The Scottish vote: How to divide a country

As the poll on Scottish Independence draws ever nearer, spirits are running high

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Published: Updated:

As the poll on Scottish Independence draws ever nearer, spirits are running high. Alex Salmond runs around the country intoxicated by the very possibility that he might just win this, while the Westminster gang are scrambling in something that could easily be mistaken for a fit of panic. The spectacle is certainly enthralling, but not many people are stopping to think what the fallout from all this exuberance might be. What stands to be divided here is not just the UK. This referendum campaign is increasingly dividing Scotland itself.

Now, there certainly is a lot of truth to the argument that this campaign has invigorated Scotland and its political culture. The entire nation has taken a passionate interest in politics and it is now surprisingly common to overhear people discussing how to create a better, fairer society on the streets, in pubs and in people’s living rooms. We have record number of people registered to vote (over 90 percent), and it is hard to think of a single example of a Western people being so democratically engaged in living memory.

The polls are on a knife-edge and no matter who wins there will be some very passionate – read angry – people who will not like the result

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

But political engagement of this kind can be a double edged sword. And the reason for that is that they can often appeal to the heart at least as much, if not more, than they appeal to the head. There is nothing bad about being passionate about politics but the ways in which that passion can manifest, or is harnessed by particular interests, can become seriously problematic.


The polls are on a knife-edge and no matter who wins there will be some very passionate – read angry – people who will not like the result. The more intense the passion, the less reasonable the discussion becomes and the uglier the fallout.

When even an elder statesman like Jim Sillers feels necessary to weigh in, warning that there will be recriminations on businesses that did not support the independence movement after a Yes vote you have to take notice. And indeed, we had seen people in the Yes Campaign organizing coordinated boycotts against businesses which came out for the Union as early as March, like in the case of Barrhead Travel, Scotland’s largest independent travel agent.

The last weeks have seen headlines after headlines of heavy-weight Scottish and British businesses and business leaders outlining plans to relocate away from Scotland, or divesting from the country, or just advising what the consequences for the Scottish consumer will be in the case of a Yes vote.

So naturally, the Yes blogosphere has deemed this to be a conspiracy of massive proportions of the “Westminster Elite” / “British Establishment” / “International Neo-Liberal Forces,” and dismissed any such warnings out of hand. A la Salmond, everyone who does not see unicorns running over rainbows to the tune of Flower of Scotland after Independence is “bluffing and blustering,” and lying to you to steal your oil.

Rational and reasonable debate

Well, whatever else you may think about the interests of those involved in the debate, I trust you will at least agree with me that out-of-hand dismissal of this kind is not exactly how rational and reasonable debate works. Perhaps, if you feel generous, you might even take a minute to consider how it might make business sense for Lloyds or RBS, for example, to relocate to England before deciding that they could never do it.

But now the climate is increasingly one in which people assume that anyone who disagrees with them is lying for some ulterior motive and increasingly we are prone to an Us vs Them mentality in which boycotts on Scottish businesses become legitimate on the grounds that a business boss has a different political opinion to you. I should not need to spell out how stupid and self-destructive this is.

But is this really any surprise? I mean, when is the last time that “passionate nationalism,” however friendly its face, was ever divisive? A true patriot can only look on in terror and wonder how long these fractures will take to heal.


Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College and Lecturer in International Security at the University of Chicago. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

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