was recognition that Scotland is distinctly different from Great Britain, a THEM who is oppressive and from whom they need to be free.  In contrast, the No side was not as successful at positioning, largely forced to be “anti” and focused on fear of change and uncertainty. Their appeal dismissed the idea that a union with Great Britain oppresses Scotland and cited massive unanticipated consequences and potential economic costs of a split, as well as historical ties to the United Kingdom. A win for unification does not necessarily imply that Scottish voters believe they are more like Great Britain than different, since economic and geopolitical factors played an important role as well.

How will the two sides, which only yesterday passionately viewed the other as THEM, come together and move forward? The most common refrain we heard before the vote was that the other side was lying, saying anything to get their way. The Yes side was said to be rash, irresponsible, too idealistic, shortsighted, and accused of ignoring history and making unrealistic promises without concrete plans for achieving results. The No side was accused of fear mongering, ignoring and subverting Scotland’s national character, and opposing democracy and independence.

Each looked at the other as THEM, the most dangerous four-letter word in the English language, which creates ‘the Other’ – isolating, insulting and marginalizing. THEMification is responsible for enslaving entire continents, waging wars and genocides. This single word, THEM, which became so critical in Scotland, has a devastating impact on geopolitical and societal levels, as well as within personal relationships.  But despite minor scuffles and heated arguments, Scotland’s referendum has been miraculously peaceful. The process has not involved a civil war, like the Confederacy’s secession in the United States. In addition, an over than 80% voter turnout is clearly democracy in action. Scotland’s referendum has implications for other potential breakaway regions, such as Kurdistan, Catalonia, and Quebec. At a time when many new countries are born in violence, Scotland might have become the world’s newest country, and with a peaceful birth.