What if “Yes”?

Published: 21 May 2014

A majority of Scots are unlikely to vote for independence on 18 September, but what if they do?  In a lecture to the Scottish Constitutional Futures Forum in Glasgow on Tuesday – a lecture subtitled “A view from outwith Scotland” – I tried to answer that question, or at least those aspects of it that relate to politics rather than economics.      

My prediction is that, if the Scots were to vote “Yes” in September, the road to independence would almost certainly be rocky – and the ultimate destination might never be reached. In all his public pronouncements, Alex Salmond gives the impression that the Scottish government, during the negotiations following a “Yes” vote, could count on the UK government’s goodwill. My hunch is that he is wrong and that during those negotiations Scottish ministers would find their UK counterparts very hard bargainers indeed.

The often-quoted 2012 Edinburgh Agreement, signed by Alex Salmond and David Cameron, concludes with fine phrases such as “mutual respect” and to the two governments’ continuing “to work together constructively in the light of the [referendum] outcome”; but they are no more than fine phrases and leave both governments free to negotiate in any manner they choose.

At the very least, it is doubtful whether any final agreement could be reached in time for Scotland’s independence to be declared on 26 March 2016, the First Minister’s current target date. There are far too many questions to be answered, some of them of enormous complexity – such as how to break up the existing UK-wide tax-collection and social-security systems.

There are several reasons for believing that the UK government, whichever party or parties are in power, will prove hard-bargainers. One is that a large majority of English and Welsh voters will almost certainly feel miffed – and possibly very angry – if Scotland seeks to become independent. They will feel deserted and betrayed. UK ministers will be applauded if they bargain toughly with the Scots, condemned if they appear soft.

Another is that, whatever the Edinburgh Agreement may say, the interests of Scotland and the rest of the UK by no means coincide. When the leaders of the three main UK parties say they will not agree to an independent Scotland’s using sterling as its currency, they mean it – not because they are nasty but because they believe a common currency would not be in the best interests of the rest of the UK. Conflicts of interest are bound to lead to conflict.

Yet another is that a Conservative or Conservative-led government following the May 2015 general election will have an obvious electoral interest in bargaining hard. If Scotland pushes off, so much the better for the Tory party – and the tougher the terms of separation, the better. If a Labour or Labour-led government were in power, and if it calculated that Scotland were irretrievably lost to the Union, it would bargain at least as hard.

But there is another, outside possibility. If Labour ministers believed that Scotland might, after all, remain in the Union despite a “Yes” vote in 2014, they might during the negotiations be firm but rather more accommodating – but then insist on the holding of a second referendum in the belief that, offered a more advantageous settlement, the Scots would probably vote against outright independence if given a second chance.

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