On November 18, 2014, the over four million voters of Scotland went to the polls to decide a simple, yet significant, question: Should Scotland become an independent country? Interestingly, the ‘Yes’ campaign argued that this vote will undo the 1707 Act of Union between the governments of Scotland and England but not the Union of Crowns of 1603. So Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II would have remained Queen of Scotland too [though perhaps as Queen Elizabeth I of Scotland]. The result of the referendum was that 55 per cent of Scots voted ‘No’ to independence and only 45 per cent voted ‘Yes.’ This referendum has been significant in many ways.
First, the vote shows significant support for secession in Scotland. While the Act of Union of 1707 has been largely successful, the sense of separation in Scotland still remains. The fact that even Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland, stated that the Union of Crowns will not be undone shows that this move was not directed against the monarchy but the real or supposed control by Westminster.
There was a time when Westminster could act as the ‘Imperial Parliament’ technically representing all of the British Empire, but the resentment with decision making in a part of London was not just felt in Calcutta or Bombay, but also Sydney and Toronto — realms which successfully established their own parliaments with full rights and without the interference of Westminster.
Second, the referendum calls for more devolved powers in Scotland, and I would argue, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, has promised more devolution of powers, and this must follow in the next parliament.
After the dissolution of empires after the end of the Second World War, significantly begun by the Jewel in the Crown — India — in 1947, the stage was set for smaller, more localised, governments. By the middle of the 20th century, empires which had ruled large swathes of land over millennia had failed to stem the tide of nationalism and self-determination and were giving way for smaller, more compact, countries.
These new ‘nation-states’ have not been a complete success, but the right to self-determination has done wonder in a number of them and cannot be underestimated. It would make sense for the UK to learn from its former realm of India and devolve powers further.
In August 1947, India started its independent life as a ‘Union’ with strong centralised power — in fact, one of the major differences between the Indian National Congress and the All India Muslim League was that while the former wanted a centralised government the latter demanded a federal country. In reality, it is India which is a lot more federal now in action than Pakistan. This federalising of India has not only stemmed a number of separatist movements, it has also enabled the flourishing of smaller state units. In turn, it has actually made the country stronger and resistant.
Third, the Scottish vote should make the UK government think about England itself. England forms the bulk of the UK population and while Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, all have devolved ministries, England does not. Therefore, while devising ways to devolve more power to the three other countries, the UK should also devolve power to England. This will not only be fair for the people of England, but also stem, a bit at least, the anti-European feeling in most of England mainly stemming from the fact that it seems that most decisions are now being made in Brussels. It is nigh time that England gets a voice too.
Fourth, the Scottish vote is a very important event for the rest of the world. Coming from the region which taught the world parliamentary democracy — whether we like it or not — it showed how separatist movements are dealt with in a democracy. Shortly after the vote, I was teaching a class on British history, and it was fascinating for the students to connect the development of current parliamentary practice in Pakistan to the Bill of Rights in 1689, amongst other things.
To know that only parliament has the right to impose taxes, that everything said in parliament is legally immune, etc, were concepts which developed in Britain centuries ago, and are things we still employ today. Hence, this vote should be a lesson for other countries facing secessionist movements in how such issues should be dealt with.
In Pakistan, obviously, we should employ something like this to the Baloch issue. It is a historical fact that the bulk of the Baloch were uneasy with accession to Pakistan in 1948, and since then there have been insurgencies in nearly every decade. Attempts at devolution also have not worked as people hoped for. Therefore, why deny the right to self-determination to the Baloch? After all, isn’t that Pakistan’s argument with regards to Kashmir?
Now I am not arguing here that Balochistan ‘should’ become an independent country — just that they should be able to exercise their right to self-determination. The applicability of this right — whenever — will not only push the Baloch separatists to present and argue their case publically [rather than through an insurgency] it will also enable the government of Pakistan to present their case for the Baloch to vote for Pakistan.
Also read: The question of Scotland
This is exactly what happened in the UK, with Alex Salmond trying to convince voters that Scotland would be better outside the Union and the prime minister arguing otherwise. This is an exercise which needs to take place in Balochistan too, and should serve as a wakeup call for the federation of Pakistan that it is only when people are invested in the country will the country prosper.
One cannot develop a country when a part of its population has no interest in its continuation and in fact wants to secede from it. Yes, convincing the Baloch to stay in Pakistan might be hard at this stage, but that is an argument that the federation of Pakistan — just like the United Kingdom — needs to make.