Tavish Scott: White paper won’t have all answers

WHERE were you when earth shaking news erupted across the globe? On the 50th anniversary of US president John F Kennedy’s assassination, the impact on people is seared into their memories. Whether the same will apply to the much-hyped Nationalist white paper on independence is open to question.

Alex Salmond. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Alex Salmond. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

On Tuesday, the Scottish Government will produce a phone directory that will answer all the questions on an independent Scotland. I answered all the questions in my school maths exam, but not all my answers were correct.

There is a genuine thirst for information over separating Scotland from the rest of the UK. People do want to know what it would mean. Alex Salmond does not have the answers, neither does Alistair Darling nor the UK government. The shape of an independent Scotland would only be decided by government-to-government negotiations, which would happen if Scotland votes Yes next September.

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Then, and only then, would detailed discussions take place. They would cover the currency to be used, whether England, Wales and Northern Ireland would build warships in a foreign country, the share of North Sea oil and any number of other issues.

There would be an end to all the organisations that operate across the UK. There would be no BBC. There cannot be a British Broadcasting Company if Britain has disappeared. So, a tartan license fee would be needed to fund a SBC.

What would be the currency, the impact on a pension or the license fee? Who knows? Next week Scotland will get a manifesto – not a statement of fact about the nation’s future, but a manifesto of policy positions on areas that are currently determined across the UK. In the past, civil servants did not write manifestos for political parties.

They could help with policy options for government and opposition on areas of devolved responsibility. The areas of policy that the Scotland Act – a law – says is for the Scottish Parliament to legislate and decide upon. But next week takes Scotland into uncharted waters. The neutral civil service has written policy on areas for which it has no legal responsibility.

The independence manifesto will detail defence, social security and foreign policy. Nationalist ministers have been meeting the Syrian government. Maybe next week Scotland will be told what a Nationalist foreign policy towards the Middle East would be. Yet this is not the legal responsibility of Mr Salmond’s government. So how can impartial civil servants write policy for areas on which they have no legal backing? That is political. Governments come and go but civil servants do not. They are meant to ensure the continuity of administration. There is a further irony: white papers are a Westminster parliamentary convention. So, at the moment of making the case for separation from the UK, the SNP is using a London mechanism. Puzzling.

• Tavish Scott is the Liberal Democrat MSP for Shetland