Between a rock and a hard place

Scotland Office
Scotland Office by Sarflondondunc, on Flickr.
The Scottish MPs from the Unionist parties are finding themselves in an increasingly difficult position as a Yes vote seems more and more likely.

Firstly, it seems their mere presence is preventing the UK government from preparing for a Yes vote, as stated by Alistair Carmichael:

I won’t be able to influence what people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland want out of their constitutional future – that would be entirely improper. It would be improper on the other side of the referendum, just as it would be improper for me to try to change it now. That’s why there will be no contingency planning.

I might be reading too much into his words, but it seems that Westminster is stuck between a rock and a hard place: On the one hand, if they don’t plan for Scottish independence, they’ll look like ill-prepared amateurs to the entire world, and the financial markets will punish them harshly for it. On the other hand, if they do start planning, they’ll either need to include the Scottish MPs and government ministers (who would presumably swap sides after 18/09 and give away London’s negotiating position), or they’ll need to create an rUK government inside the UK government, which would make the Scottish members feel second-rate and break the basic principles of government.

Secondly, the future prospects are rather bleak for the Scottish MPs after a Yes vote. I have a feeling many of them consider themselves superior to the MSPs in Holyrood, and so they’ll probably expect to play a key role in the independence negotiations and in building the new Scotland. For instance, in an otherwise rather insignificant piece in The Telegraph, Iain Martin asked: “How soon do Scottish Westminster politicians go home to stop Salmond taking one man control of designing Scotland’s constitution?” It sounds like people in the London bubble tend to forget that the Scottish Parliament exists and is full of capable politicians, and I doubt they’ll take kindly to sage advice from newly-unemployed ex-MPs.

In this connexion, it’s interesting to note that Scottish Labour’s candidate selection process for the 2016 Holyrood election is more or less complete already, so unless they suddenly rip everything up again, many current MPs will have nowhere to go after a Yes vote. They won’t be able to become MSPs 2016 — they’d have to wait till 2020 (and that’s a long time if you’re used to a Westminster salary and expenses), and of course the House of Lords will not be open to Scottish ex-MPs after independence.

It’s no wonder what the Scottish Unionist MPs are the fiercest No campaigners. They have the most to lose, and the narrowing of the gap between Yes and No is already undermining their position at Westminster.

If we don’t get a Yes this time, we might end up like Catalonia

2013_09_11_JorgeLizana_Via Catalana Cuidadela7
2013_09_11_JorgeLizana_Via Catalana Cuidadela7 by Fotomovimiento, on Flickr.
There is a school of thought that the independence referendum is happening too soon, before the Scottish public has been fully convinced of the merits of the prospect. However, a number of events (a capable SNP government and a useless opposition at Holyrood, a major recession, the collapse of the LibDems in Scotland due to their Westminster coalition with the Tories, and a Westminster government that didn’t understand Scottish public opinion) together created a perfect storm that gave us first an SNP majority in Holyrood and then Westminster’s acceptance of a referendum organised by Scotland.

Now that we’ve got the chance to be sovereign again, we need to grasp it with both hands because the opportunity might never arise again.

At first, this might seem counterintuitive. After all, many Unionists moan about the prospects of a neverendum if we vote No. Indeed, I have argued in the past that only a Yes vote is likely to bring closure:

If it’s a Yes, I expect most people from the No campaign to start fighting Scotland’s corner relatively quickly. This is because I don’t know of many countries that after independence have had a large group of people trying to undo the divorce. […]

If the referendum ends in a No, I’m not so sure. Of course we’ll all accept the result and try to make the best of it at first, but having talked about how much Scotland will be able to achieve as an independent country, it will be very difficult to abandon the dream completely. The SNP might lose a few disillusioned voters, but on the whole I expect the party to survive and keep the flame alive. Also, given likely subsequent developments in the UK, such as leaving the EU and getting a Tory government supported by UKIP, I wouldn’t be surprised if large groups of Scots would soon bitterly regret their No vote in the referendum.

