Here Comes The New Boss, Worse Than The Old Boss

“A president cannot defend a nation if he is not held accountable to its laws.” – DaShanne Stokes

(This blog post previously appeared in Common Weal’s weekly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.)

Look. I’m not in any way going to defend Boris Johnson. The disastrous policies – from his disorganised Brexit to his Rwanda human trafficking scheme – are causing real harm, his Covid policies have killed over 200,000 people while enriching his cronies and his constant power grabbing have pulled power into the UK Executive (read: the PM) and have disrupted our ability to vote freely, destabilised the autonomy of the devolved Parliaments, the primacy of the UK Parliament and he has torn up the last tattered shreds of what passes for the UK Constitution. He should not go down in the annals of history as one of the UK’s “great” politicians.

And yet…who comes next is looking very likely to be even worse.

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The Demographics of Independence: 2022 Mini-Update

“In most polls there are always about 5 percent of the people who ‘don’t know.’ What isn’t generally understood is that it’s the same people in every poll.” – George Carlin

(This blog post previously appeared in Common Weal’s weekly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.)

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 20212018 and 2017 editions – for my methodologies and all of the caveats involved in peering darkly through the lens of polling data.

OVERALL SUPPORT

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Let the Information be Free!

“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” – Albert Camus

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I have an update to my article from a few weeks back on Freedom of Information. In that article I made the case that our FOI laws are woefully insufficient. An FOI request allows you to bring Government information into the public domain simply by you asking for it. To look at it another way, all information that could be released by an FOI request is already potentially in the public domain but for the lack of the appropriate question being asked. This is a major limit in itself as to get at that information:- First we need to be able to ask that appropriate question.

However my wife Ellen and I discovered that what we mean by “public domain” and what the Scottish Government means by it may be two very different things. It appeared to us that while the Government regularly publishes the replies to FOI requests to its online archive, it does not appear to publish every reply there though they consider a private reply directly to the requester to be equivalent to posting the information into the public domain. Communication with the Information Commissioner revealed that there was no legal obligation for the Government to post replies to a public archive at all, merely that it was considered “best practice”. As we had personal experience of an FOI request not being posted to that archive and it got us wondering how often this happened. By examining the unique serial codes of the FOI requests that were published and making the assumption that they were assigned to requests sequentially as they arrived, I estimated that around 30% of replies made it to the public archive. But I thought I could do better than that so I decided to FOI some information about FOIs.

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Finally, the Campaign Continues

“The proverb warns that, ‘You should not bite the hand that feeds you.’ But maybe you should, if it prevents you from feeding yourself.” – Thomas Stephen Szasz

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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.

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The Nuclear Sunset

“We humans were smart enough to invent nuclear weapons but not smart enough to not invent them.”  – Marty Rubin

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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.

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

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What Kind of Scene Are We Setting?

“It is politically easier to rev up GDP and hope some of it trickles down to the poor than it is to distribute existing income more fairly.” – Jason Hickel

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Last week the Scottish Government, represented by Nicola Sturgeon and Patrick Harvie, launched the first paper in a series of papers framing their view of the next stage of the Scottish Independence campaign. This first paper – Independence in the Modern World. Wealthier, Happier, Fairer: Why Not Scotland? – is described as a “scene setter” and a description of the world as it is now rather than what it could be under independence. As such, it probably raised more questions from than delivered answers to the journalists at the press conference. It does nothing to answer or advance arguments around currency, borders or pensions or any of the other topics that I and other independence activists have been immersed in for a decade now but it wasn’t ever supposed to. All this paper has done is take several economic metrics such as GDP and inequality and compared the UK to several other countries in Europe. We’ve seen this approach before:– this paper is essentially an abbreviated and updated version of the first third of the 2018 report by Andrew Wilson’s Sustainable Growth Commission and the ideology that informed that report is woven throughout this new one.

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No Freedom Without Information

“There is not a crime, there is not a dodge, there is not a trick, there is not a swindle, there is not a vice which does not live by secrecy.” – Joseph Pulitzer

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(Since the original publication of this post, Ellen joined me on the Common Weal Policy Podcast to discuss the issues raised in more detail. You can listen to that show here.)

Common Weal has been at the forefront of Scottish democratic and governance reform since our inception – it’s one of the things that attracted me personally into the orbit of the organisation. One of our earliest campaign success stories was the creation of the Scottish lobbying register which, despite its many and still critical flaws, at least gives us some insight into who is talking to the Scottish Government and about what. Another area where we’ve been gaining ground is our ongoing campaign for better Scottish statistics – the Scottish Government has still not picked up our call for a dedicated Scottish Statistics Agency to fill gaps in data provision despite overwhelming support from SNP members three years ago.

