The most surprising and remarkable figure from last week’s referendum on Scottish independence was not the 10-point gap between the unionists and the nationalists in the final vote tally. (The “no” side won.)
Rather, it was the overall voter turnout, which rung in at nearly 85 percent.
You read that right: Last Thursday, more than five out of six eligible voters went out to cast a ballot on whether Scotland should secede from the United Kingdom and become an independent country. And this from a potential voter pool of people as young as 16.
Here I was, thinking that Scotland and the United States had some kind of kinship. On the basis of the above, I was wrong twice.
As it turns out, the Scots are less keen than us about extricating themselves from the (former) British Empire. At the same time, however, they are considerably more keen about formally expressing their political views in any case.
Analysts noted that the 85 percent turnout was unusually high for Scotland. That’s a gross understatement. Among the world’s true democracies, such a stratospheric participation rate is unusually high for anywhere.
You know the last time 85 percent of voting-age Americans participated in a national election? Never, that’s when.
In fact, no more than 60 percent of eligible voters have turned out for a U.S. presidential election since 1968; no more than 65 percent since 1908; and no more than 70 percent since 1900.
On this vital metric of the strength of a healthy democracy, we Yanks have been utterly shamed by a population bloc roughly the size of Wisconsin.
I know what you’re gonna say: “Apples and oranges.” Apart from anything else, the decision to declare independence is several orders of magnitude more consequential—and more rare—than the choice of whether to be led by a Democrat or a Republican. For an individual voter, opting whether to secede is almost surely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and a monumental responsibility to assume, not to mention a great honor. (Thomas Paine, reflecting on his experiences in America and France, said that having “a share in two revolutions is living to some purpose.”)
In other words, of course virtually everyone in Scotland who was offered this chance seized it by the horns. Only someone in the deepest throes of abject apathy could possibly choose to sit this one out.
For that matter, isn’t it wonderful that, for once, the level of interest in public affairs is so great that we can be very nearly certain that the final vote tally is representative of what the entire country—that is to say, every last citizen—actually thinks about the issue at hand, thereby allowing the leadership to run the government according to their wishes?
The British newspaper The Guardian, for its part, argued on the eve of the vote, “[A] decision of such gravity—to break away from a 300-year-old union—should be the settled will of a nation. The very fact that Scottish opinion is so closely divided is itself a weakness in the case for independence. Moves of such import should command enduring and overwhelming support.”
As a general principle, this is a compelling and worthy point to make. Coupling the Scottish people’s near-total interest in the question of separation with the surprisingly clear answer (“no, thanks”), the whole matter would seem to have been settled.
That is, except for a possibly interesting historical footnote: The American Revolution in 1776 was, itself, not especially popular among Americans.
While comprehensive public polling did not yet exist, it was estimated by John Adams—as fierce an advocate for separation as anybody—that the inhabitants of the thirteen colonies were split evenly three ways. As Adams put it, “We were about one third Tories, and [one] third timid, and one third true blue.” As such, had the matter had been put to a popular vote, rather than a convention and then a war, it very easily could have failed.
And this for a cause that, in retrospect, was so much more just and necessary than the prospective Scottish split from the same mother country. (To wit: The Scots are not subject to taxation without representation or an occupying army.) If the most successful political rebellion in history had to be sent kicking and screaming into effect, what hope does any other such effort have?
So perhaps we ask too much for a people to fully agree on a radical course of action before taking it. As we have learned from our present Congress, to expect our representatives to forge a consensus on anything is, to quote Colin Firth in The King’s Speech, to “wait rather a long wait.”
The best for which we can hope is precisely what the world was gifted by the people of Scotland last week: a vigorous and comprehensive show of civic pride.
So long as the people—all the people—play a part in the democratic process and elect intelligent representatives who respect their views (an admittedly tall order), they will get the society they deserve. A society that, with any luck at all, is also one that is truly worth living in.