First and most important, this referendum is a triumph for democracy. The voter turnout was 85%, proving that when engaged in a meaningful fashion, citizens are not the apathetic herd that too many smug elites believe them to be. It is not an exaggeration to say that it is precisely this passion and enfranchisement that scares the devil out of the establishment. For so passionate a subject, involving a crisis of identity within and between individuals, the voting was organized, civilized and without the slightest hint of violence. I honor the Scots for their exemplary conduct and hold them to be paragons.
It is an important precedent as well. The right of self-determination is a foundation principle of the United Nations Charter and of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; yet it is most often observed in its breach and the right has been left deliberately vague in international jurisprudence. The fact that established and honored democracies like Canada and the United Kingdom have recognized this right, and have implemented referenda to test the future of their national identities, is another step forward in defining this right and how it should be exercised.
The mass participation of Scottish voters should and must be a wake-up call for voters in the wider United Kingdom and in democracies around the world: the power is with the people. I think it is wholly salubrious that the politicians in London were scared to death in the run-up to the referendum: that is precisely how it should be. “When governments fear their people, there is liberty,” said Thomas Jefferson, and he knew a thing or two on that subject. It is to be hoped that more democratic governments, and the elites that purport to run them, recognize that the people will only suffer so much abuse, and that they will heed the calls for political reform before it is too late.
The best and safest repository for political power is the people.
Prime Minister Cameron spoke early this morning and thanked the people of Scotland for their demonstration of confidence in the Union and the government. He immediately spoke to assure them that the promises made of greater devolution to the Scottish Parliament would be fully honored and committed his government to detailing the new powers to be devolved by November with an initial draft reading of the legislation in January. He also announced that Lord Smith of Kelvin, the organizer of the recent Commonwealth Games and former Governor of the BBC, would oversee the devolution negotiations.
This is a very serious commitment: the announcement of a devolution chairman with such immediacy and the commitment of the government’s newly won prestige to a rapid fulfilment of the promises made means that careful thought has gone into the process. These were not idle electioneering promises to be reneged upon as soon as the votes were counted. The fact that Lord Smith is a proven organizer and a Glaswegian to boot further shows the amount of thought that Mr. Cameron has invested. It is also a defiant challenge to the Labour Party and, more importantly, to his own Tory backbencher to move quickly, seize the opportunity, and not to let Scotland down – at your peril.
If Mr. Cameron had ended his speech there, he would have ended well; but he went much, much further. Mr. Cameron recognized the tremendous importance of what had transpired in Scotland and called upon the other nations of the Union to also demand a larger voice in their affairs:
“It is absolutely right that a new and fair settlement for Scotland should be accompanied by a new and fair settlement that applies to all parts of our United Kingdom.
And I want Wales to be at the heart of the debate on how to make our United Kingdom work for all our nations.
In Northern Ireland, we must work to ensure that the devolved institutions function effectively.
I have long believed that a crucial part missing from this national discussion is England.
We have heard the voice of Scotland – and now the millions of voices of England must also be heard.”
I encourage everyone to read Mr. Cameron’s speech. It is a good speech, but more importantly, it is the speech of a statesman, one who recognizes and embraces a historic opportunity to open a constitutional debate and entrust it to the people without fear of the consequences. This is nothing less than a revolution from above and Mr. Cameron is calling for it to be debated and decided in a very short period of time: “in tandem with and at the same pace as the settlement for Scotland.” That might be too ambitious: after all, the Scots have had almost two years to debate these matters in the run-up to their referendum and it is proper and just that all sides of these difficult yet vital questions have a chance to organize themselves and present their case to the people for their debate and consideration.
Yet merely the fact that the Prime Minister has so fully made this opportunity his own, raises him very high in my ranking of world leaders; perhaps indeed to the very summit. I do not agree with many of his policies and I have been critical of him in the past – that’s all fair play in a democracy, after all – but I no longer have any doubt that David Cameron deserves the title of “statesman.” We have so few of those today. His comportment throughout this process should earn him the trust of the people of the United Kingdom, of his political supporters, and of his European partners regarding his promised referendum on participation in the European Union.
I have read many articles with the title: “David Cameron’s Gamble;” or stating that the government of the United Kingdom” is permitting the referendum” to go forward. Let me disagree with this presumption. Mr. Cameron has not gambled: he has trusted in the people. The government of the United Kingdom has permitted nothing: it has recognized the fundamental rights of the Scots. It is precisely for these reasons the “NO” campaign won the argument. I rejoice that the leader of a major Western democracy has so clearly demonstrated what Lincoln recognized 151 years ago. Government has no existence of its own; it is “of the people, by the people, for the people” or else it is tyranny.
Someone who ought to be watching today’s referendum results and drawing the right conclusions is Spain’s Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy. The people of Catalonia are also demanding a referendum on independence on the 9th of November, and while the “NO” victory in the north will undoubtedly dampen their spirits somewhat, their demand will not go away. It won’t go away precisely because the Scots have made their decision in a peaceful and democratic fashion.
Mr. Rajoy has not risen to the challenge: he has not recognized the fundamental rights of the Catalan people; he has not entered into any negotiation with the elected representatives of Catalonia; he has attempted to use scaremongering, threats and intimidation to impose his will upon a significant segment of his restive citizenry. The Spanish “NO” campaign is not “Better Together”; it is “Together or Else”. The “or else” involves police batons, water cannon, arrest and the suspension of civil rights. Mr. Rajoy insists that Scotland is not Catalonia and the United Kingdom is not Spain. He is absolutely right: the Scots are free to decide their fate and the United Kingdom is a democracy.
