The Scottish Government suggested in the White Paper that a year and half would be sufficient to conclude the independence negotiations, leading to an independence date of 24 March 2016 (in other words, 554 days including the end points). This has always seemed to me like a very sensible suggestion.
However, many unionists have been complaining for a while that a year and a half is a ridiculously short time to unravel a 300-year partnership, and recently they even started threatening that they could stall the negotiations.
This threat was first made by one of David Cameron’s colleagues:
The planned Independence Day of March 24, 2016, will not happen, leaving the current set-up as the “default option”, unless negotiations between Edinburgh and London are completed satisfactorily, according to one of Prime Minister David Cameron’s most senior colleagues.
Dismissing the SNP Government’s 18-month timescale for completing negotiations as “totally unrealistic”, the source said: “A Yes vote in the referendum would be the start of a process, not the end of one; we would start negotiations. But if Alex Salmond made impossible demands, we would not just roll over and agree to everything he wanted. If we could not reach agreement, the status quo would be the default option.”
The senior Coalition figure said one such impossible demand would be the First Minister’s threat, repeated yesterday, that Scotland would not pay its share of UK debt if it were denied a currency union by Whitehall.
He was soon after backed up by a Labour peer:
Independence will “not automatically” follow a Yes vote in September’s referendum, according to a Labour peer and expert on the constitution.
Baroness Jay echoed claims of a senior Coalition source last week that the status quo could continue despite a vote to leave the UK.
Added Baroness Jay: “You can’t just start unpicking the constitutional arrangements. There would have to be paving legislation at Westminster first, then there’s the question of who would carry out the negotiations.
“These issues raise the idea that just because Scotland voted for independence in the referendum, it wouldn’t automatically happen.”
Finally, David Mundell has now also joined the bandwagon:
On what many see as a hostage to fortune – the First Minister’s declaration of March 24 2016 as Independence Day in the event of a Yes vote — the Scotland Office Minister appears clear that the timescale is wholly unrealistic, has “no legal status” and is just “an aspiration”.
“It’s only achievable if he was willing to make huge concessions on what his position is. Either he is immediately going to throw the towel in on a whole range of issues or it’s simply not achievable.”
He goes on: “It’s going to be more than 18 months if there is going to be meaningful negotiation on significant issues. I don’t suggest it’s a direct comparison but many people who have been through a divorce know that 18 months can be quite an optimistic timescale to get through that; that’s just two individuals trying to disentangle their lives. It can only be achieved from very significant concessions.”
However, if we look at other countries that have gained their independence, we find that most of them went through a much more rapid independence process.
For instance, when Czechoslovakia was dissolved, the amount of time from the Slovakian declaration of independence to independence day was 168 days (17 July to 31 December), although many details didn’t get sorted out till years later. However, after 31 December the negotiations took place between two independent countries.
Most other cases I’ve found were even faster — frequently practically instant.
It makes sense if you think about it. It will be almost impossible to concentrate on normal politics while independence negotiations are happening, and as the quotes above demonstrate clearly, there will be a huge incentive for Westminster to stall the negotiations until they get what they want. (“We won’t agree to independence unless you agree to a 100-year lease for Faslane, sign over 90% of the oil fields and take on half the UK’s debt.”)
If the independence negotiations get stuck, it might become necessary to declare UDI, telling the international community that Westminster has reneged on the Edinburgh Agreement which compelled them to negotiate in good faith: “The two governments are committed to continue to work together constructively in the light of the outcome, whatever it is, in the best interests of the people of Scotland and of the rest of the United Kingdom.”
However, threats such as the ones mentioned above make me wonder whether there is any point in negotiating for 18 months if it’s likely we’ll be forced into declaring UDI anyway. Wouldn’t it be better simply to declare independence a few months after the referendum and then negotiate with Westminster as two independent countries?
The most likely reason why the White Paper is suggesting a long negotiation phase is to ensure that EU membership can be put in place before independence day. There’s no reason for the EU to act in a petty or vindictive manner, so it makes sense to negotiate the continued membership terms slowly and carefully.
I’d like to think that the Westminster politicians will become reasonable soon after a Yes vote. However, I fear it will become necessary to say in no uncertain terms that Scotland will declare independence on 24 March 2016 whether the negotiations have been completed or not in order to remove Westminster’s incentive to drag their feet.
We should also plan for the possibility that Westminster won’t negotiate for real at all, in which case we might as well declare independence in 2015. It might become a quickie divorce after all.