This year, the people of Scotland had the unique opportunity to democratically answer the question ‘Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?’ Two weeks before the referendum, polls started showing majority support for a Yes-vote after the country had seen a vibrant grassroots campaign. At the last minute, the leaders of all three main Westminster Parties made a vow to the Scottish people promising substantial new powers to the Scottish Parliament. This dramatic political about turn contributed to a 55 % majority voting against independence. The turnout of 84.6% was extraordinary. But why are the developments in Scotland of interest from an international law and a feminist perspective?
From an international legal perspective, the political developments in the rest of the UK follow a worrying trend. With the exception of Scotland, we can observe the rise of an anti-European agenda in the UK, which could lead to the UK exiting the European Union in 2017. The current UK government promised the electorate a referendum about this question in 2017 – a promise partly in response to the rising popularity of the Eurosceptic and rightwing-populist UK Independence Party. In the area of human rights protection this anti-European agenda could lead on to a path of non-compliance with the European Human Rights Convention (ECHR) and its Court (ECtHR). In case of re-election the Conservatives are planning to scrap the Human Rights Act 2008, which implemented the ECHR into domestic law; in a nutshell, they plan to oppose the extraterritorial application of the ECHR as developed in the case-law of the ECtHR, want to reduce the applicability of human rights to ‘minor cases’, and want to link human rights with responsibilities. These plans would seriously conflict with EU accession to the ECHR. It could even lead to the UK withdrawal from the ECHR altogether. At the same time, a clear majority of people in Scotland is in favor of EU membership, while the Convention rights were given explicit legal force in Scotland through the Scotland Act 1998. Considering that the UK is not designed as a federal state, and its constitutional framework does not provide for a regional veto in major questions like an EU exit, there might be legally contentious issues looming. The people of Scotland might demand to be able to continue to enjoy the protection of the ECHR and their EU citizenship.
Additionally, the question of independence is not permanently settled – Pandora’s box has been opened. Other regions like Catalonia in Spain have been following developments in Scotland closely and, a mere two months after the referendum, the support for another referendum has grown to 66% and some polls suggest that a majority would now vote for independence. Accordingly, those political parties supporting independence have had a tremendous surge and their membership figures at least quadrupled. Currently, the determination of new political strategies to achieve independence seems to be on hold until after the next general elections in 2015. But we might see the UK facing the challenge of Scottish independence far quicker than most people thought. An independent Scotland would leave the UK without a base for its nuclear weapons, without most of the important North Sea oil revenues, and could even question the UK’s powerful position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
From a feminist perspective it is interesting to note that the first act of the newly appointed Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, was to deliver a gender-balanced cabinet. Additionally, three out of five parties in the Scottish Parliament currently have female leaders (including the Green Party with a female and a male convenor). And although Scotland has not become independent, the Scottish Government and Parliament will play increasingly important roles, so that these women are in key influential positions. The legal system, education, and health services are only some of the areas already devolved to the Scottish Parliament and further powers like control over substantial taxation powers are likely to follow. Beyond the national realm, Scotland is establishing a role separate to the UK in areas like human rights and climate justice, and will increasingly seek to do so, given prevailing political opinion. In the area of human rights it is interesting to note that last year Scotland released its first National Action Plan on Human Rights and the Scottish Human Rights Commission is chairing the European Group of National Human Rights Institutions. When presenting her cabinet on 21st November 2014, Sturgeon said: “The aims of my government are clear: to create a nation that is both socially democratic and socially just, a nation that is confident in itself and governed effectively and a nation which will address poverty, support business, promote growth and tackle inequality.”
Also, there is a lasting legacy of the referendum campaign in Scotland beyond the question of independence. Scotland observed a revival of the political. The importance of the question to be decided triggered a very mature interest in politics. Instead of following top-down strategies, grassroots activism took over and created very empowering forums for people from all walks of life. Women played a central role in all this. They created their own movement with Women for Independence and their assemblies still fill community halls all over the country with life. Girls and young women (16 and 17 year old were able to vote), working class women, poor women or women with special needs – it was amazing to see how many of them found their way onto public stages to contribute to the general debate and raised their voices to be heard. This all contributed to the centrality of themes like social justice and equality.
Further developments in Scotland and their possible impact on international politics and law are worth watching.