Supporters of Scottish independence have relied on the strategy of portraying secession as something wholly advantageous and with no negative consequences. Nationalists know that there are lots of things that the Scottish people like about being in the UK. They attempt to argue therefore, that these things would continue after separation. They even try to prevent opponents using words like “secession” and “separation”, because such words are negative. In arguing against independence unionists naturally try to point out the positive benefits of Scotland being a part of the UK. But when we attempt to point out that some of these benefits might cease if Scotland became independent, we are accused of “scaremongering”. Nationalists thus try to shut down debate, by making any criticism of their position somehow illegitimate. We are accused of being negative about Scotland and unpatriotic, because we disagree about the desirability of independence. In fact, the reverse is the case. If the unionist position is true that independence would be damaging to Scotland, the patriotic thing to do is to point out this truth to the Scottish people. It is therefore very welcome that the UK Government is putting forward its view on the consequences of independence so that Scots may have a better idea of the choice which faces us.
The paper “Scotland analysis: devolution and the implications of independence” should be read in full by everyone who is concerned about the independence debate. It must be taken seriously by all Scots, whether supporters or opponents of independence. It is based on the opinion of two leading academics, but more importantly, it expresses the view of the UK Government. In the event of a vote for independence, it would therefore form the basis of the UK Government’s negotiating position, both in relation to the prospective new Scottish state and in relation to the international world.
Of course, it is possible to take a different view of what would happen in the event of independence. Law is complex and eminent professors could, no doubt, be found who would put forward a different view. But this is actually, rather beside the point. If the UK Government states that this is its view, the likelihood is that it would prevail. This is so for a number of reasons. International law is partly a matter of argument and learned debate, but it is also a matter of power and influence. In the event of independence, the UK Government would have full diplomatic relations with the rest of the world, while Scotland would have none. More importantly, perhaps, the UK Government’s view would gain a sympathetic hearing from allies with whom it would have influence based on a long history of friendly relations. Even those countries who are less friendly to the UK would be liable to support the UK’s position as it tends to discourage secession.
Each of the other permanent members of the Security Council has a history of opposing secession as indeed do most countries. Many countries indeed are willing to fight to maintain the territorial integrity of their state. China would under no circumstances allow Taiwan or Tibet to declare formal independence, whatever the wishes of the people in those places. Likewise, Russia fought a war to prevent the secession of Chechnya. The United States fought a war to prevent the secession of the Confederacy. France fought to prevent the secession of Algeria and would not allow Corsican independence no matter how many Corsicans wanted it. The UK is unusual therefore, in expressing the view that any part of the UK can secede if the majority living there vote for it. This of course does not mean that the UK Government wants to see the breakup of Britain. Nor indeed would other states who would see Scottish independence as encouraging their own secession movements. This means that when the UK expresses a view on the consequences of Scottish independence, which would tend to discourage secession elsewhere, the likelihood is that this view would have a sympathetic hearing internationally and therefore would prevail.
The opinion put forward by the UK Government about the prospects of independence, need not discourage those who are committed to independence come what may. Scottish independence is clearly possible and the UK Government is committed to facilitating the creation of a new Scottish state if most Scots wish this. To facilitate however, does not mean giving in, nor does it mean giving the SNP everything that they want. The strategy of the nationalists, who would like to convince the Scottish people that life would go on much the same after independence, must now be seen as wishful thinking.
The essence of the paper is that in the event of independence, Scotland would be a brand new state, while the rest of the UK (rUK), would continue. What this means in practice is that Scotland would have to seek membership of every international body which it wanted to join, such as the EU, NATO and the UN. Some of these could be joined without difficulty. Joining the EU however, would be much more complex. It would depend on negotiations and the unanimous support of those countries who were already in the EU. One of those would be rUK. Another would be Spain fighting against secession in Catalonia.
The consequences of Scotland being a new state would have the most profound consequences with regard to our relations with rUK. There would be an international border between Scotland and England and there is no guarantee that the Common Travel Area would continue. Shared UK facilities such as the Bank of England would belong to rUK and Scotland could not maintain monetary union with rUK unless rUK considered it to be in its own interest. While negotiating the divorce settlement with Scotland, rUK would no doubt try to negotiate as a friendly neighbour, but both sides would clearly try to get the best deal possible for their own people. Neither side would be committed to doing anything contrary to its own self-interest. Some nationalists have attempted to argue that something that they want, such as retaining the pound, would be in rUK’s interest. It may turn out that this is so. But these would be matters for negotiation and the SNP can not expect to be allowed to determine what is in the interest of rUK. That would be a matter for rUK to determine.
The fact that Scotland would be a brand new state has been taken by some nationalists to mean that we would have no debts. This just shows that they have not read the paper very carefully, which clearly states “there would be an expectation that an independent Scottish state would take on an equitable share of the UK’s national debt.” (p. 57) But let’s imagine what would happen if the Scottish Government decided to dispute this matter. Imagine if the First minister went into negotiations saying “I want to retain the pound, I want to use the facilities of the Bank of England, I want your help in joining the EU and other international bodies, I want an open border and the right of Scots to live and work in rUK, but I’m not taking any share of the debt that we jointly incurred.” The rUK negotiators could simply reply “then you’re not getting any of the things you want”.
What the paper shows is that the things that the SNP have been putting forward as certain to continue post independence are all subject to negotiation. It may well be the case that we would retain the pound, that the border would remain open, that we would have the same rights in rUK as we do now, but none of these things is certain. We have to wait for the divorce settlement and that can only occur after the referendum when we will decide whether we want to divorce. This settlement would largely be determined by rUK, because as the state which would remain and having centuries of diplomatic influence, it would be able to present its wishes on the world stage, while Scotland could not. Scotland would be the supplicant in negotiations with a list of wishes, while rUK would have little that it wanted from newly independent Scotland. It’s obvious whose position would be stronger. None of this, of course, makes independence impossible or even undesirable to those who will always be deeply committed to separation, but everyone else in Scotland should read the paper and be at least aware of the implications of independence.