The UK signalled this week that it was about to unilaterally pull out of parts of a major international treaty with its nearest neighbour, regardless of the costs of doing so. One of those costs will surely be damage to the reputation that is critical for upholding other international agreements and in the price that may be extracted by opposite partners in future deals and treaties knowing that the UK is willing to break from them when it suits.
I’m talking, of course, about the recent announcement that the UK will try to unilaterally rewrite the Northern Ireland Protocol which dictates how the EU interacts with the UK across their mutual land border. The Brexit agreement was always going to come to some kind of impasse like this. The UK’s own self-written “red lines” made this clear even back in 2018 when they were first announced.
In short, the UK demanded three things of the Brexit Agreement:
1) England was to leave the Single Market and Customs Union (thus creating a customs border between England and the EU).
2) Northern Ireland was to remain within the Single Market and Customs Union (thus no customs border between NI and Ireland).
3) Northern Ireland had to get the same Brexit deal as England (thus no customs border between NI and England).
There was never any way of achieving all three of these simultaneously (and, incidentally, the reason I didn’t mention Scotland and Wales above is that from a UK perspective they don’t really matter and can be safely ignored – this was doubly the case in 2017-2019 when the 13 Scottish Tory MPs’ loyalty ironically meant that they mattered to the Government a lot less than the 10 DUP MPs who signed a cooperation agreement to support Theresa May’s minority Government). The way to keep NI and Ireland border-free (an overriding priority on both sides) was to guarantee red-line 2). That meant that either England could stay in the Single Market or it could create a border in the Irish sea. England wanted to do neither.
But, when push came to shove (and “shove” meant Boris Johnson ramming through a leadership contest and the 2019 General Election on the promised to “Get Brexit Done”) then it meant choosing to drop option 3) and erecting a border in the Irish Sea. This, of course, meant selling out those DUP MPs who held up the previous government but, now that Johnson had regained a Tory majority – they didn’t matter now and, like Scotland and Wales, could once again be safely ignored. Party loyalty would do the rest – ensuring that the Brexit Deal would pass the commons regardless of whether or not those voting for it had understood or even read it and people who were promised by politicians that there would be no customs paperwork involved in moving goods from one part of the UK to another ended up being surprised by how much paperwork would become involved.
Scotland should be watching how this potential trade war plays out because we will inevitably be in a very similar situation when it comes to our own independence. The Anglo-Scottish land border and how trade moves across it is likely to be one of the most pressing and fraught negotiating points of our eventual separation agreement – though, of course, Common Weal has already published a policy paper covering much of the ground work that needs to be done here – and Scotland will end up looking like a very different country depending on whether we decide to align our trade more with a British Customs Union, with the European Union or stay unaligned to both. I’m not going to use this article to advocate for any of those options right now though I would say that we almost certainly lack the data required to make an informed choice.
When whoever forms “Team Scotland” and sits across the table from the representatives of the remaining UK to negotiate our departure we need to consider that the UK is not a state that keeps its word when it comes to agreements like this. This simply fact should underpin the strategy that Scotland employs when it goes in and lays out its negotiating position.
I’ve written about the process of negotiating the separation of debts and assets. It formed one of my earliest papers for Common Weal. It was a keystone topic in the Scottish Independence Convention’s Transitions series and most recently I have posted an extended cut of that SIC paper to this blog. Those papers and the background material behind them are vital reading when it comes to understanding how these negotiations have taken place in other countries that have made the leap to independence.
In 2014 and up till now, we have approached the negotiations with a kind of implicit understanding that the UK was a reliable actor and would keep its promises. We could happily take on a portion of UK debt and exchange for a fair exchange of UK assets. We could share public services for a while and let the rUK continue to manage aspects of the Scottish civil service post-independence until our own departments were up and running. We could grant rUK our entire foreign aid budget and let them spend it on our behalf so that the beneficiaries wouldn’t be put out by our departure – the UK wouldn’t allow that funding to be misused for political projects after all.
One thing that comes through strongly in the historical precedents with these separation negotiations is that the more one party asks from or of the other party, the harder it is to achieve and the higher the price that has to be paid for the compromise. This must go double if a compromise is reached and paid for but then the other party reneges on the deal.
We’ve shown that what Scotland actually needs from rUK is comparatively slight. Our “population share” of the UK’s overall debt might total something in the region of £160 billion but the total identifiable assets that Scotland might need from rUK might only come to around £50 billion or even less – and most of that is military equipment that could be loaned or bought from elsewhere either in a pinch or if we decided that Scotland’s military needs didn’t suit what the UK had to offer (A Scotland that signed TPNW would certainly have no need for our “share” of the UK’s nuclear weapons of mass civilian slaughter, for instance).