However, even if in ten or twenty years’ time everybody in Scotland agrees that it was a terrible mistake not to vote Yes in 2014, circumstances might be less favourable. Oil might be running out (or be banned due to global warming), Westminster might have decided to invest in nuclear power instead of Scottish renewables, the Scottish Parliament might have been declawed and defanged, and the UK might have succeeded in dismantling the welfare state everywhere to such a degree that restoring it and extending it (as suggested by the Common Weal project) would be completely unrealistic.

Even more importantly, would we ever be allowed to hold an independence referendum again? Even if pro-independence parties gained an absolute majority in the Scottish Parliament once more (which is not an easy thing to do, given the electoral system used), would Westminster really cooperate? We shouldn’t forget that David Cameron only agreed to the referendum because he thought it would lead to a quick and decisive victory for the No side, which would have buried Scottish nationalism for a generation. If Scotland then decided to organise a referendum anyway, it’s very likely it would be deemed ultra vires, especially because Westminster will interpret the Edinburgh Agreement as a concession by the Scottish Government of sovereignty/authority — in other words, there would be a legal precedent that the Scottish Parliament should seek approval from Westminster before holding an independence referendum.

If the Scottish Government tried to organise a referendum after Westminster and the courts had decided it was illegal to do so, we’d get into a Catalan scenario, and that’s not a pleasant thought. It might look very romantic when you look at their 400 km-long human chain and all that, but this article calculates that the chance of an amicable divorce there is just 14.8%, and it emphasises the risk that the police and perhaps even the military will be deployed by Madrid to keep the situation under control. Hopefully things wouldn’t get that bad in Scotland, but the danger would be there.

We have a unique opportunity in September. We can vote Yes knowing that Westminster will respect the result, and it can all happen completely peacefully. However, it might be our one and only chance to do so. Nobody should vote No because they don’t think the time is ripe yet. This is probably the best chance we ever get.

An absolute mess?

Electrical cables, Phnom Penh, Aug 2011
Electrical cables, Phnom Penh, Aug 2011 by judithbluepool, on Flickr.
I had a wee Twitter conversation with a political blogger based in England a few days ago, discussing the consequences of a Yes vote for Westminster, and his conclusion? “It’s going to be an absolute mess.”

I was reminded of this when I read Martin Kettle’s article on the same topic in The Guardian:

If Scotland votes yes, the consequences could be messier and nastier for longer than most of us have allowed ourselves to consider. […] If a yes victory is declared, how will the British Labour party, meeting for its party conference on the following day in Manchester, react? By promptly agreeing to expedite Scotland’s departure? Dream on. A yes vote would explode into the UK party conference season. All the main parties would be destabilised in major ways.

It appears that London-based commentators have only just started thinking about the consequences of a Yes vote, and they’re shocked by how much it’ll change Westminster. It’s probably also in this context that one should see Benedict Brogan’s promise that David Cameron will resign after a Yes vote.

I’m not so sure things will be that messy. Of course, it’s likely the UK party conferences will be quite chaotic following a Yes vote. The Tories can perhaps focus on whether their dear leader will stay in power, but both Labour and the LibDems will need to look at how to give their Scottish members independence within the party. It’s clearly unacceptable if UK Labour is telling Scottish Labour how to negotiate for independence, and they also don’t want Scottish votes swaying any decisions on the rUK negotiation mandate.

However, once the conference season is over, I expect Westminster will get down to business. Not doing so would be a dereliction of duty.

Salmond talks as though the negotiations following a yes vote would be straightforward, respectful and informed by mutual trust. Why should that be so? They would more likely be devious, antagonistic and riddled with mutual suspicion, as well as largely meaningless until after the 2015 general election.

I don’t understand why the negotiations would be “largely meaningless” for the first six months. Surely if some areas had already been agreed on, a new government wouldn’t start renegotiating them.