Where these two areas intersect is how we, as citizens, gain access to data and information produced by the government which might be difficult to find or not published at all. You have a right called Freedom of Information which allows you to ask public bodies (including the government itself) about the information it holds on various topics. It can be a question such as how much has been spent on a project? Or how many times a Minister has met a specific person? Or anything else that isn’t routinely published or that the Government has good reason to not publish (perhaps due to national security concerns). There are, of course, caveats such as declining to publish information that would be difficult or expensive to obtain (perhaps the question was too broad or requires someone to trawl through a half-forgotten archive of paper records). All of this legislation is important. If we don’t know who is talking to government, what government is telling itself or what they’re not telling us then we cannot hold them to account for their actions. I’d go as far to say that an opaque government is inherently corrupt or, at least, cannot adequately demonstrate that it is not.

However, there are flaws in the current FOI legislation as well and we have been campaigning on reform to the legislation as well. In 2019 I took part in a very memorable meeting at the Scottish Parliament where we discussed various aspects of possible reform.

 These reforms include ending “corporate confidentiality” in public-private contracts after the contracts have been signed (so we know precisely how much we’re spending and on what – especially on large infrastructure projects), mandating that private companies in receipt of public money should be covered by FOI when they spend it (so that government can’t hide behind a wall of privatisation), and – most serious of all – that government should end its unlawful practice of treating FOI requests from some people differently from others (such as allowing Ministers to “review”, delay or block FOI requests submitted by journalists). One of our key recommendations was to address a fundamental flaw in the FOI process itself which is that in order to get information into the public domain, you first need to be able to ask a question about it.

To ask the question “For the minutes of the meeting between the Minister for Energy and Coal Billionaire Joe McSmoke in August 2019?”, you first need to have some kind of suspicion that such a meeting even took place and that there’s a possibility that it was minuted and that those minutes were recorded in a way that is publishable. Instead, we’ve called for public bodies to adopt what we’ve termed to be a “Glass Wall” approach whereby any information that would normally be disclosed by a properly submitted FOI should be proactively published in a browsable archive (we may still need to submit something similar to an FOI to the curator of said archive to be able find said information but the point is that you wouldn’t need to).

I’m glad to say that many of these suggestions were accepted by the Committee and, eventually, by the Government itself. It brought about an investigation by the Information Commissioner to ensure that the recommendations were being carried out (especially the ending of unlawful interference of FOI by ministers) and which published last week.

It was this report that led me to discovering another fundamental flaw in the FOI process that surprised me and also throws the entire system into serious doubt as to its ability to ensure transparent government.

Folk in Indy circles will no doubt be aware of the ongoing story about the UK Government’s “secret polling” into public attitudes on the Union. This polling was done in around 2018 (so is almost certainly out of date now) but was never publicly published. A court case recently concluded with an instruction to publish the data and the latest in this story is that the UK Government is still refusing to publish and may need to be challenged again.

However, there is a twist to this story. When this all kicked off last year my wife Ellen asked the obvious but unasked question – If the UK Government isn’t publishing its polling on attitudes towards independence, why couldn’t the Scottish Government publish its own internal polling on the topic? Even better, once both were published, we could compare and contrast the results of the various questions asked. Not being able to find that polling in any of the public databases, Ellen submitted an FOI for its release and, to both of our surprise, we were told that the reason that this data hadn’t be published before and couldn’t be published now was because the Scottish Government hadn’t conducted any public polling on attitudes in the time between January 2018 and July 2021 when the request was submitted.

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This could and should have been a major story last year and Ellen planned to send it around journalistic circles just as soon as a linkable version appeared on the Scottish Government FOI database.  Several days passed without it doing so. Then weeks. Then a couple of months. To this day, if you search for her FOI request it still returns no result.

The Information Commissioner’s report last week brought the topic back to the front of our mind and Ellen contacted the Commissioner to try to find out if there was a reason that this FOI would not be published. The prompt reply frankly shocked us. A private reply to an FOI is considered by the Scottish Government to be a fulfilment of FOI legislation and puts the information into the “public domain” but there is no obligation in the legislation for the reply to be entered into a public database. Doing so is merely considered “best practice”.

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Consider this for a moment. There is an obligation on the Scottish Government to respond to FOI requests but so long as they give the information to the person who asked the question, there is no obligation on them to let anyone else know about it. But, as it is now a public document, “leaking” it as I have done above isn’t even leaking – it’s just sharing a public document.

But this leads us to another question – how many FOI requests have been answered by private email and not shared more widely? I don’t think it’s a question anyone but the Scottish Government  can answer with certainty but there may be a way of taking at least a stab at it. Whenever you submit an FOI request, you are given a unique reference number. That number – as per Ellen’s FOI above – takes the form of the year of submission and then a string of numbers. That string of numbers appears to be not random but at least somewhat sequential. The earliest FOI in the database is FoI/16/00690 published on October 23rd 2017 and the most recent as of the time of writing – published on May 24th 2022 – is FOI/202200296591. As of the time of writing there are 8879 FOI replies in the database. I don’t know if the sequence of ID numbers includes documents other than FOIs (is document 202200296592 some other letter to or from a civil servant perhaps?) but I can’t imagine why it would. It may be that some of these FOIs have been sent to other public bodies (such as Local Authorities) and published in their own databases but – as said above – we have a clear example of at least one FOI to the Scottish Government that has not been published. Assuming each of these numbers does refer solely to a unique FOI request and its reply and the reference number is as sequential as it appears to be then that may suggest that in the worst case, less than 30% of FOI requests to the Scottish Government have been published in a public manner beyond a direct reply to the person who submitted the request. I dearly hope there’s an explanation out there that means that things aren’t as bad as that. If anyone has one, please do let me know.

