What Puerto Ricans can learn from the Scottish independence referendum

OPINION Puerto Ricans should pay attention to the national referendum in Scotland come September 18, 2014. Scottish voters will be asked: “Should Scotland be an…

Puerto Ricans should take note on the upcoming Scottish independence referendum. (Shutterstock)


Puerto Ricans should pay attention to the national referendum in Scotland come September 18, 2014. Scottish voters will be asked: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” It’s a simple yes or no vote, for or against national independence to be gained through a non-violent, parliamentary process.

Puerto Ricans would be interested to look into the length and travails of Scotland’s recent and not so recent anti-colonial historical process to find useful elements, particularly since the United States learned much about colonial domination from its British counterpart including the conduct of national referendums in un-incorporated territories like Puerto Rico.

SEE ALSO: Bill seeks to make Spanish the official language of Puerto Rico

In Scotland after a period of Conservative Party rule led by Margaret Thatcher, the Labor Party won the 1997 elections and agreed to a proposal for a Scottish Parliament, a home-rule parliament referred to as a devolution parliament with control over most domestic policy, a sort of commonwealth.

Sound familiar?

In May 1999, Scotland held the election for a home-rule devolution parliament, and by July the Scottish Parliament held session for the first time since the formation of the United Kingdom under British tutelage in 1707.

The Labor Party’s Donald Dewar became the First Minister of Scotland, while the Scottish National Party became the main force for the opposition. The Scottish National Party, the mainstay of the Scottish Independence Movement, won a majority of the Scottish parliamentary seats in 2011. It soon produced a decolonization plan contained in a 670 page “white paper.”

Vigorous campaigning and intense political organizing got the referendum through the Scottish Parliament. The British Parliament, experiencing very little political space nationally and internationally, assented to the referendum soon thereafter.

This could mean the end of Scotland’s membership in Britain’s United Kingdom, a political and economic arrangement that extends back to over three centuries. Before then Scotland’s monarchy was subject to frequent English land claims through intermittent military invasions, the taking of bits and pieces of Scottish “war booty” by the English.

The enforced British/Scottish “union” began to crack in 1853 when a group of Scottish (and Irish) leaders petitioned the English Parliament for greater home-rule. What Scotland received was a Secretary for Scotland; a Scottish political position in the English Parliament akin to what Puerto Ricans would recognize as our modern day Resident Commissioner.

Ireland’s home-rule petition ultimately morphed into a War of Independence culminating in the separation of 26 of its southern-most counties forming an independent nation-state with Northern Ireland remaining under the English crown.

If the Scottish National Party were to win the September 18 vote for national independence by a simple majority, for Puerto Ricans it would be an example of a people, the Scottish people, redefining their political relationship to their colonizer through a mass democratic process, after 307 years of being part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, a colonial arrangement invented by the English.

Moreover, if the independence vote loses (polls show that if it does it will be by a small margin), the vote would still be a strong victory for democracy, and will serve as a stepping stone for future political/economic gains.

Puerto Rican history is more complicated than Scotland’s to be sure. With almost 360 years of Spanish colonialism followed by 115 years of United States colonialism resulting in massive cultural and political disorientation; the resolution of Puerto Rico’s political relationship to its most recent colonizer through parliamentary means appears to be far from reach.

What Scotland teaches us however, is that with clear programs and policies, mass political organizing, and an astute understanding of the political structures of society and government, freedom and justice will always remain viable goals.

SEE ALSO: The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico at 61: Closer to statehood?

Zoilo Torres is a field representative for the union, 32BJ SEIU. He was formerly director of organizing and advocacy for the Fifth Avenue Committee for Community Development, and director of public health campaigns for the NYC Department of Health.