Now the SNP have a majority in the Scottish Parliament, Scottish independence is back on the political agenda. But there are five steps along the road to independence, and the Scottish government needs to negotiate each one. The Constitution Unit set these steps out in our book Scottish Independence – A Practical Guide, by Jo Murkens and Peter Jones (Edinburgh Univ Press, 2002).
The first step is that a bill needs to be passed by the Scottish Parliament authorising a referendum. The referendum would ask the people of Scotland to approve the Scottish government entering into negotiations with the British government.
The next step is the referendum itself. Opinion polls have consistently shown support for independence remaining at around 25 to 30 per cent. A vote for the SNP in Scottish elections may or may not translate into a vote for independence come referendum day.
The third step, if the referendum is passed, is negotiations with the British government about the terms of independence. These will include division of the national debt, North Sea oil, the future of the defence bases on the Clyde, Scotland’s membership of the EU. The Czech-Slovak velvet divorce in 1992 required 31 Treaties and over 2000 separate agreements. Their equivalents for Scotland and the UK would take a long time to negotiate. Once concluded they would constitute the terms of independence, on which the people of Scotland deserve a separate vote.
The fourth step would be legislation for a second referendum, asking the people of Scotland to confirm that they want independence on these terms. This referendum can only be authorised by Westminster, because it is not within the competence of the Scottish Parliament unilaterally to declare independence. But in formal terms, the passage of the legislation may not prove too much of a stumbling block. Successive British prime ministers have long recognised the Scottish people’s right to self determination. David Cameron has repeated that he will respect the will of the Scottish people.
The final step is the second referendum, asking the people of Scotland if they want independence on the terms which have been negotiated. The first referendum, if passed, would give the Scottish government authority to demand independence, and compel the UK government to enter into negotiations. The SNP have said a second referendum would not be necessary. But it would give the people of Scotland the opportunity to know the detailed terms of independence before making their final, momentous decision.