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U-M professor witnesses Scotland’s historic vote on independence

September 17, 2014
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A mural at St. John's Scottish Episcopal Church in Edinburgh. Photo by Kali Israel.

A mural at St. John’s Scottish Episcopal Church in Edinburgh. Photo by Kali Israel.

ANN ARBOR—The Scottish referendum on Sept. 18 is a huge deal. If voters decide to split from the U.K., a major world power and key U.S. ally could be significantly weakened, losing a third of its land mass.

The U.K.’s population would shrink by 8 percent, and 9 percent of its GDP would vanish. This explains why the election has caused serious jitters among investors, sending the pound plunging against the dollar. Which currency would an independent Scotland use? There’s still no clear answer.

The breakup could also diminish the U.K.’s standing in the European Union and the United Nations. The U.K.’s nuclear fleet is based in Scotland and would need to move.

Kali Israel

Kali Israel

Supporters of independence say it’s time for Scotland to decide its own future and free itself from the shackles of the U.K. parliament in London. They believe Scotland’s oil wealth would make it one of the world’s richest countries.

The election is too close to call. A massive turnout is expected.

In the thick of it all has been Kali Israel, associate professor of history at the University of Michigan. This semester, she’s teaching a course called “Modern Scotland: The road to and from the independence referendum.” Days before the vote, she traveled to Scotland to witness history. She found time to answer a few questions from Global Michigan before the election:

Compared with your previous visits to Scotland, what is the mood like now?

One thing that’s really striking, even compared to when I was here in May and early June, is how much more intense the discussion in every possible forum is now. There is also, understandably, a lot of tiredness on the part of folks who’ve been working hard on both the YES (pro-independence) and NO (pro-UK) campaigns for a long time now, as well as some impatience with the way in which there’s been a flurry of recent threats and promises all around. I think it’s fair to say that plenty of folks are very excited but also frustrated that the U.K. media has been so late to covering the issues seriously. In Scotland, the conversations have been happening for the last couple of years, even if the intensity has increased in the final days.

Too often, the word “historic” seems overused in news reports. But can we say the Scottish referendum is truly historic?

It’s absolutely historic, no matter what, and not in ways that depend on the result. Part of what will be analyzed is how new, as well as old, media played roles, certainly, but it’s also tied up with questions about the shape of global business, banking and resources in this era, and how politics get organized in different ways. The role of money and media will certainly be analyzed.

As an historian, of course, I’m biased, in that I teach about big grassroots campaigns in the 19th and 20th centuries and before, and I think they still matter because the mobilization and intensity of engagement of so many people matters whichever side “wins.” Great losses and great wins both have effects and both produce stories for the future to use.

How will the results—YES or NO—affect Scotland?

No matter what happens, the status quo isn’t an option and it’s certain that the vote will bring change. Both the YES and NO campaigns are in high gear, and one result is that the polls are extremely volatile. It’s also certain that there is a great deal of misunderstanding about the referendum outside Scotland, including within the rest of the U.K., especially in trying to slot it into categories of nationalist (or even separatist, ethnic) politics. But there are also plenty of real questions about whether any promises, from the YES or the NO camps, can be counted on. But that’s part of what I mean when I say that the status quo isn’t a possibility: If the YES vote does not win, the flurry of promises which are being made at the last minute on the part of the NO campaign are going to be under a lot of pressure.

So who do you think will win?

No chance of me making that guess! The safe answer on all sides is that it will be close, but actually, I think we can’t even tell that. The polls are super volatile, the press is uneven and it could be a wider margin either way than anyone would bet on. What’s most astounding to me is the prediction that the turnout could be above 80 or even 90 percent. THAT alone is fascinating and impressive.


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