However, I’m not quite sure whether it would be possible to conduct a sensible general election campaign while the negotiations are ongoing. Wouldn’t it be much better to create a national unity government in Westminster to match Scotland’s all-party Team Scotland? The general election could then be held after Scotland had become independent, which would allow the campaign to be about “normal” politics — schools, hospitals, the economy and Europe — instead of turning into a fight about who can be toughest and roughest in the independence negotiations.

Whether Salmond was negotiating with Cameron or Ed Miliband (and it is worth remembering that if Labour wins in the UK in 2015 and then wins in Scotland in 2016, Labour could in fact be negotiating with itself), the process would be likely to be prolonged. The UK government would have every possible incentive to drive a hard bargain with Scotland, as Hammond made clear in the defence context this week, and it would be backed by public opinion.

As I’ve written about before, most nations negotiating their independence from a larger country in the past spent significantly less time than 18 months (typically between a few days and six months).

Surely the SNP’s proposal is the longest amount of time it is possible to put normal politics on hold, so if London-based commentators are suggesting it’ll last much longer than this, it must mean they’re expecting the independence negotiations to be an ongoing sideshow rather than the government’s main focus.

Could it be that Westminster politicians are planning to tire out Scotland until we agree to keep Trident and all that? If so, Scotland will have to simply declare independence unilaterally (UDI) and negotiate the details afterwards.

The negotiations will only drag on for years if it’s deemed necessary to reach agreements on absolutely everything before independence day. Of course, a few things will need to be fleshed out — citizenship and dividing the military perhaps — but in most areas it should be possible to state that it will continue to be shared until an agreement has been reached, together with some general rules about conflict resolution, arbitration and such things.

Towards the end of his piece, Martin Kettle suddenly starts having visions of violence:

Meanwhile, what about the public mood? Views will not remain frozen unchangingly once the result is in. Nor will they inevitably remain benign and peaceful. Nationalist opinion could become more militant if the talks become bogged down. Even acts of violence are not inconceivable in certain circumstances or places, as anyone with a smattering of knowledge of the Irish treaty of 1921 will grasp.

There are no signs whatever that Scotland will turn violent after a Yes vote — the independence movement is uniquely peaceful and optimistic, and this would only get better after a Yes vote — so this sounds worryingly and dangerously like wishful thinking.

It also doesn’t sound likely at all that Westminster will want a scenario like this. Derek Bateman puts it well:

The moment a Yes is declared, the entire British machine moves into diplomatic mode. The first act is to be magnanimous by accepting the result with good grace. The second is to set the tone by appearing reasonable and, even while doing their utmost to get the best deal they can, they will present to the world an image of refined Brits maintaining their dignity. To be brutally frank, the loss of Scotland is the last vestige of a once ‘great’ country slowly sinking below the horizon. They must at all costs pretend the opposite is true, that this is a blip and nothing more.

As part of this image of refined Brits maintaining their dignity, and to concentrate minds and ensure that the negotiations will be finite in duration, I think it would be useful to establish two ground rules straight after a Yes vote: (1) Westminster should agree to a legislative moratorium whereby they agree to legislate as little as possible, and only with the consent of the Scottish Parliament, until Scotland is independent. (2) The two countries should agree that independence will happen no later than 24th March 2016, whether the negotiations have finished or not. Those two rules in conjunction should ensure that the negotiations proceed smoothly and successfully.

The reasons for the proposed legislative moratorium are twofold: Firstly, it would of course be crazy for Westminster to pass laws that Holyrood will simply repeal a few months later, and secondly, without it Westminster might find it tempting to focus on other policies that would be of more interest to the rUK public.

If the main Westminster parties decide to be reasonable and work constructively to finish the independence negotiations quickly and positively as outlined above while putting normal politics on hold, I don’t see any reason why the time between a Yes vote and independence day should become an absolute mess at all.

Going to the pub after independence

Pub beer prices in Norway, Denmark, Sweden and the UK.
Pub beer prices in Norway, Denmark, Sweden and the UK.
Better Together have been circulating an illustration of beer prices on Twitter today.

