Some observations on UK/Scotland negotiations

The first vote for independence in the Western world within the twenty-first century, the Scottish referendum taking place today holds a unique place in history, setting the precedent for separatist movements globally. Politicians, activists, celebrities, and citizens have spent the past months making their cases for “Yes” or “No”, for either declaring independence from the United Kingdom or for staying within the union.  In advance of the referendum was a negotiation to establish groundrules, which certainly from its output, also seems unique. Aside from its uniqueness in topic, this referendum is also particular in several other ways, including the voting age, the majority count set at 50%, the binary Yes/No choice, and the role of Scots outside of Scotland and internationals within Scotland.

Voting Age

Eighteen is the standard voting age throughout the world, with a few exceptions (including Austria, some and African countries, Cuba, Nicaragua Brazil, and parts of the Middle East and East Asia). However, in a twist of the rules otherwise only present in Austria (within the EU), the voting age in Scotland for the referendum has been lowered to sixteen. This was an initiative on the part of the SNP, who determined that because this vote will have a significant effect on the future of Scottish youth, they should be included in the vote. However some opinion polls prior to the day of voting show that as many as two-thirds of young voters are in the “No” camp, perhaps leaving the SNP questioning whether that choice will really play to their interest. It additionally raises the question as to whether Scotland will maintain its voting age at sixteen, rather than the EU regular eighteen, should it become independent.  In negotiation terms, once a ‘concession’ is made, it can be hard to justify a retraction. This voting age reform might even prove the single most significant precedent set for the future by this  referendum?

Expats and Nationals

Linking into the previous topic, expats and foreign nationals also have a different status in this election than in others. In today’s referendum, resident foreign nationals (who are citizens of EU or Commonwealth countries) are apparently able to vote for or against Scottish independence, whereas Scots living outside of Scotland are not, with the exception of members of the armed forces serving overseas. Basically, Scots residing outside of Scotland, whether temporarily or permanently, do not have a vote. A sixteen year old French student with the right to stay in Scotland can vote, whereas Sir Sean Connery cannot. Interestingly, this seems to have a significant influence as immigrants from countries that have experienced their own division, such as India/Pakistan or Eastern Europe will have real-life experience in the matter of voting for independence.  This whole aspect of exclusion of a major stakeholder constituency would seem to justify more reflection in all the circumstances.  (Indeed the exclusion of a major stakeholder in the UK constitution, namely UK citizens from outside Scotland, also merits fuller debate in terms of rights and values.)


Following in the colloquial voting tradition of the United States, the Scottish referendum holds its place as a fantastic marketing opportunity by presenting voters with a binary choice, since formulated into Team “Yes” and Team “No”. Aside from its uniqueness of not allowing voters to have a range of options, the psychology of having such stark positive and negative options – juxtaposed next to each other – might arguably have an adverse effect on voters, particularly on those who wish to maintain Scotland’s status within the United Kingdom. Certainly, with regard to the power of language the wording of the questions and the campaigns could not have been more polarised. “Yes” could be argued psychogically to infer a positive outlook on the future of Scotland, like a light at the end of the tunnel, whereas “No” appears to be not only negative, unchanging, and lacking innovation, but does not offer any further solution for tackling the grievances that many Scots hold as members of the United Kingdom. From the perspective of professional negotiators, this binary option leaves no room for any form of negotiation or compromise, elements which would have played a role in mediations between separatists and unionists and perhaps would have allowed for other options to exist for voters who do not completely agree with either extreme.  Psychologists and political scientists perhaps should have been more involved at the outset on considering whether there is an inherent bias one way or the other if you request a ‘No’ or ‘Yes’ regardless of topic.  (For those familiar with the negotiating literature, both options however imply some difficulty –  either ‘Getting to Yes’ or ‘Getting Past No’ are major texts in the field, implying both have challenges!).

50% Majority Vote Count

Another consequence of the binary vote choice is that unlike most constitutional votes, the Scottish Referendum outcome will turn largely on a vote count of 50%+1, and in the event of a tie, a recount will be called. This means, in theory, that one person in a particular mood today has the possibility to swing the future of the whole of Scotland and the United Kingdom (and some 65 million people) in one way or another – ‘ A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle’, in the words of a famous nationalist poet, may indeed have resonance here if someone happens to emerge from the pub to vote at just the right moment. In particular, the political negotiators have stressed on both sides that this does represent finality in terms of Scotland’s future: if Scotland votes for independence, it will be independent. It will go through all of the steps of becoming a new state, to paraphrase the “No” campaign ‘there is no option for a “trial separation” leading to a divorce’. In some ways, being forced to make this decision as black and white might be the boost that a new state needs to take the reins in making its own future, should that be the case. However it is hard to argue, given how the polls have looked thus far, that half of the Scottish people will not be disappointed one way or the other.  (There is however an additional vital spin which has not to date been the object of commentary – just how adversarial could separation negotiations become in the aftermath based on a slim margin of voting?  And would a UK-rump government have to take final constitutional terms for approval to the remaining voters of the UK – on what kind of voting basis?)

The Future?

With members of separatist regions (both with and without official status) globally watching the elections, such as Cataluña or the Kurds, the Scottish referendum is certainly going to set a new precedent for the proceedings of declaring independence for new countries. However, the many unique elements of the referendum and its socio-political context render it perhaps less replicable than some claim. Additionally, it is possible that prior negotiations would have left voters with a larger number of choices when going to the polls, and perhaps prevented the pseudo-stigma that could be attached to voting for an option simply called “No.” However, regardless of these quirks of the Scottish Independence Referendum, by this time tomorrow we will know for certain if the United Kingdom will be partially dissolved or not.  And we will soon be able to witness the ability of politicians and citizens to engage in reconciliation and resumption of normal political negotiations.

What we will not know, possibly until autobiographies are written, are the intricacies and nuances of negotiation judgments that led to this framework and  that resulted in this being one of the most remarkable and engaging referendums ever held.

Read Article—

By Karl Mackie

Dr. Karl Mackie a mediator and Chief Executive for The Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR).