According to the latest polls, the Scottish independence referendum, scheduled to be held on the 18th of September, is too close to call. After a year of campaigning in which it seemed likely that Scotland would remain a part of the United Kingdom, the Scottish National Party (SNP) appears to have finally succeeded in convincing large numbers of undecided voters to support their bid for independence. One way or another, when the estimated 4.3 million registered Scottish voters go to the polls next week, they will be making history; even if Scotland decides not to secede, the three main parties in the United Kingdom have all committed to ensuring constitutional reforms that will see even more power being devolved and transferred from Westminster to Holyrood.

The implications of Scottish independence, for both Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom, are far from clear. While the SNP and its allies have always argued that independence will give the people of Scotland far more control over their own governance, particularly in the areas of taxation and spending, there is considerable ambiguity about the economic consequences of a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum. The SNP’s insistence that Scotland will be able to continue using the Pound after independence has been robustly contested by the Bank of England, as well the Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats. Similarly, the SNP’s argument that Scotland would be able to join the European Union without any difficulty has been disputed by José Manuel Barroso, the president of the EU Commission. The climate of uncertainty that has been created by the prospect of Scottish independence has led to a fall in the value of the Pound, and has also been reflected in a series of leaks, announcements, and warnings suggesting that businesses and banks will probably move out of Scotland if it chooses independence. Rather than freeing itself of the yoke of austerity imposed by successive Labour and Conservative governments, Scotland is likely to find itself in dire economic straits, at least in the short-run, if the referendum succeeds.

The effects of Scottish independence will also be felt in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The separation of Scotland from the rest of the Union will deprive the Labour party of a considerable amount of support, potentially giving rise to a political future in which the Conservatives will be able to dominate the United Kingdom’s electoral politics. While Scotland itself will bear tremendous economic costs if it becomes independent, the rest of the United Kingdom will also suffer and the fragile post-recession recovery of its economy will be endangered. Finally, notwithstanding the long history of the Scottish nationalist cause, a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum will also represent the triumph of forces disaffected with mainstream politics, with an arguably parochial nationalist cause taking the place of a broader critique of the structural problems characterizing contemporary liberal democracy in the West.

However, despite the obvious problems and possible pitfalls associated with the prospect of Scottish independence, it is important to note that the referendum will still take place and that the outcome will be respected by both sides regardless of what it may be. When the SNP was voted into power in 2011 on the basis of its campaign for Scottish independence, its mandate was respected by the British government, which actively worked to overcome the legal and administrative hurdles associated with holding the referendum. The right to self-determination is universally acknowledged as being a fundamental human right, and the democratic process in the United Kingdom has worked to facilitate the wishes of the people of Scotland. This was not always the case; in Ireland, and in its entire colonial empire, the United Kingdom was often loath to concede independence, and there are still elements within the British establishment who are deeply skeptical of Scottish demands for separation. Nonetheless, this referendum and others like it, including the Quebec referendum in 1995, demonstrate how mature democracies can and should respond to the desires and aspirations of their citizens. The will of the people reigns supreme and they are free to choose their own destinies even when the choices they make may not be the right ones.

There is a lot that Pakistan can learn from this exercise in democracy. After almost seven decades in which an exploitative Punjab-dominated establishment has attempted to impose its writ upon the other provinces, often provoking a violent backlash epitomized by the successful Bangladeshi independence movement and the ongoing conflict in Balochistan, it makes sense to take a step back and assess the glaring problems that have been created and perpetuated by the state’s historical approach towards centre-province relations and the place of ethnic identities within the broader fabric of the Pakistani nation. The centralizing tendencies of the establishment, and its constant efforts to impose a national narrative rooted in a narrow-minded and insular interpretation of Islam, have consistently papered over the very real and pressing grievances of the people inhabiting Pakistan’s smaller provinces. Furthermore, every time attempts have been made to articulate the interests and concerns of these citizens, the state has tended to respond with force, unleashing its military might against movements that have only sought to fight for the rights of Pakistan’s marginalized ethnic communities. In the rare instances where concessions have been made to the smaller provinces, as was the case with the 18th Amendment, the promise of such reforms has remained largely unrealized. It is extremely ironic that Pakistan continues to champion Kashmir’s right to self-determination while systematically violating this principle within its own borders.

It is clear that part of the solution to the problems in Balochistan, Sindh, and even KPK lies in granting them more autonomy and devolving more power from the Centre to the provinces. It should also be self-evident that if the people of Southern Punjab, and other parts of Pakistan, wish to have provinces of their own, their demands should be entertained. There is strength to be found in diversity, and Pakistan would benefit from transitioning towards a more inclusive and participatory federation comprised of units bound by the bonds of a civic nationalism that would not be threatened by the presence of different ethnic and religious identities.

If Scotland secedes on the 18th of September, the world will not come to an end, and the United Kingdom will endure. It will obviously have to renegotiate its sense of national identity, and will have to make adjustments to account for its changed economic, political, and social circumstances. Yet, for all the costs associated with Scottish independence, the United Kingdom will at least be able to claim that ultimately, respecting the rights of its erstwhile citizens was of paramount importance. It can only be hoped that one day, Pakistan will be in a position to emulate this example.

    The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.