The value of evidence and the power of values in the referendum on the independence of Scotland.


Today is the day. 4.3 million residents in Scotland and aged 16 or over have the right to cast their ballot to answer a straight forward question with big implications: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?.’ A simple majority is required by the Yes campaign to win the referendum and leave the United Kingdom after more than 300 years.

I am interested in the referendum for few reasons (some emotional and some more rational): I lived in Glasgow between 1996 and 1997 to study for a Master in economic development; I work for the Overseas Development Institute which is based in London; I have been a subscriber of the Guardian Weekly for more that 10 years and follow closely British politics (maybe even more than Italian politics); and because the fact that there is a referendum in Scotland (something we give for granted in Europe but in other parts of the world soldiers would be sent to impede a secession) shows democracy at work.

I think that a Yes win will have an impact in Europe (and maybe even beyond Europe) by accelerate, at a time of political and economic crisis of the European project, the demand by regions who want to go alone. Does this mean that it is better if the No wins? I do not know.

I watched a couple of BBC documentaries in Youtube about the pro and cons of Scotland going independent and it is very difficult, on the basis of the given and existing evidence, to form a judgment. For example, Scotland – For Richer or Poorer? by BBC’s Robert Peston presents the economic data and evidence that supports both the Yes and No campaigns. Both are convincing. Let’s take for example the claims about oil revenues. The data shows that oil will still be extracted for decades and that it revenues can allow the establishment of a national fund to be used to subsidize public services and spending. The models are there. The obvious one is Norway. A less known example is already in place in Scotland: the Shetland Charitable Fund. Both work very well.

For the No campaign the data show that if Scotland splits it will have to take on about 8% of the UK national debt which will mean that most of all oil revenues and taxes will be used for some time just to try to manage the debt burden and the higher borrowing costs for a smaller country (ca. +1% compared to what the UK as a whole borrows at the moment).

There is credible evidence to support both sides of the campaigns. Both sides have tried to help people’s understanding by presenting the complexity of the evidence in more accessible ways (e.g. the Yes campaign infographics). During the last few days Prime Minister Cameron, maybe sensing that the Yes campaign has been gaining support, has asked the Scottish people to stay in the United Kingdom with a mix of evidence, promises of greater autonomy, and subtle threats of no return that highlights how uncertain the outcome of the referendum is.

To me, the debate about the independence of Scotland confirms once again two of the limits of the use of evidence in the political debate. Limits that sometimes we forget if we work on a day to day basis on developing and strengthening processes and systems to demand and use of evidence in policy making as I do in the project here in Jakarta.

The first limit is that when the stakes are high and the political discussion very heated the flow of evidence becomes a flood of data and information which can make things more unclear rather than clear. It is then too late for the evidence to have any impact.

The second limit is that, by nature, the evidence comes from the past, it lives in the present and tries to forecast the future. The referendum in Scotland  is about two visions of the future: an independent Scotland sharing a border with a smaller United Kingdom or a United Kingdom as we know it. However, the later vision will not just be a picture of today’s reality. If Scotland will remain in the United Kingdom, the fact that a referendum has taken place and depending from the margin of the No win, will determine new powers, more delegation of authority, etc. which will change the United Kingdom considerably.

The future is also where evidence becomes speculation. Both sides of the campaign have sought and used the evidence they needed to present a picture of two different futures. The limit (and value) of evidence is that it helps to form a judgment about the future but cannot provide certainty, even though at time the evidence is presented in a way that it does. In the end, as Robert Peston says in the BBC documentary, after one and half year of campaigning and a constant stream of data and evidence presented by both sides of the campaign, voters today will go to the voting stations to take a huge decision. Once there they may not only think about whether Scotland could be independent (the evidence says they can) but also whether it should be independent and what kind of nation it should be. That is not so much evidence territory but rather the space where values, cultural identity, and sense of self matters the most.

Jakarta, 18/9/2014

3 thoughts on “The value of evidence and the power of values in the referendum on the independence of Scotland.”

  1. Veronica F. Villavicencio

    For you to watch, Mr. Pellini: the debates in the Philippines Congress in the coming months until 2015 on the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which tries to legally define autonomy for the Bangsamoro territory and peoples in Southern Philippines.

    Can we learn from the Scotland experience on how “evidence-based policy making” can provide the best-fit form and substance of governance for an autonomous region?

    1. Veronica F. Villavicencio

      apologies for placing my other email address. I’m placing the correct one below, through which I already have a subscription to your blog. Thanks.

    2. Hi Veronica, interesting question. I think evidence has value in these discussions and it needs to be part of these debates. It helps forming an opinion. But when issues are politically hot that is when it becomes more difficult for evidence to be a decisive factors. As the campaign for an Independent Scotland shows the closer the voting dat, the louder the debate and the more data and evidence is thrown to the public and through media.

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