The best way to secure Scotland’s independence in a way that both ensures that we get what we need from rUK and doesn’t leave us vulnerable to them unilaterally changing the deal at a future date is to avoid, as much as possible, giving them anything they can change. This “Zero Option” negotiating stance means using the time between the independence referendum and actual Independence Day to build up all of the civil infrastructure we need to run a nation-state and thus avoiding having to “share” or buy in civil services from rUK. It also means launching a Scottish currency as soon as possible so as to avoid being beholden either to a formal currency union or to the limits of Sterlingisation and having to plead for UK decisions on currency to not impact Scotland too much. This also means not accepting any share of UK debt that isn’t backed by an equivalent share of assets (effectively “mortgaging” the assets we need against that debt) and avoiding anything like the SNP’s current policy of an “Annual Solidarity Payment” that would see perpetual payments made to the UK without being linked to any debt that could be “paid off”. Finally, it means minimising the quantity of assets we require from the UK in the first place. As said above, many of the assets that Scotland could think about acquiring might be unfit for purpose (like big ticket military equipment like the nukes or aircraft carriers), may be near the end of their operational lifespan (like most of the rest of the navy) or may not suit the kinds of policies that Scotland might wish to introduce (the UK Government said that it couldn’t introduce a hardship payment to people because of IT issues – if true, Scotland should want to avoid inheriting the UK’s obviously broken tax IT systems).
This stance doesn’t mean total isolationism. I have no problems with Scottish and rUK collaborating on issues of common interest – indeed, I encourage it – but these collaborations must be undertaken on the basis of two equal nations working in partnership. Not as one being dragged along by the other because they control the civil servants or Scotland being hung out to dry because the UK decided once again to alter the deal.
The UK has often acted as if it was still the Imperial Majesty on the world stage and has often been accorded a level of respect and benefit of the doubt by its counterparts that it either has not valued or has actively taken advantage of. Scotland, as we enter that stage with our own voice, must be wary of making the same mistake.
“When two people decide to get a divorce, it isn’t a sign that they ‘don’t understand’ one another, but a sign that they have, at last, begun to.” – Helen Rowland
This article is an expanded version of a paper I wrote for the Scottish Independence Convention in 2021. You can read the original here but this version runs to almost twice the length and includes historical case studies of separations between countries.
Parting Ways – How Scotland and the remaining UK could negotiate the separation of debts and assets.
The negotiations around Brexit – and whether they are deemed to be a success or a failure – will no doubt raise once again arguments around how Scotland and the remaining United Kingdom (henceforth “the rUK”) will negotiate their mutual separation should Scotland choose to become an independent country in the near future. Opponents of independence already raise concerns about the potential for those negotiations to be fraught, bitter or too complex to deal with in a timely manner. Unlike the Treaty on European Union, the UK Constitution does not have an equivalent of the “Article 50” within its Treaty of Union and therefore does not have a codified mechanism to provide for Scotland to unilaterally withdraw from the Union (although it does not prohibit such an action either) and nor does it provide a structure for separation negotiations to take place such as giving an explicit trigger to begin negotiations or an explicit time limit within which to conclude them. In some ways, this is to Scotland’s advantage as the Brexit process’s two year time period for negotiations inevitably resulted in higher pressure to conclude the negotiations rapidly rather than well. However, the UK also enjoyed the ability – largely foregone – to simply not trigger Article 50 and start that countdown until a time of its choosing which, had it taken advantage of this, would have allowed the UK to prepare its own negotiating positions ahead of time rather than finding itself at the negotiating table without a clear idea of what Brexit meant.
After an independence referendum or similar democratic event, Scotland will be under immense pressure to begin negotiations almost immediately – the 2014 Scotland’s Future White Paper envisaged those negotiations beginning the week following the referendum – and so it is imperative that Scotland is fully aware of its own rights, responsibilities and asks before these negotiations begin. Scotland must also take the time now, well before a decision to become independent takes place, to plan and prepare so that it does not find itself repeating the mistakes of Brexit and being forced into a disadvantageous deal due to a lack of understanding of what it wanted and what it already had.
This paper is largely an update of my 2016 paper for Common Weal, Claiming Scotland’s Assets, and shall explain the principles of one aspect of those negotiations – the division of debts and assets between separating states – along with a choice of strategies that Scotland could hypothetically deploy as it negotiates its independence.
Did you hear about the latest story in Scottish land reform policy and the Scottish Government’s programme to restore peatlands as part of our Net Zero transition? You’d be forgiven if you didn’t. There hasn’t been much said about it in the Scottish or even in the UK media (at least until the last day or two). The American press, however, has been different. This week, the New York Times published a long-form study of what has been happening in Scotland’s peatlands lately and while I must encourage all of you to look it I must also warn that it doesn’t make for the happiest read.
“Take a census of all the congregation of the sons of Israel, by their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, every male, head by head from twenty years old and upward, whoever is able to go out to war in Israel, you and Aaron shall number them by their armies. With you, moreover, there shall be a man of each tribe, each one head of his father’s household.” – The Bible, Numbers, 1, 2-5
If you haven’t done so already, please compete and submit your census. If you have already done so, thank you – and please encourage your friends and family to submit theirs if they haven’t.
There are many reasons to ensure that you do – not least because it’s a legal obligation and should be considered as much a part of your civic duty as paying taxes, voting and serving on a jury. It is by far and away the most important statistical exercise conducted by our nation and goes a long way towards informing public policy directly and helping to correct and anchor other forms of data gathering. I make this plea as an informant of public policy and an unabashed stats geek. Neither I nor Common Weal have been paid by the Scottish Government to write this article (we wouldn’t accept such a payment even if it was offered). They haven’t even asked us to write this. We’re doing this because we understand how important it is that it gets done properly. Our own ability to create and analyse policy depends on access to high quality, accurate data and the census is one of the most important tools in our box of facts and information.