Nicola McEwen: Partnership after independence

ONE of the striking features of the referendum campaign so far is the extent to which Scottish independence is seen as embedded within the British Isles.
Picture: Phil WilkinsonPicture: Phil Wilkinson
Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Leading figures in government talk of a new partnership with the rest of the UK – one which would be “a partnership of equals”. A partnership of this kind would entail significant cross-Border co-operation, shared institutions and shared arrangements for the delivery of some public services.

From the DVLA to pensions and benefits, a formal currency union to an integrated energy market, a common travel area and shared security arrangements, the signals point towards a significant degree of co-operation in bureaucracy and service delivery.

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In social security, for example, the Scottish Government accepted the recommendations of its expert working group on welfare for an integrated social security bureaucracy for an undefined transitional period after independence. In energy, the recent leaked report confirmed that the Scottish Government wants to maintain a single energy market, including a shared system for subsidising renewables which would continue to see the investment burden socialised across the UK.

The UK government has cast doubt on the feasibility of such arrangements, but there are many examples of other neighbouring countries working together on matters of mutual interest. The Nordic countries share an electricity market, a common labour market and work together on a broad range of policy fields within the Nordic Council of Ministers. The ­Benelux countries – Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg – have long co-operated in an economic union, and in 2012 put into effect a new treaty to co-operate more widely on trans-border policy challenges, including energy and security.

Most telling of all is the co-operation in recent years between the UK and Irish Governments. This has gone beyond the peace process to include setting up a single electricity market across the island of Ireland, a visa waiver scheme for visitors to both countries, and extensive bilateral co-operation across a range of sectors. In 2012, the two governments, building on the evident personal chemistry between the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach, signed a Joint Statement underlining their countries’ close historic and cultural relationship, their shared interest and co-operation in trade and EU relations, and their commitment to “a decade of renewed and strengthened co-operation between our two countries”.

There is no reason, then, to think that an independent Scotland could not develop a new partnership of some kind with the rest of the UK after independence. It would not be a partnership of equals. In spite of their formal equality as independent nation-states, the differences in resources – of economic strength, population, policy capacity, political experience, influence and standing in the world – would bring inequalities back into the intergovernmental relationship. But the two countries would clearly continue to share historic, cultural and trade links, and would face many similar problems, simply by virtue of sharing an island. The legacy of intergovernmental co-operation within the Union should also have instilled the trust and interpersonal links upon which continued co-operation would depend.

So long as there’s a political will on both sides of the border, there’s a way. But it seems a very dependent form of independence, and it is not without ­downsides.

Pre-referendum, it helps the UK government, in particular, to nurture uncertainty about the implications of an independence vote. A new partnership needs a willing partner, and the UK government has – deliberately – cast some doubt about the prospects for intergovernmental collaboration of the kind and degree envisaged.

In addition, it can’t be assumed that the two countries would continue to share the common interests and mutual trust necessary to maintain extensive co-operation. Already since devolution, there has been significant divergence in the policy paths of Scottish and UK governments. And even if interests are shared today, they may be quickly rethought in the face of domestic political or public pressure. «

• Dr Nicola McEwen is ESRC senior Scotland fellow and director of public policy, Academy of Government, University of Edinburgh. This is a launch article from website that goes live this week. It will provide academic analysis on the referendum, event guides, and debate forums, and is backed by the Economic and Social Research Council