Peter Jones: Salmond must heed global view

Other countries with a vested interest may yet have a say in the shape an independent Scotland would take, writes Peter Jones
Alex Salmond may find it hard to push through his objectives once others have their say. Picture: Phil WilkinsonAlex Salmond may find it hard to push through his objectives once others have their say. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Alex Salmond may find it hard to push through his objectives once others have their say. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

It’s a big day today – publication of the independence white paper on which all Scots will get to vote in slightly less than ten months. But not the English, Welsh and Northern Irish, or the Scots who don’t live here, which is a sore point with some. But, actually, if there is a Yes vote, then they may indeed get to vote on what Alex Salmond wants to achieve, which could seriously mess up his plans.

The paper will set out a lot of things that the Scottish Government wants to get but are not in Mr Salmond’s gift – they will have to be negotiated. And international negotiations, as we have just seen in the talks over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, are complex affairs, the outcomes of which are not wholly predictable and not everybody gets what they want.

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The Iran deal, announced in the small hours of Saturday morning, was not expected, nor was it thought likely a few months ago. There were some pretty entrenched positions – the United States, egged on by the powerful Israeli lobby, wanted a complete halt to, and verified dismantling of, Iran’s nuclear programme.

Iran wanted to be able to continue to develop a nuclear energy industry, which the rest of the world thought was a cover for developing nuclear weapons. So there was substantial world support for economic sanctions, principally on the sale of Iran’s oil production.

This cut Iran’s foreign earnings by between a third and a half. Restrictions on Iran’s ability to repatriate those reduced foreign earnings were hurting its economy more than its government was willing to admit. Basically, any Iranian business that previously exported became dependent on the domestic market for custom, so reducing business volumes and causing recession and rising unemployment. Reduced ability to import because of the lack of means to pay was also causing rocketing inflation. The previous government, under president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, dealt with this (or rather didn’t) by ratcheting up aggressive rhetoric, but the new regime under president Hassan Rouhani, clearly decided something had to be done to break a stranglehold. That something was done, and that the US was the prime mover, is remarkable. There have been no formal links between the US and Iran since the 1979 Iranian revolution deposed the shah and the US political ties with Israel were, and still are, a powerful brake on US-Iran dealings.

The Israeli view was that the world just had to keep its foot on Iran’s throat and, faced with a none too thinly-veiled military threat, Iran would cave in. Rather unexpectedly, the US seems to have decided that overall stability in the Middle East is its best strategic aim and the way to create that is by not creating more instability.

So now there is a kind of six months paving agreement during which time Iran will get rid of its existing weapons-grade uranium, stop making any more, agree to intrusive inspections and in return it gets a lifting of sanctions worth about $7 billion (£4bn), which should loosen the economic straitjacket, and is meantime allowed to keep its non-weapons nuclear industry.

Repudiated, Israel thinks this is a massive mistake and its energetic lobbying may yet derail the deal in the US Congress where there are too many politicians more interested in kicking President Barack Obama than in securing world stability.

All right, so what does this have to do with Scottish independence? As with many things, partisans on either side of the debate can point to things which prove their case. Nationalists could claim that here was a relatively small country – Iran – which had the whole world against it and yet it got a lot of what it wanted by giving up something it said it wasn’t doing anyway.

Unionists could respond that here was an international problem that is on its way to being resolved by ignoring the wishes of a small country – Israel – which has an acute interest in the issue and which evidently feels the threat to it has just escalated.

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My, non-partisan, view is that actually it demonstrates the unpredictability of these sort of negotiations and that the major players will look for deals which secure their own interests first and those of other actors are a secondary consideration. It means, assuming a Yes vote, that neither the Scottish nor the UK government will end up with what they expect.

The prospect of Scotland breaking out of the union with England, Wales, and Northern Ireland may not exactly be a threat to global stability, but it is nonetheless an international issue of considerable interest, certainly to European political players and further afield, too.

We know broadly what Mr Salmond expects independence will deliver, which will have an impact internationally – Scottish membership of the European Union, non-nuclear independent membership of Nato, and Scottish sharing of the pound inside a UK sterling zone.

We also know a bit about what the UK government’s attitude to these expectations is. What we don’t know is how other countries, who have levers in this debate, regard it. We might expect that France, for example, which has an equivocal relationship with Britain, or les Anglo-Saxons, might cheerfully help push through Scottish EU membership. But what if it regards the upheaval of having to remove Trident submarines from Scotland as an unacceptable dilution of European, and hence French, security?

On the other side of the debate, Germany has an acute interest in European financial stability. What if it decides that a shared sterling zone is the best guarantee of British financial stability and uses its clout in the EU, say by agreeing certain EU powers should be repatriated to assist David Cameron’s EU referendum, to achieve that?

You can posit all sorts of “what ifs”, but one thing is certain – the UK will hold a general election in May 2015 in which, if there has been a Yes vote, the terms of Scottish independence will be, perhaps the, big issue. And why would politicians south of the Border campaign to be generous to Scotland? No, with lots of “tough but fair” rhetoric, they would be out-bidding each other to be seen as “standing up for England/Wales”, ie, being as mean as possible to Scotland.

Other interests, such as the EU, would prevent too much meanness, but the point remains – little of what Mr Salmond publishes today can be guaranteed as he might end up, thanks to truculent voters in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, negotiating with an extremely hostile UK government.