“If politicians don’t care about the electorate and lie to them, they can’t expect the electorate to care back and vote them in. An election must be more than a search for honesty in a snake pit.” – Stewart Stafford
This month marked eight years since the Scottish Independence Referendum and it’s fair to say that they have not been a quiet eight years. Brexit, pandemic, economic turmoil and the grinding poverty caused by over a decade of Austerity are taking their toll on the wellbeing of the country. It’s certainly not the promised “sunlit uplands” or even the pre-2014 “status quo” that many thought they were voting for. As we move into a fresh independence campaign, it’s worth looking back at some of the things we were promised in 2014 by the pro-Union campaign and how those promises have panned out since.
Last year, Bill Johnston and I published our book All of Our Futures – an exploration of ageism in Scotland, how it causes inappropriate policies regarding age and ageing and what Scotland could do instead to create a country that we can all safely, securely and proudly grow older in. In one of the chapters we discuss how an independent Scotland could improve policies around pensions.
This is one of the topics of great interest to everyone on all sides of the constitutional campaign but it’s also a topic that few attempt to tackle in any great detail. However the team here at Common Weal recently realised that while this chapter of the book represents our most up to date thinking on an independent Scotland’s policies towards pensions, we don’t actually have a dedicated Policy Paper on the topic beyond some higher level aspects such as in our 2017 paper on Social Security or discussions around debt and asset transfers found in our book How to Start a New Country or my paper for the Scottish Independence Convention, Parting Ways. This newsletter article will go some way to redressing this but it can only remain a short summary of what is laid out in much greater detail in the book. One thing in particular to bear in mind when discussing pensions is that there are two aspects of them which must be handled differently if not quite entirely separately. The state pension and private pensions.
Since 2017, I’ve been collecting and deeply diving into Scottish polling data around independence. The last full report was published a little under a year ago but with the re-launch of the independence campaign ahead of the independence referendum that the Scottish Government hopes to hold next October, now is a good time to revisit that study. While I keep an eye on all polling from all polling companies in Scotland I tend to restrict my deeper analysis to those published by Panelbase as they tend to break up their dataset into more varied subsets than others like YouGov and thus provide a richer story for those trying to find out not just how many people support independence but who they are. Since August last year, there have only been five Panelbase polls asking Scotland about independence, including the one just released this week, so there isn’t yet enough data to publish another full Demographics of Indy report. However, given that this latest poll is the first since the First Minster’s indyref announcement and it returned a majority for support for independence I felt it was worth giving a mini-update in this news column. Please read the full policy paper series – comprising the 2021, 2018 and 2017 editions – for my methodologies and all of the caveats involved in peering darkly through the lens of polling data.
And so, after many years of false starts and being told to “hold, hold” it looks like we’re finally off and back into a new independence campaign, a little shy of a decade after the previous one kicked off.
On Tuesday Nicola Sturgeon announced an update to her plan to deliver an independence referendum in the first half of this Parliamentary term. “Plan A” had always been to seek a sanctioned referendum by way of a formal Section 30 order to the UK Government resulting in something akin to the 2012 Edinburgh Agreement. But with Boris Johnson now and Theresa May before him being consistent in denying such a request, pressure had been mounting to deliver some kind of “Plan B”.
This week, we saw what that would look like. Should a Section 30 order not be forthcoming then the Scottish Government shall bring forward a Referendum Bill anyway and ask the Parliament to approve it. Given the pro-indy majority between the SNP and the Scottish Greens, it would be a miracle and a scandal if it doesn’t pass though – assuming no other party comes out at least as pro-referendum – all eyes will be on those pro-referendum (and the handful of quietly pro-independence MSPs within the Unionist parties) to see if they argue for a free vote or break with any party whip to vote the Bill. Will there be a repeat of Wendy Alexander’s 2008 “Bring it on” moment from any of the parties? I doubt it. Indeed, the biggest challenge to the referendum process – particularly an unsanctioned referendum – is the other side not playing at all.
This week is a historic milestone in the long campaign against nuclear weapons. On January 22nd, 2021, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) came into force having been passed by the support of 122 countries at the United Nations in July 2017. This treaty comprehensively bans nuclear weapons in all of their forms, bans countries from developing those weapons, funding their development, hosting weapons owned by others or even allowing them to be transported through their territory. 1 country (the Netherlands) voted against the treaty and another (Singapore) abstained. Several countries, including the United Kingdom, all other nuclear armed states as well as NATO nations, did not vote.
One of the strictures of the treaty was to set up a regular forum where State Parties (those countries who have signed and ratified the treaty) could come together and lay down the processes required to meet the various commitments that the treaty binds them to. This week, the First Meeting of the State Parties came together in Vienna to begin that process of bringing about the end of the age of nuclear weapons. A nuclear sunset to conclude the nuclear dawn that broke on July 16th, 1945.
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.
“When you have no real power, go public — really public. The public is where the real power is.” – Elizabeth Warren
The nature of Scotland’s devolved settlement is that the country is simultaneously less powerful than many would like but more powerful than many would give it credit. The reserved powers list in Schedule 5 of the Scotland Act are quite clear and the Scottish Government can and has been taken to court when it has attempted to overreach its powers. However the areas of devolved powers are broad and cross-cutting enough that it is often possible to effect change in defiance of Westminster simply by looking for the cracks and loopholes within those reserved and devolved powers.
We have also seen the pandemic reveal that some powers (such as the power to close or restrict borders) which were previously assumed to be reserved have, in fact, been substantially devolved. Until the pandemic struck it would have been considered unthinkable that the Scottish Government could effectively order the closure of the Anglo-Scottish border – and yet, for a time, it was (that the closure wasn’t particularly well policed and enforced is another matter entirely).
Scotland pushed against reserved Westminster policy many times – mostly significantly by using powers over planning permission to effectively block nuclear power and onshore fracking in Scotland. A larger challenge looms in the form of offshore oil and gas, but I believe that the Scottish Government could go further that it current does in terms of opposing oil extraction around Scotland despite the powers to do so being largely reserved.
In my analysis of GERS last year, I remarked that this was in a very real sense the end of an era not in the sense that it would show us anything different from the previous years but that it was the last year that wouldn’t. Covid has upended the entire world and for statisticians that means the worst possible thing that could ever happen to their data tables – a discontinuity.
“Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it….” ― George Bernard Shaw
Yesterday my wife and I took part in a fascinating radio interview looking at how people, particularly migrants to Scotland, have come to support independence. I hope I’ll be able to share it with you in a month or so when it’s due to be published though at this stage I have no idea how much – if any – of our conversation will make the final cut (the programme is expected to be about ten minutes long, we talked for over an hour and the interviewer spoke to several people apart from us). As one might expect the conversation looked, in part, at the nature of Nationalism in Scotland and how that is viewed by both migrants and the countries from which they came. That part of the conversation got me thinking about my own views on Nationalism and where Scotland is, or could go, as part of our journey towards independence.
Be assured, that this isn’t going to be another lazy attack on Nationalism as we have seen levelled against proponents of Scottish Independence (particularly by those who wave their own flags just as hard under the more sanitised name of Patriotism or National Unity). Indeed, I shall defend at least the logic of Nationalism later in this piece. But I shall lay out why I think it only takes us so far in the philosophy of independence and set out a proposition that there is perhaps a hint of what an independent Scotland could look like in a post-nationalist world.
(And yes, I appreciate the irony of writing this on a day when a lot of folk are watching groups of men defined by their national identity kick a ball around. I never was one for Football.)