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The Scottish Referendum - A Lesson Learnt

| by Ruwantissa Abeyratne

( September 20, 2014, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) The Scottish Referendum is over and, rightly or wrongly, depending on what each Scot feels about the result, the outcome was NO for independence from the United Kingdom. Whatever post mortems the pundits might conduct, the most valuable lesson conveyed by the referendum did not lie in perceptive economic analyses that were offered nor in political rhetoric but in the fact that the Scottish people, who had thus far been somewhat stoic and accepting of the status quo of being controlled on key issues by Westminster were suddenly energized and excited that they had a "say" in determining their own future and destiny. As one observant voter commented: "we were awakened to our own self worth and I hope we will continue this momentum of participating in our own affairs, even after the Referendum".

The Referendum was not just about determining the will of the people of Scotland. It was about debating among themselves and the realization that their views counted and that they had finally a sense of purpose, direction and identity in their own destiny. The end result is that the Scottish people will never be the same, and neither will the British Parliament which will be more aware of the possibility of another "wake up call" from a people who now know that they cannot be pushed around and expected to accept whatever is doled out to them.

It was economist Abraham Maslow who propounded the hierarchy of human needs, at the peak of which is" self actualization". Self actualization is self esteem or the realization that a human being has reached a level of self worth and that his or her contribution can be counted. The Scottish people finally realized their potential to be the decision makers of their own needs and aspirations. It was Socrates who said of self actualization: "our unexamined life is not worth living". His pupil Plato followed through by expanding on the philosophy of what it is to be a human being.

The Referendum was not necessarily about intelligent choices either. It was about the individual value and dignity of the human being. Voting is a contentious issue, as arguably there is no equity in giving a stupid person the same vote as an Oxford professor. What matters is that the stupid person feels the same about himself as the professor does about himself as both have the same entitlement in voting.

The counter argument is that a democratic election may not be just and the best for a society as uninitiated and naïve voters who are irrational and ignorant of political affairs can be lured by false promises and untenable reasoning on finances and economics by disingenuous politicians. However valid these arguments might be, the overriding fact emerging from the Scottish Referendum was the value of human dignity and self determination. It is the uplifting feeling of positive freedom; freedom for action that we originate; a freedom of choice; an question of pride and independence that ultimately prevailed. Eric Brahm writes: "since the end of the cold war more and more groups of people have demanded the right to "self determination", meaning they have demanded their own nation State or some degree of autonomy within another nation State. The demands may be political - groups may want sovereignty or a greater political "voice" in the government structure or they may be cultural - wanting the right to preserve their own language, cultural traditions or "way of life" (or maybe both).

International law supports self determination on the basis that people should have control of their own lives. The Charter of the United Nations, in Article 1(2) states that one of the purposes of the United Nations is : "to develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principles of equal rights and self determination of peoples..." Human dignity is self respect or self worth of an individual or a group of individuals, brought to bear by physical and psychological integrity and empowerment. Hugh M. Lewis says: "I define human empowerment as an individual condition of ultimately gaining the power to control and modulate changes in one's own life, if not in a complete sense, at least in a significant and focal manner in areas that are considered important to one's identity and adjustment in life...human empowerment is ultimately and primarily about self empowerment by the individual in relation to the social group of which that individual is a member."

An ODI Briefing paper of November 2001 quotes Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen who said: "civil and political rights … give people the opportunity to draw attention forcefully to general needs and to demand appropriate public action. Whether and how a government responds to needs and sufferings may well depend on how much pressure is put on it, and the exercise of political rights (such as voting, criticising, protesting, and soon) can make a real difference".

The Report goes on to say: " Sen’s empirical research illustrates the ways in which the denial of civil and political rights can function as an obstacle to human development".

In a civilized society, human dignity through self-empowerment is recognized as an entrenched human right. That Scotland and its people were given this right by Westminster to choose for themselves by a referendum speaks for the absolute fairness of the British system of democracy that resonates the inherent right of a nation - a community - to choose for themselves without let or hindrance. In the midst of autocracy, dictatorship, electoral violence and barbarism going on in the world, and in an era where human rights are blatantly disregarded and violated, the manner in which the referendum was conducted and the dignity and equanimity with which both sides accepted the choice of the Scottish people evoke in one the hope that there is a spark of decency and integrity left in the world.

The Scottish people responded appropriately by acknowledging the unique opportunity given to them to choose, and by their humble realization that as a nation, both collectively and individually, they felt needed and appreciated. They have vowed to justify this confidence and value reposed in them by actively participating in their own destiny in the future.

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