It seems to be based on figures from, which is hardly a reliable source for such information — it’s simply a site for people to record what they’ve paid for a pint somewhere in the world. The result is that the Danish price is an average of prices as diverse as the following: Aalborg: £1.04, Aarhus: £3.44, Copenhagen: £5.08, Kastrup: £7.22, Odense: £2 and Sønderborg: £6.69. One should therefore take the figures they used with a grain of salt.

I don’t dispute at all, however, that a pint in a pub in Denmark tends to be more expensive than what you’d pay in a similar place in Scotland.

This is to a large extent because Danes tend to drink more at home and private parties, and less at pubs. (The situation might be changing slowly, but that definitely used to be the case when I lived there.)

For many people in Denmark, a pub is a place you go for a drink after your cinema trip, not your regular watering hole.

So most Danes buy a lot of the beer they drink in supermarkets, not in pubs, and prices aren’t shocking in shops. A typical price for a 500ml can of Carlsberg (which is of course not by any means the cheapest brand) in a supermarket seems to be around 15 Danish crowns (= £1.65).

Beer prices are much higher in Sweden and especially Norway than in Denmark, but that’s because of a deliberate price policy in order to combat alcohol-related problems, so trying to estimate the general cost of living by looking at pub prices is a very bad idea.

Apart from that, GDP per capita is much higher in the Scandinavian countries than in the UK (Norway $100,318, Denmark $59,190, Sweden $57,909 and UK $39,567), so even if Scandinavians want to spend their salary drinking lager in pubs, they tend to be able to afford this.

The whole point of the Yes campaign in general and of the Common Weal project in particular is that we need to move away from the current low-wage economy and try to achieve a situation like in Scandinavia where prices might a bit higher but salaries are much higher so that a typical person can afford a better quality of living.

In other words, perhaps putting up the minimum wage to a reasonable level will mean that pub prices will rise a bit, but if most people are much better off than before then it’s not a problem at all.

Besides, increasing the minimum wage and/or increasing alcohol taxation will be policy choices for an independent Scotland. If we want cheaper pints after independence, we can simply vote for political parties who want to achieve this. It will be up to us.

The rUK is already another country

Ninja rat parachuting
Ninja rat parachuting by Nic Price, on Flickr.
My dear wife and I used to read The Economist and Private Eye regularly, and we watched the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday mornings. Of course we were often annoyed by the way they handled Scottish news, but by and large the reason for doing so was enjoyment rather than masochism.

However, something has changed over the past couple of years. Of course the London-based media too frequently treat the independence referendum in an offensive and contemptuous manner, but that shouldn’t in itself make the rest of the programmes and publications irrelevant.

Nevertheless, I increasingly react to news from London in the same way as news from Sweden, Germany, Canada or any other foreign country that use a language I know, namely with three parts boredom because the issue at hand doesn’t seem relevant to me, two parts perplexity because they’re approaching an interesting subject from a bizarre angle, and one part anger because they’re ignoring something which would have been very relevant.

The way UKIP is being fêted in England is perhaps the best example of this, but there are countless examples from all policy areas.

The only conclusion I can draw from this is that the independence referendum campaign itself has already turned Scotland and the rUK into separate countries, simply because we have now been having very different national conversations for the past two years.

This is yet another reason why we need a Yes vote in September. I simply cannot see how the UK can feasibly become reunited after a No vote; in all likelihood, the divergence would continue growing until a second referendum became unavoidable, but the years between the two referendums would be such a waste of time.

If independence is a state of mind, Scotland is already there.

Fisking Lord Robertson’s cataclysmic speech

Gustave Doré's illustration of Lord Robertson's preparations for the cataclysmic events he has predicted.
Gustave Doré’s illustration of Lord Robertson’s preparations for the cataclysmic events he has predicted.
I thought I would do a quick fisk of Lord Robertson’s Brookings speech. The following is based on the partial transcript supplied by Brookings. (I haven’t corrected the typos.)

The loudest cheers for the breakup of Britain would be from our adversaries and from our enemies.

