Jim Gallagher: Ambitious transition sees Salmond stray into fantasy

THOSE promoting independence have to be ambitious, even visionary. But they have to be careful not to stumble into the land of fantasy.

Sadly for the quality of our constitutional debate, that’s where some of the Scottish Government’s latest “transition plan” on independence is firmly lodged.

It’s a very slight paper – only 16 pages – and looks like it was rushed out in reaction to Electoral Commission recommendations. Someone in St Andrews House must have been to the pictures recently, as that great enemy of secession, Lincoln, gets quoted.

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Still there are some perfectly sensible points. Of course, an independent Scotland would draft and ratify a new, written constitution. Every new country does. We could hardly continue with an unwritten Westminster constitution.

The Scottish Government repeats the welcome idea that an independence negotiating team would be broadly based. Nation-building for real, rather than in fantasy, would need to be inclusive as possible. It would be good to know exactly how, after what will surely have been a bruising campaign, the SNP would reach out to opponents and work with them for the good of the whole nation. Where the paper parts company with reality is the timetable. The Scottish government says independence negotiations would be completed in 18 months. If that sounds a long time, remember it has taken more than 17 months for the SNP to agree the five words of a referendum question. The negotiating list is formidable. With the UK: the currency, splitting the national debt, breaking up the armed forces, deciding what to do with Trident, dividing the resources of other UK institutions like the BBC, HMRC, DWP, and agreeing transitional arrangements so that services like pensions and tax collection are not disrupted, and a thousand others.

With the EU: to secure membership, on whatever conditions can be negotiated, including not just housekeeping like how many MEPs, but difficult policy questions like Schengen and the euro. That deal has to be ratified by all the member states. Some are constitutionally obliged to have referendums of their own on the treaty changes.

Then a deal with Nato, over membership – again, Trident – and other less critical international bodies like the Council of Europe.

None of this is impossible. But what is surely impossible is doing it all in less time than the Scottish Government are
 taking to reorganise the police service. Look how well that is going.

• Jim Gallagher is a fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford, visiting professor at the School of Law at Glasgow University and former head of the Scottish Justice Department.