THE UK Parliament will vote this week on legislation which, if approved, will allow the Scottish Government to hold a legal, fair and decisive referendum on independence by the end of 2014.
Getting that approved will let Scots move on to debate the real issues that will determine whether they vote to stay within the UK family or leave it forever.
Many of the big issues are already being discussed: the effect independence would have on Scotland’s economy; what armed forces would be affordable and desirable; and the uncertain terms on which an independent Scotland would seek to become a member of the EU, Nato and other international organisations.
But we need the “great debate” to flush out all the issues. Over the next few weeks and months, the UK Government will start publishing a series of papers that look at Scotland’s position in the UK today and make clear the choices that would face all of us as Scots if the UK family were to break up. This will be a serious body of work to inform the public debate.
But what this work will not do is open up negotiations or set out a contingency plan for independence. The UK Government works for the whole of the UK, including Scotland, and we are deeply committed to the United Kingdom. I and my ministerial colleagues represent the whole of the UK; we cannot – and should not – negotiate or plan in the interests of only one part of it.
Our proposition is that all our interests are best served by sticking together. We believe the break-up of the UK would be deeply harmful to people in all our nations. To start planning now for a United Kingdom without Scotland in it would not only be a betrayal of our duty to Scotland, it would also start to unpick the fabric of the United Kingdom that is so fundamental to us all. It is not for us to map out a vision for the separation of our nations.
The clash here is not between two visions of independence, but rather the SNP’s wish for separation and our commitment to a secure United Kingdom.
In any split, the hard decision to leave happens before the difficult work of dividing up assets and debts. I hope and believe that Scots will choose to keep the UK family together, not split it apart. But if I am wrong, and Scots vote to leave the United Kingdom, only then will negotiations between Scotland and the rest of the UK begin.
Scotland’s two governments agree that this is right. As the Scottish Government has said, if people vote to leave the UK both sides will need to take stock after the result, prepare for negotiations and then come to those talks ready to argue for their interests.
As the Edinburgh Agreement set out, both governments are committed to continuing to work together constructively, whatever the outcome. But working constructively does not mean that the remainder of the UK family would or could facilitate everything the Scottish Government proposes. If people in Scotland choose to go it alone, those representing Scotland will make their case. Similarly, the UK Government would then have to prioritise the interests of the people it represents in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – and agreement could only be reached on that basis.
That means on referendum day the terms of the settlement for an independent Scotland will not be known, nor will they be known the day after.
Both sides of the negotiations would want to take the time needed to get things right for the people they represent. Constructive engagement would take place, but the interests of both sides would not be the same.
So while the SNP has an obligation to set out the detail of what it envisages for an independent Scotland, this is within the equally clear context that the final shape of any settlement could only be reached by negotiation.
The UK Government has so far done its bit to remove as much uncertainty as possible by ensuring that there can be a legal, fair and decisive referendum. We will continue to remove other uncertainties by setting out the facts and analysis about what Scotland gains from being part of the UK. But uncertainty about what an independent Scotland will be like will remain and cannot be wished away.
A vote to keep our family of nations united will remove that uncertainty and ensure that we continue to be safer and stronger together.
• Michael Moore MP is Secretary of State for Scotland