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  • Robert Thorne

Scotland’s Fate: A Plea to Non-Scottish Students at the University of Edinburgh

Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq

The University of Edinburgh is a strongly international space. While three-tenths of its undergrads are Scottish, a further three-tenths are English, one-tenth Chinese, one-tenth from the EU, and one-twentieth the USA. The remaining 15% comprise undergrads from as far afield as India, Canada, Australia, the UAE, and South Africa, among many others.

As well as being an international city, Edinburgh is a Scottish city: Scotland’s capital and its seat of government. Since 1999, decisions affecting the lives of over 5.4mn Scots have been made just down the road at Holyrood. As of 2020, all residents at a Scottish address can vote in Scottish elections and potential referendums i.e. every University of Edinburgh student. The same is not true for elections to Westminster, in which only British, Irish, or “qualifying” Commonwealth citizens may vote. This means that non-Scottish students at the University of Edinburgh have a uniquely privileged voice in Scotland as they inhabit the city of government (with a parliament that’s free and open to visitors) and are included in the Scottish franchise.

However, after four years of studying and socialising at the University of Edinburgh, I can safely say that Scotland’s politics slips beneath most students’ radar. As a political science undergrad, the majority of my interactions have been with non-Scottish learners, who are more interested in London, EU, or US affairs.

This is understandably so, as many students have grown up elsewhere. Why would we expect a student from Hampshire to know the nuanced differences between the Scottish Labour and the Scottish National Parties (SNP)? There seems to be a lingering belief that British politics and “Britishness” are homogenous for the entire island, even 24 years after devolution.

Sometimes, when non-Scottish students ask if I’m a “Scottish nationalist”, I am met with an immediate defensiveness: not aggressive, but reticent. They quickly place themselves outside the debate: “It’s not my issue”, “I don’t think I should have a voice in this”, or, my personal favourite, “It’s for the people of Scotland to decide.” If they are trying to tell me they’re not informed enough to have an opinion, that’s fair enough; indeed, many Scots feel the same way. However, believing that it is Scotland’s unilateral choice to be independent is misguided. Countries don’t form in vacuums, and colonies don’t gain (or lose) independence from themselves. The rest of the UK has a significant voice on Scottish independence.

To demonstrate: Britain’s postcolonial tradition, beginning with the 1926 Balfour Declaration, established the principle of autonomy within the British Empire’s dominions at a conference dominated by English statesmen and aristocrats. Subsequent declarations of independence were each subject to Westminster’s approval, often with catastrophic mismanagement, as in the Indian partition and South Africa’s apartheid. The 1921 treaty that formed the Republic of Ireland after centuries of Westminster suppressing any attempt at a peaceful separation only passed with support from the House of Commons, with 58 opposing (including King George V). Similarly, the Labour Party’s willingness to hand Hong Kong over to the People’s Republic of China in 1997 went ahead regardless of the colony’s opinions, causing mass migration and the civil unrest we saw in 2019.

Given much of Scotland’s independence debate in 2014 revolved around EU membership, the UK government’s decision to withdraw from the EU (against 62% of Scots disapproval) exacerbated calls for home rule. Now more than ever, Scotland needs a clear European voice in its politics, as lukewarm messages from EU elites have failed to clarify the debate on independence.

As long-term residents in Edinburgh, non-Scottish students are impacted by Scottish issues and policy. Examples permeate the everyday: Young Scot cards, free sanitary products and prescriptions, alcohol curfews, trans rights, buffer zones around abortion clinics etc. In the case of Scottish independence, a statement of abstention equates to tacit support for the ‘status quo’, which holds no place in politics as there is no such thing as non-action.

In a world without international law, abdicating from the issue might be justified. If the Scottish Government could magic up a referendum tomorrow and (should the vote be in favour of independence) leave the UK with everything it needed to start a new country, those non-Scots I speak of might be right in their non-opinion. In reality, Scotland would be breaking international and UK law and the response would be either militarised, as in Catalonia, or international condemnation (and resulting sanctions), which can ruin any country, new or old. Given the UK has drastically increased its military presence in Scotland, storing its entire nuclear arsenal on Scottish territory, I would lean towards the first.

For Scotland, to “go independent” requires either force, as in Éire, or the consent and will of Westminster. Former PM David Cameron’s granting of a Section 30 Order in 2012 ‘lent’ the Scottish Government powers to hold a referendum momentarily before it returned to London. This is different from Brexit: the UK’s withdrawal from a confederation of states wherein membership was voluntary. Instead, Scotland is constitutionally imprisoned in the UK.

Despite rising support for Scottish independence since the 1970s, England’s establishment parties have stonewalled the issue. Their strategy, it seems, has been to drum up British (or English) nationalism, as in Brexit, “Clap for the NHS”, and the monarchy, whilst biding their time for the SNP, a party with fewer resources and friends in high places, to misstep. Nonetheless, support for Scottish independence remains at an all-time high. The issue runs deeper than party politics: those willing to take the British Government’s line that Scottish nationalism is negligible seriously need to reconsider.

As the UK Supreme Court established through their ruling in November last year, Scotland cannot hold a referendum without England’s consent: that is, the will of the British parliament and (by demographic majority) the English people. Should there be a second independence referendum, all University of Edinburgh students, including those three-tenths who are English, would be able to vote.

To be clear, I am not calling for non-Scottish students to support Scottish independence. What matters is the recognition of their voice’s power, whether or not they choose to use it. For students at the University of Edinburgh, as part of Scotland’s electorate, claiming one has no stake in the game is simply bad faith. Avoiding a certain form of responsibility, however small that may be in an island state of 67mn citizens, is misguided. Scotland and the UK are not (yet) separate beasts, and no political movement succeeds alone. Scottish independence, despite the name, inhabits much of the same political space as the issues that England, Wales, and Northern Ireland face.

It’s “up to Scotland” to decide many things, true, but it’s up to the rest of the world to decide many others. The right to live and study here entails the responsibility to understand and engage with our politics, our voice.


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