As the Scottish independence referendum draws closer the outcome is hard to predict. Both Westminster politicians and the wider public are asking what – in practical terms – would happen if the Scots were to vote Yes. Robert Hazell offers a 10-point overview of what the road to independence might look like.
1. Scotland will not immediately become independent. On the SNP’s proposed timetable, it would take 18 months for Scotland to achieve independence, in March 2016, just in time for the next elections to the Scottish Parliament in May 2016. In that 18 month period there will need to be intensive negotiations on all the issues listed in point 5 below, and more.
2. This 18 month timetable ignores two potential difficulties. The first is the UK general election in May 2015. That will require a pause in the negotiations of at least two months while the UK team of negotiators campaign in the Westminster election. A change of government in the UK will result in new negotiating teams, who will need time to get up to speed.
3. The second difficulty is the need for legislation. There might be a need for paving legislation at the start of the negotiations. Legislation will also be needed at the conclusion to grant Scotland independence on the terms which have been agreed. On many issues Alex Salmond wants a partnership or sharing arrangement with the UK (sterling being the most notable example). That will need to be given effect in legislation, along with the division of all the main assets and liabilities of the UK state. The legislation will be big and complex, and some of it will be controversial. There may need to be several bills rather than one omnibus bill. The legislation is likely to take a year or more to be passed by Westminster. For comparison, the Scotland Act 1998 took 11 months to pass, but in very favourable circumstances and with a huge government majority.
4. It will be debilitating for the UK government as well as the Scottish government to allow the negotiations to drag on. But even with good faith and all due speed on both sides it is likely to take at least 30-36 months before Scotland becomes independent. A more realistic timetable might be as follows:
Main issues in the negotiations
5. The big issues have all surfaced in the referendum campaign:
- Scotland’s currency: the pound backed by the Bank of England; the pound but without support from the Bank of England (‘sterlingisation’); the euro; or an independent currency?
- Scotland’s membership of the EU, NATO and other international organisations: will the UK support swift accession by Scotland to all these bodies?
- Division of the national debt: likely to be on a per capita basis
- Division of North Sea oil: divided by extending the English/Scottish border out into the North Sea, giving Scotland roughly 90 per cent of known reserves
- Defence, and the future of the nuclear submarine bases on the Clyde. In the short term there is likely to be a leasing arrangement, enabling the UK to retain the bases for 10-20 years.
6. But there will be myriad of other issues, covering every government department, from macro-economic management, taxation and financial regulation to foreign policy, defence and national security, immigration, policing, transport, health, environment, agriculture, fisheries, education, research, welfare and social security, public sector pensions … the list is enormous. When Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia it required 30 Treaties and some 2000 legal agreements to give effect to the separation, and they were still negotiating about some issues ten years later. At the start of the negotiations the two teams will need to agree which issues need to be decided before Scotland becomes independent, and which can be left until later. They will also need to decide in what order to discuss the main issues, and to draw up a timetabled agenda.
How will the negotiations be conducted?
7. There will need to be sectoral negotiating teams covering each subject area: finance, defence, foreign policy etc. These will be similar to the ministerial and official teams which the UK sends to negotiate on different policies in Brussels. Each team will be led by a Minister, and there will need to be a ‘top team’ of ministers co-ordinating the whole and driving the negotiations forward. The UK team and the Scottish team will report back to their respective Cabinets, and there will need to be regular reports to both parliaments. Because of this regular reporting, the negotiations will not be kept secret for long. There will be intense interest from the markets in certain issues, for example Scotland’s future currency, and those issues may need to be negotiated first.
8. There are many political complications surrounding the negotiations. The first is the political mood in the rest of the UK, which may influence whether the negotiations are conducted in a spirit of good will and generosity, or bitterness and anger. How will the rest of the UK, particularly England, react to Scotland’s decision to break up the Union? They may go through the classic feelings experienced by some couples going through divorce: hurt, rejection, bitterness, anger and mean spiritedness. If that mean-spiritedness finds political expression, it may put pressure on the UK negotiators to drive a hard bargain with Scotland. And the question of whether to be mean or generous towards Scotland may become an issue in the UK general election, with UKIP the most likely contender as an English nationalist party.
9. The second political difficulty faces the Labour party. In the current Parliament Labour have 41 Scottish MPs. If there is a hung parliament in 2015 and they have similar numbers of Scottish MPs, they will depend on those MPs to form a government. But the Scottish MPs will depart when Scotland becomes independent: half way through the Parliament, on the timetable sketched out above. If the government then ceases to command confidence in the House of Commons, an alternative government must be formed within 14 days, or fresh elections held.
10. A third political difficulty concerns the status of Scottish MPs in the Westminster Parliament. Can MPs representing Scottish seats be part of the UK’s negotiating team? For example, can Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, be a leading member of the finance team? And when the independence legislation is going through the Westminster Parliament, should Scottish MPs be allowed to vote on the legislation? Those are issues which must be resolved early on, in a paving bill or resolution of the House of Commons.
Robert Hazell is Professor of British Politics and Government & Director of the Constitution Unit.