Draw your own conclusions as to their antitheses.
The problem with Mr. Rajoy and his colleagues in the cupola of the People’s Party is that, at heart, they neither trust the people nor democracy. The People’s Party was founded by the same people who were running the government at the end of Franco’s dictatorship. They made sure that as much political and economic power would remain in their hands as possible. Spain’s crony capitalism and skewed electoral system is a reflection of the compromises made with the ultraconservatives as Franco was dying in order to have any sort of democracy at all. For these lovely people,” democracy” – such as it is in Spain – is only the price of admission to the ECM and subsequently to the European Union. If any of them have read Jefferson or Lincoln, I’ll eat my copy of the Declaration of Independence.
The situation in Spain bears out this description: the electoral system is exclusionary and unrepresentative; the political apparatus is rotten to the core; politicians enjoy either real or practical immunity from prosecution thanks to the “aforamiento” of tens of thousands of them and the lack of independence in the judiciary; the thousands of open corruption cases against elected officials and judges which have resulted in only a handful of demissions, much less prosecutions; the open alliance between the financial sector and political parties; the pressure tactics used by the government to silence media critics in a media that is already so heavily concentrated as to make laughable any claims to independence. The reaction of these establishment figures to the separate, but interlinked, challenges of Podemos and Catalan separatism is only further proof of Spain’s oligarchical government if any further were needed.
Mr. Rajoy would be more comfortable in a room with Tayyip Recep Ordogan, Alexander Lukashenko, and Viktor Yanukovych than with David Cameron or Angela Merkel.
Mr. Rajoy is sure to draw all the wrong conclusions from the Scottish experience; that has been a constant theme of his administration. So to avoid the inevitable misunderstandings, let me spell them out for him:
- Agree to the organization of the referendum. Simply by agreeing to their right to decide, the “NO” campaign will win 10 points in Catalonia. The referendum should be delayed from November 2014 to May 2015; six months is sufficient time for both sides to argue their points in front of the public. Mr. Mas has already said he is perfectly willing to delay the referendum as soon as the government agrees to recognize their right to one.
- “NO” can win in a straight up fight of ideas. If remaining in Spain really is so much better than risking independence, then make the argument and trust in the people of Catalonia to make the right decision and if it isn’t, then they don’t deserve to win;
- If remaining in Spain really isn’t the better option, then make the necessary reforms to improve the situation: not just for the Catalans, for all of the people of Spain. But you had better lay serious proposals and a serious timeline on the table, because you have lied too often for anyone to give you the benefit of the doubt. Does this require you to relinquish your comfortable dominance of the electoral system and the economy? Yes, it does;
- Don’t think small: Spain desperately needs a constitutional overhaul. Use this opportunity to solidify Spanish democracy and transparency. It would settle the Catalans and be the best response you could possibly make to Podemos.
The government’s current campaign of legalistic obstructionism, scare tactics and threats is doomed to failure. In fact, it is by far the most important and effective weapon the “SíSí” campaign could possibly hope for and it is being provided to them on a silver platter. Even if the government succeeds in holding on to Catalonia through a mixture of brute force and widespread banning of pro-independence politicians and parties, can a policy that places one fifth of Spain’s citizens under martial law really be declared a success? Does Mariano Rajoy really think Spain’s reputation and economy need her wealthiest region to be crushed under police boots? The Prime Minister is quickly on his way to becoming Vladimir Putin’s new best friend in the West.
I am not particularly sanguine about the outcome of this increasingly bitter confrontation between Catalonia and the Spanish government. Mariano Rajoy and the People’s Party simply have all of the wrong instincts for dealing with the situation. Positions are hardening and confrontation looms ever more likely. Europe may intervene, but Europe has its own problems: like Marine Le Pen’s growing popularity and the possibility of a Frexit. Yet hope remains; and that hope has been provided by Scotland. If only the Spanish would learn the right lessons.
The last word belongs to David Cameron:
“This referendum has been hard fought. It has stirred strong passions. It has electrified politics in Scotland, and caught the imagination of people across the whole of our United Kingdom.
It will be remembered as a powerful demonstration of the strength and vitality of our ancient democracy.
It has reminded us how fortunate we are that we are able to settle these vital issues at the ballot box, peacefully and calmly.
We can all be proud of that.”
Sources and Notes:
 “Scotland Votes No,” BBC, 19 September 2014
 I had previously predicted a 6% to 8% margin of victory for “NO” while the actual tally was 10.6%. Fernando Betancor, “Catalonia-Spain September Update: The Gift of a Thistle,” Common Sense, 11 September 2014
 The full quote is: “When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.” There is some dispute as to the authenticity of this statement by Jefferson. The earliest recognized citation is from a 1914 debate on socialism in which John Basil Barnhill said, “Where the people fear the government you have tyranny. Where the government fears the people you have liberty.”
 Remember that Glasgow voted for Independence; this is a very savvy move on the part of Mr. Cameron.
 David Cameron, “Scottish independence referendum results: Read David Cameron’s speech in full,” The Independent, 19 September 2014
 The legal immunity from prosecution for serving elected officials, sometimes extended after they leave office.
 The Spanish legislature has the authority to authorize a non-binding referendum and to review the wording of the same, if it so desired. It simply doesn’t desire, although the vote was highly partisan. Furthermore, the government’s refusal to recognize the right of self-determination, though completely consistent with Spain’s historic refusal to recognize this right regarding not only Catalonia, but Euskadi and Gibraltar as well, nonetheless flies in the face of the treaties and International charters Spain has ratified.
 See note 5