This is an interesting use of ‘our’, because it makes it sound like they’re the same for everybody. But are America’s enemies always the same as the UK’s, and are Britain’s enemies also Scotland’s?

For the second military power in the West to shatter this year would be cataclysmic in geopolitical terms.

I think the noble lord might be overestimating the UK’s military might somewhat here. If this list is correct, the US spent $732bn on their military in 2011, while the UK spent $64bn and France $53bn. Given that the rest of NATO will still be able to act normally while the rUK and Scotland divide the UK military, I would have thought Scottish independence would feel more like a mild annoyance to NATO than a cataclysmic event. What exactly is it that Lord Robertson expects that the West won’t be able to do without the British PM jumping up and down with excitement next to the American president?

If the United Kingdom was to face a split at this of all times and find itself embroiled for several years in a torrid, complex, difficult and debilitating divorce, it would rob the West of a serious partner just when solidity and cool nerves are going to be vital.

Although he says ‘the West’ again here, this time he must mean ‘the US’ for the sentence to make any sense. In other words, he’s warning the American establishment that their British poodle might be less keen to take part in military adventures for a while. Sounds good to me.

Nobody should underestimate the effect all of that would have on existing global balances and the forces of darkness would simply love it.

I had no idea that the global balance was dependent on the UK to such an extent. I would have thought rogue states were more afraid of the US, or of the combined military might of NATO, or of the EU’s soft power, but it turns out I was wrong all along. Silly me!

The geostrategic consequences don’t stop with what happens in the United Kingdom on the 19th of September.

The 18th, Lord Robertson, not the 19th.

The ripple effects will go much wider than our own shores. The United Kingdom is not alone in having separatist movements.

True, and they’re likely to continue their fights whether Scotland votes Yes or No.

In Spain, both Catalonia and the Basque country have declared that they want independence. Catalonia where million and a half people marched in the streets demanding independence – and remember that the SNP have never had more than 10,000 people in any demonstration — Catalonia says that it will have its referendum from Spain even if it’s in breach of the constitution of its country.

This doesn’t sound like he expects Catalonia to back down if Scotland votes No, does it?

The Basque extremist have only in the recent past have backed away from terrorism, but they are watching Catalonia and Scotland with quote undisguised interest.


Then there’s Belgium, a country which is held together by a thread. The Flemish nationalists see Scotland as breaking the mold. We’re next if Scotland breaks free and becomes a member of the European Union, they quite openly say.

And why would this be such a bad thing, so long as Flemish independence is achieved by peaceful means?

And as if to underline what this means for Europe, despite its manifest claim to nationhood, Kosovo still finds itself unrecognized by a handful of European Union countries worried about the implications of breakaway for their own separatist movements.

Yes, that is true. Just as Catalan independence will probably not be immediately recognised by all other countries. Such is life.

So I contend that it is far from scaremongering to use the term Balkanization to predict what might happen if Scotland were to break from its 300 year old union. The fragmentation of Europe starting on the centenary of the First World War would be both an irony and a tragedy with incalculable consequences.

So long as Scotland, Catalonia, the Basque Countries, Flanders and all the other areas of Europe contemplating sovereignty are allowed to achieve independence through peaceful means (we shouldn’t forget that the Spanish military has already been making threatening voices), and so long as the EU adopts a pragmatic approach rather than playing silly buggers, I don’t see why these new countries should cause any negative consequences for Europe.

The UK has adopted a sensible approach to Scottish independence, and Lord Robertson should recommend this as the way forward to Spain, Belgium and other countries that might fall apart, rather than trying to insinuate that the UK will go the way of Yugoslavia.

There is some significance in all of we Scots speaking here in Washington and in New York and the major cities of the United States of America. Because the possible independence of Scotland maybe resonates with some who were involved in great battles of the past over here. And some people with no real grasp of history make a tortured comparison with the American bid for independence from Britain in the 1770s. Something that was pioneered by the Scots of course who had a lot to do with that.

