Margo MacDonald: Only fools rush into separation

Scottish Labour Leader Iain Gray says it’s not fair that Alex Salmond won’t let him see the advice given by lawyers on the status of Scotland in the EU when, or if, we become independent.

Chancellor George Osborne, although he’d love a peek just as much as Mr Gray, has ditched all the accepted courtesies and process, and is planning to run the independence referendum from London.

Ruth Davidson, the brand new and untested Tory leader in Scotland, hops from one foot to the other on whether London or the Scottish Parliament should rule on the referendum.

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Margaret Curran, the new shadow secretary for Scotland, is also unsure as to the best way to ensure a “no” result.

But both sides of the argument, pro-independence or pro-union, have a common interest in having a referendum free of the taint of having been “fixed” as was the 1979 referendum.

Since the referendum commitment originated from parties in the Scottish Parliament, it’s fitting that it should be undertaken by Holyrood, not Westminster. Also, only people resident in Scotland have the right, recognised by the UN, to vote for their independence. A simple amendment to the Scotland Bill currently going through the House of Commons could clarify this.

Having a second question on the voting paper about more devolved powers is not the responsibility of the Scottish Government. Alex Salmond knows that this is a promise he can’t keep without Westminster’s agreement. Nevertheless, he talked about trying to accommodate other suggestions.

Unionists should organise round their proposal and accept responsibility of putting it to the test in a separate referendum because sovereignty and devolution are not shades of grey – they are black and white.

Personal preferences on specific issues will define whether the ballot paper will be marked “yes” or “no”, whether it’s to be a fresh start or more of the same. Some decisions may be complicated or finely balanced, but it’s insulting to assume our fellow citizens are incapable of reaching the right decision if they are supplied with accurate information.

The quality and breadth of information is of paramount importance in the independence referendum, not the exact timing. Also, given the turmoil in the economy, governments should not have their focus diverted from trying to avoid total collapse. The job at present should be to provide accurate, accessible information.

The current argy-bargy that masquerades as debate over which “experts” on constitutional law can be believed is unhelpful. Academics provide an opinion or interpretation of the laws governing the formation of India and Pakistan, the deconstruction of the former Yugoslavia and the split between Norway and Sweden, for example. Each settlement was different and customised to fit the realpolitik of the countries concerned, just as Scotland’s will be with the remaining UK countries and provinces.

When the Czech Republic and Slovakia negotiated the fair division of their assets, liabilities and border arrangements, for example, it was in the context of the certain enlargement of the EU. The backdrop to our negotiations is the very uncertain nature of the future EU. Scotland’s politicians in all parties haven’t updated their EU policies in relation to a much changed, volatile EU.

We shouldn’t beat ourselves up, though. Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy are still making up their minds. We should use the time before the referendum to investigate not only the likely impact on Scotland of the German/French plans, but whether we might be better served by membership of the European Free Trade Area. Until we can judge the outcome of the political upheaval in the EU, we shouldn’t commit to another relationship that has had its day and to bailing out bankrupt states whose economies are being ruined by German and French determination to federalise the EU.

How much sense does it make for either side in the independence campaign to offer a definitive prospectus, when we don’t know if Westminster will reduce or enlarge the UK deficit, which has a direct relevance to employment and growth in Scotland?

These are difficult questions for Scots with emotional attachments to the social union. The pro-independence campaign will have to provide lots of examples of how an independent Scotland would be free to adopt and customise its economic policies to suit its resources and potential, whilst retaining existing family, voluntary and academic co-operation, for example.

Alex Salmond promised a referendum on Scottish independence in the second half of this parliament. The uncertainty surrounding the UK’s economic prospects now necessitates that sort of time-frame. The referendum vote will be perhaps the most important decision taken by Scots, but for the next couple of years – at least – the Scottish Government must not be diverted from protecting Scotland, as far as devolution allows, from the combined impact of recession and in the EU, with what could be a cataclysmic American election to come.