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UK students at W&M await results of Scottish referendum

  • A view of St Andrews
    A view of St Andrews  A W&M student walks along a pier with the skyline of St Andrews visible in the distance. Undergraduates at St Andrews wear a red academic gown for various occasions -- such as "pier walks" -- at the university. The St Andrews William & Mary Joint Degree Programme began in 2011.  Photo courtesy of Graham Bryant, J.D. '16
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Fifty-five percent of voters said "no" in Thursday's referendum, keeping the United Kingdom intact. - Ed.

When William & Mary was established by British royal charter in 1693, Scotland was an independent nation. It wasn’t until 14 years later that the country would merge with England to become the Kingdom of Great Britain.

But that union may soon be coming to an end, depending on the results of a referendum to be held in Scotland Thursday. Many across the world are eagerly awaiting the results of that vote, including students from the United Kingdom at William & Mary this year as part of the St Andrews William & Mary Joint Degree Programme.

One question, two possible answers

One such student, Laura Rutherford ‘17, of Edinburgh, Scotland, was able to secure a proxy vote for the referendum before leaving to begin her first semester at William & Mary last month. There was only one question on the ballot – “Should Scotland be an independent country?” – and just two possible answers: “yes” or “no.”

Her vote: “no.”

“I feel like the U.K. as a whole is much stronger together,” said Rutherford, who is studying international relations. “I just feel like there are so many benefits [to being part of the U.K.], and the risks associated with independence, they would be too much.”

One of those risks, Rutherford said, is the impact of independence on the economy. For instance, it’s unclear what currency Scotland would be able to use as an independent nation, something that would greatly impact its banks – possibly even to the point that some of the larger banks, which also have many English clients, would leave Scotland.

Universities like St Andrews may also be impacted by independence, said Rutherford. Currently, Scottish citizens and students from the European Union are able to attend Scottish colleges for free, but students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland must pay. The Scottish Nationalist Party, which is sponsoring the referendum, has asserted that Scottish institutions would still be able to charge English students to attend, said Rutherford.

“But everything I’ve read said that there’s no justification in that,” she added. “So, if that was the case that they couldn’t charge English students, Scottish universities would lose a lot of funding and maybe lose their reputations and status, so that’s a big factor for me.”

Although she voted “no,” Rutherford understands the concerns of her fellow Scottish citizens who are voting “yes.” According to media reports, those who are voting for independence are doing so for a variety of reasons, including the power to decide how Scotland’s wealth – including that from its North Sea oil reserves – is spent.

Rutherford has heard from her parents back in Edinburgh that the debate there has become heated, even dividing some families and friends.

“I know that a lot of people are very passionate about independence at the moment, particularly because a lot of people feel that we have a conservative government that we didn’t vote for,” she said. “I can see the validity of that, but at the same time I think there are better ways to deal with it than to become completely independent. Further devolution may be a better idea, so transferring more powers to Scotland whilst remaining in the U.K.”

Too close to call

Although many Scottish voters, like Rutherford, may have considered voting for a reduction in Britain’s powers over Scotland, the British government decided to not include that option on the ballot, leaving voters just “yes” and “no” as possible choices. With just those two choices, polls are showing that Thursday’s referendum will be a tight race, with the British press calling the vote “too close to call.”

London native James Renton ‘17, another participant in the joint degree program, said that the English people are shocked by just how close the polls are.

“We’re so surprised by that,” he said. “To us, it seems illogical why they want to become independent, but then again, we benefit from them being part of our union. We would argue, so do they. But they would argue that the ability to decide everything themselves is worth the uncertainty.”

Renton, who is majoring in history, said that Scotland’s past is fascinating. Although the country merged with England in 1707 through the Treaty of Union, “they were always sort of independent in their desire,” Renton said.

Since the treaty was signed, there have been several attempts to regain Scotland’s independence, including the two Jacobite rebellions of the 18th century and a Home Rule bill that was stopped by the start of World War I. In 1997, Scotland voted for increased devolution from Westminster, establishing a new Scottish parliament. The Scottish Nationalist Party took control of that body in 2011, with its leader, Alex Salmond, promising a referendum on Scottish independence.

Although Scotland currently has some independent powers – including control over health care and education – the Scottish people don’t have control over things like Britain’s foreign policy or military. In that way, Scotland’s relationship with England is like a state’s relationship with the federal government in the United States, Renton said.

“But [the Scottish people] want complete independence because they believe – or some of them believe – that they’d either be better off, or the general view is that their views aren’t being portrayed in Westminster or they believe they should have more say in the policies of Westminster," he said, "and one could argue, quite rightly, that maybe they should have more power in parliament."

Because he is studying at William & Mary this semester, Renton won’t be able to vote in the historic referendum on Thursday. However, if he were still at St Andrews this semester, he would be able to. British citizens and European Union citizens living in Scotland will be able to vote on the referendum, as will 16- and 17-year-old Scottish citizens. However, Scottish citizens living abroad are not able to vote.

Those voting rules make the outcome of the referendum even more difficult to predict. However, among Renton’s friends back at St Andrews – Scottish and otherwise – they are all voting “no,” he said. The university there recently held a debate on the topic, with professors and politicians participating. In the end, the audience and participants were polled, and only 18 of the 150 at the event said they were going to vote “yes,” Renton said.

Cast your vote

On Thursday, people at William & Mary will get a chance to cast their own vote in a mock referendum hosted by participants in the joint degree program. The students will have a table in the Sadler Center from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., and they will ask “voters” to put a stone in either a “yes” or “no” bucket.

“It's not so much about getting an accurate vote, but to educate the W&M community that Scotland is making a big decision today that could have a huge impact on other areas (Quebec, Catalonia, etc.),” said Rachel Wiser ‘15, who is in her fourth year of the program. “It’s both our own curiosity of which way W&M would support and an attempt to somewhat educate everyone.”

The final results of the real vote aren’t expected until Friday morning in Scotland, which is five hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. Although they are both an ocean away from home this semester, Renton and Rutherford will be checking social media and news sites as well as communicating with friends in the United Kingdom to find out how the country voted: “yes” or “no.”

“Either way, it’s interesting because the consequences will be fascinating,” said Renton. “We will just watch and see what happens.”