Writing in the Globe and Mail, Macdonald-Laurier Institute Managing Director Brian Lee Crowley criticizes the process that led to Thursday's independence referendum in Scotland. A simple majority should never have been enough to make such a momentous decision.

Votes for independence are serious matters that alter everything from the value of houses to the validity of university degrees, he says – fifty per cent plus one simply isn’t good enough.

Brian Lee Crowley, Sept. 18, 2014

Readers of this column have an advantage over me: they will read it after the results are in on Scotland’s independence referendum. The outcome is irrelevant, however, because I want to talk how very wrong the rules are under which it is being carried out, wrong politically, economically and morally.

Decisions to break up a country are momentous, not least because they throw everything into question. In Scotland’s case, for example, no one can state with certainty what currency they will use, what it will be worth, who will enforce contracts and under what law they will be interpreted. The value of houses, university degrees and retirement savings will all be subject to far greater uncertainty than they were when the legal and policy framework was known. Who knows whether the new country will be part of the European Union and under what conditions, what its debt and tax rates will be and perhaps most crucially how its relations with its newly foreign and spurned neighbour, the UK rump state, will be conducted.

Generations of decisions have been made on both sides of the border premised on knowing the answers to these questions and many others. One of the jobs of government is to help create islands of reasonable certainty in a sea of change and uncertainty, by allowing people to treat these many questions as settled. Moreover, decisions like this are not like electing governments every few years. Because you can change governments you don’t like, and governments exist within a framework of rules and institutions that constrain their power, the stakes involved in voting in one party over another are relatively minor and mistakes easily corrected.

Not so a decision to secede. As former British prime minister Gordon Brown rightly says, this is a choice the Scots must live with for a long time, likely forever.

Moreover the costs of the break-up are not borne exclusively by those who favour it, but also by those who oppose it (I’m not even considering here the undeniable costs to other non-Scottish UK citizens who, wrongly, have no say at all). They are borne too by future generations of Scots, who are not here to vote.  Those future consequences will be considerable. Like it or not, decisions taken in the past like whether to invest and innovate in Scotland, buy a house or create jobs are already taken and can only be undone at great cost, if at all. Decisions that have not yet been taken are a wholly different matter. The great enemy of investment and growth is uncertainty. Just look at the consequences for Quebec of nearly half a century of separation anxiety and the devastating losses of potential population and wealth that province has undergone.

Thus the institutional status quo has a strong presumption in its favour. To put it the other way around, to sunder the status quo should require a very high degree of agreement. The “decision rule” in Thursday’s vote of 50 percent plus one of those voting doesn’t even come close to meeting that standard, any more than it did in Quebec’s two referendums on independence.

True, telling the Scots after a bare majority Yes vote that they failed to meet the standard for breaking up the country is a recipe for conflict, although I’d wager the conflict will be far worse if Scotland tries to secede on so frail a democratic mandate. On the other hand, setting the decision bar too low and thereby downplaying the consequences of the decision encourages separation fantasies, distorting that very decision. And as we know from bitter experience in Quebec, it also encourages the secessionists to try over and over again.

These are all reasons why even less important decisions, such as constitutional amendments, often require far more than simple majorities of voters. In Canada’s case you need the agreement of parliament, plus two-thirds of the provinces and those provinces must represent 50 percent of the population. That’s a triple majority. The Supreme Court ruled that a Quebec referendum would only trigger negotiations if it got a “clear” majority, not a bare one. Such high thresholds properly reflect the seriousness of the decision.

By a rhetorical sleight of hand, secessionists will certainly proclaim that a victory of 50 percent plus 1 of those voting means “the Scots” have voted for independence. It will mean nothing of the sort. It means they will be deeply divided, not united, over an irreversible decision of vast consequence taken under rules that trivialize the stakes. Scotland the Brave indeed.

Brian Lee Crowley (twitter.com/brianleecrowley) is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa:www.macdonaldlaurier.ca.

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