I’d be really interested to hear your experiences with this. If you have submitted an FOI request and found that your reply is not on the database then let us know. I’m not sure what we can do from there. We could probably do more to train up volunteers to submit FOIs and have them share their replies with us but how can we do more than that? Does Common Weal have to publish these FOIs ourselves? Do we have to partner with some journalists to create a “Shadow Repository” of all of the FOIs the Government didn’t want you to see? Will just the threat of doing so force an explanation from the Government? Whether by actual legislation or, as a distant second, firm departmental commitments to actually follow “best practice” the Scottish Government should and must publish ALL FOI requests that it responds to. Even the “frivolous” ones. Even the “vexatious” ones. Even the “inconvenient” ones from journalists and especially even the ones that reveal that the Scottish Government hasn’t been doing work that it should have been doing as it prepares to fight another independence campaign. For their part, the Information Commissioner’s office confirmed to us that it is not within their remit to force FOI replies to be published again, because it is not a statutory requirement.

As I said at the top of this piece, I don’t think we can have a functioning democracy without transparency and accountability. Corruption is inevitable if power remains in the dark and behind closed doors. If only a select few have access to information, the same results. From a very practical standpoint, it’s also a complete waste of resources to have to blindly keep asking the same FOI questions because you didn’t know that someone else asked for the same information some time before you. In a very real sense there can be no freedom without freedom of information. The Scottish Government can and must ensure that all of us can see what it is doing at all times. If they don’t, we have to ask the final obvious, unasked question. What, precisely, are they hiding from us?

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A Financial Flatspin

“Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.” – Warren Buffett

(This blog post previously appeared in Common Weal’s weekly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.)

An extremely disturbing report was published this week looking into life expectancy in Scotland and the UK. It found that the consistent gains in life expectancy that we have experienced for much of the 20th century and into the first decade of the 21st has stalled and has even started to decline for some groups – especially the poorest and most deprived. This stall was abrupt and started in 2012 and has had the effect of knocking around 16 months of life off of the average Scot compared to pre-2012 trends.

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(Image Source: GCPH)

 This was not due to a “natural limit” of life expectancy being reached (though such a limit does almost certainly exist) nor have neighbouring countries experienced this stall to anywhere the same degree. The stall is not due to Covid, nor any other endemic illness. Drug-related deaths in Scotland are rising and this is having a measurable impact on average life expectancy but life expectancy has also stalled for non-drug users so this cannot explain everything either. Nor is it due to obesity or even due to climate change (though the former had more of an impact than the latter). All of these factors and more could be isolated, accounted for and controlled for in the study. Once this was done, there remained still an additional adverse impact on our life expectancy.

The conclusion of the report is that there is one stark cause above all of the other factors that has resulted in our lives being, on average, shorter than they otherwise would have been. In 2010 the UK Government began a massive socio-economic experiment called Austerity. This, the report finds, has been the primary cause above all others for the harm done to our health and wellbeing. It has sucked vital resources out of public services and starved households of the resources required to replace them. Poverty and deprivation – deliberately applied by political choice – has killed people earlier than they otherwise would have died.

It is in this context that we must view the other major reports published this week – the Scottish Government’s Resource Spending Review and Capital Spending Review. These financial reviews lay out the plans for devolved government spending over the next four or five years up till the end of this Parliament. The choices being made are grim.

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We Need To Talk About: Billionaires

“There is no such thing as philanthropy, because the money that the billionaires pretend to donate, belong to the people anyways.” ― Abhijit Naskar

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The villagers lived in hopeless fear of the dragon. They worked hard to provide for themselves but it was so hard when the dragon owned the land under their feet, owned the rooves over their heads, owned the tools they used to till the fields and owned the store where they bought the things they couldn’t make for themselves and even owned the carts they used to bring things to market. Everything the villagers did fed the dragon in the end. It took a share at every step of the way and its hoard grew ever higher. The villagers had once tried to slay the dragon – it was a hard fight and cost the lives of many of them – but in the end, the dragon’s offspring just slid onto the top of the hoard and things carried on as they had before. They asked their mayor to tax the dragon, but the dragon whispered promises of power into the mayor’s ear and gave him baubles to make sure it didn’t happen. The villagers tried to vote out the mayor but the dragon whispered into the ears of some of the villagers and told them that if they worked really hard in precisely the way that the dragon didn’t, then they too could become dragons themselves. Even when the mayor was voted out – all the dragon had to do was whisper to the new one and make sure things were never so bad for it in the time it took to ensure the next mayor was more compliant. And so the villagers worked hard – harder than ever before even as the storms that ruined their harvests became stronger and more frequent – and the dragon’s hoard got larger.

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The Unreliable Kingdom

“Every scientific statement is provisional. Politicians hate this. How can anyone trust scientists? If new evidence comes along, they change their minds.” – Terry Pratchett

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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.

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