Negotiations after a yes-vote in the referendum will be tortuous, so let’s get on with it, says Jim Gallagher
So WE finally know the referendum question. It’s taken the best part of two years since the SNP were elected with a majority at Holyrood, on a referendum ticket, to get this far. We’ve moved from the frankly ludicrous “Do you agree that the powers of the Scottish Parliament should also be extended to enable independence to be achieved?”, through the mildly leading “Do you agree Scotland should be an independent country?”, to the reasonable “Should Scotland be an independent country?”.
Why has it taken so long? Well, to put it mildly, the Scottish Government have been in no rush. Nothing at all happened on the referendum until last January, when the UK Government offered to clear away the legal obstacles and give the Scottish Parliament the power to legislate for an independence referendum. This led the Scottish Government to launch a three-month consultation in which the only real issue of substance was whether the referendum should include devo-max as well as independence. That wasn’t on offer from the UK, but it then took another four months for them to conclude that they wouldn’t press for it. Once the deal was done last October, it took only a matter of weeks for the Electoral Commission to test the wording of a single question, give us the formulation that will now be asked, and set the spending limits.
The Commission also said something interesting about helping the voters understand the consequences of a Yes vote. What would happen afterwards and would the two governments please agree how the process of separation would work if that’s what the voters chose? This is difficult stuff. The governments both ruled out the suggestion made by some academics that there should be two referendums – one, in principle, to authorise negotiations and a second to vote on whatever deal had been negotiated. Logical maybe, but never politically realistic from the point of view of either government. But, in the absence of a vote, neither government has a mandate to negotiate the terms of independence. Negotiations will happen if, and only if, there is a Yes vote. In a forthcoming book, Scotland’s Choices, I explore with colleagues what this would mean in practice. The list of issues is formidably long – economic issues like the currency and the national debt would dominate, but defence could be highly contentious. Disentangling the institutions of the British state, everything from the armed forces to tax collection and benefit payments, would be a huge undertaking. Transitional arrangements would have to be agreed to ensure that there was continuity of public services in Scotland and the deal would probably have to allow them to continue for a period after independence. International issues such as EU or Nato membership would require multinational and not just bilateral negotiation.
The outcome of negotiation can’t be predicted, as there will be complex trade-offs. On most issues, the new Scottish state would be looking for goodwill and co-operation, and in a weak negotiating position, but on some it would have leverage.
So what can be said at this stage, and could the two governments agree anything at all? They can make some things clear. First, if there is a Yes vote there will be at least three sets of negotiations. The first, hardest and most important will be between the emerging new Scottish state and the UK. Only the devolved Scottish Government could in practice lead for Scotland. They do not formally have the legal powers needed, but the UK could make an order in the UK parliament to transfer powers and avoid any legal risks.
It will be up the Scottish Government to propose how, as they have suggested, a broadly-based Scottish negotiating team could be assembled. The UK government would negotiate for the continuing UK state, but would be obliged to look after the interests of England, Wales and Northern Ireland only. That could come as a rude shock. Scotland’s interests wouldn’t be their problem. There would be parallel negotiations with international organisations, notably the EU, on the terms of potential Scottish membership. The practical reality is that the UK, as the existing member state, would sit at those tables also. The different negotiations will interact with one another – for example, the terms of EU membership would involve a position on membership of the Euro, a critical factor in whether a sterling currency union could be negotiated with the UK. So each can only be concluded in the light of the other. The task is daunting.
Without an extraordinary upping of the glacial pace seen so far, it seems highly unlikely that this work could be done by the 2016 date suggested by the Scottish Government. Given that Scotland will be a small, new state without many strong cards in its hand, setting a deadline might not be in its interest. But the process can not run forever, and the UK Government won’t let it.
So shouldn’t we be getting ahead? The referendum rules are now basically fixed. The Electoral Commission has sorted out the question wording, the length of the regulated campaign and the spending limits. Some details of the franchise still need to be set in the Holyrood legislation, and the administrative arrangements made – but we are good to go. All we need is a date.
Given how much would have to be done after a Yes vote, need we wait for the best part of yet another two years? The Scottish Government say they won’t set out their case for independence in a white paper for another nine months. Even if the 16-week campaign period can not start till then, we could still have a referendum in the spring. Why delay further?
• Scotland’s Choices, by Iain McLean, Guy Lodge and Jim Gallagher will be published by EUP in March