Why is this a ‘tortured comparison’? Just because Scotland has political representation in Westminster? We also want to create a fairer and more democratic country, just like the American founding fathers did.

but if [those] who make this facile comparison understood the history of this country they might look more relevantly at the Civil War where hundreds of thousands of Americans perished in a war to keep the new Union together. To Lincoln and his compatriots the Union was so precious, so important, and its integrity so valuable that rivers of blood would be split to keep it together.

Is this a thinly veiled threat that Westminster will spill rivers of blood to keep Scotland if we dare vote Yes? Somebody should ask Lord Robertson exactly what he meant by this.

[…] We have, indeed, as Scots, got the best of both worlds.

So what possible justification should there be for breaking up the United Kingdom? What could possibly justify giving the dictators, the persecutors, the oppressors, the annexers, the aggressors and the adventurers across the planet the biggest pre-Christmas present of their lives by tearing the United Kingdom apart? … I fear from time to time that we Scots are living in a veritable bubble in this debate and outside of that increasingly fractious bubble, we’re losing sight of the fact that our decision on the 18th of September will have much wider and bigger implications that any of us yet grasp.

Again, Lord Robertson seems to be overestimating the UK’s current power. The Empire is no more, and most of the world will probably just shrug their shoulders and get on with other things.

However, I hope that Scottish independence will have much wider and bigger implications that any of us yet grasp. I hope Scotland will become a democratic beacon and become famous for the reinvention of the welfare state (which is under threat in Scandinavia at the moment).

So the next few months, the people of Scotland have to properly and soberly examine the impact of their decision on the stability of the world. And in that time the rest of the ordered world needs to tell us that is actually cares.

Ah, so the world needs to tell the Scots what to vote. In other words, because we’ve stopped listening to Westminster, Lord Robertson thinks the solution is to get the American government to lecture us on the right way to vote.

I’m sure that would work wonders, because Scots just love to be told what to do, as you would expect from people living in a place that has no language or culture or any of that.

English newspapers in an independent Scotland

The Guardian | Billboard (A)
The Guardian | Billboard (A) by observista, on Flickr.
When I moved to Scotland twelve years ago, I had to find myself a daily newspaper to read. I tried out most of the broadsheets before settling for the Scotsman in the first instance, and later the Herald.

While I was still evaluating the newspapers, one of the easiest decisions was to discard the Independent and the Guardian, although they were my favourite UK newspapers when I still lived in Denmark. This was simply because they sold their normal edition here instead of producing a Scottish edition (like for instance the Times does), and the result was that they almost ignored the Scottish Parliament and the devolved policy areas from a Scottish perspective.

However, I had many English colleagues who were still reading for instance the Guardian after many years in Scotland. I guess they didn’t feel they had moved abroad, moving from one part of the UK to another, so why should they change their newspaper habits of a lifetime? The result was that their knowledge of Scottish affairs was minimal, however. They would assume the Scottish NHS worked in the same was as its English counterpart, for instance, or they would be utterly surprised at the differences in the education system when their first child started school.

Would my English colleagues have done the same if Scotland had been independent at the time? Would they really have moved to another country but not changed their daily newspaper? Would the Independent and the Guardian even have attempted to sell the London edition in Scotland after independence?

Basically newspapers fall into three broad categories in Scotland: (1) Scottish newspapers that are written in Scotland, such as the Herald, the Scotsman and the Record; (2) Scottish editions of English newspapers, such as the Times and the Sun; (3) English newspapers that aren’t changed for the Scottish market, such as the Guardian and the Independent.

Once Scotland is independent, the first group will of course continue as before, and there’s no reason why the second one would need to change their model fundamentally (although it’s likely they’d need to change more contents than they do at the moment). This is indeed what we see in Ireland, where for instance The Sun produces a local edition in Dublin.

However, what will happen to the last group? Will they start producing Scottish editions (e.g., the Scottish Guardian), will they quietly disappear from most shops, or will they just continue to sell their rUK editions in Scotland as if nothing has changed?