All posts by thomas

What devo-max really means

It seems to have become a popular Unionist pastime to devise schemes for slight changes to the devolution settlement, thinking that Scots will mistake them for devo-max and vote No to independence as a consequence.

However, according to the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey (PDF), 32% of Scots agree that “the UK government should make decisions about defence and foreign affairs; the Scottish Parliament should decide everything else” (in addition to the 31% who want all decisions to be made in Scotland). A few cosmetic changes to the status quo are clearly not enough to create a viable alternative to independence.

Public spending Scotland.
Public spending Scotland (from this report [PDF]).
If we look at public spending in Scotland (the graph on the right), it’s clear that more is already spent by Holyrood (the blue bits) than by Westminster (the red bits). To achieve devo-max, the remainder of the “social protection” spending would have to be moved from London to Edinburgh.

Interestingly, the rest of the non-devolved public spending adds up to peanuts (about £8bn), which means that it could all be paid for by VAT (which raised £9347m in 2012-13). As a consequence, all taxation apart from VAT could be devolved to Scotland, and all block grants and other fiscal transfers could be abolished.

There would obviously need to be a federal parliament to deal with foreign affairs, defence and VAT. Because it would have so little to deal with, it could be much smaller than the current House of Commons, and the seats should be allocated according to Penrose’s square-root formula, giving Scotland about 18% of the seats, ensuring that Scotland wouldn’t get less influence than it would have as an independent country.

In addition to the changes above, we’d need a proper constitution, preventing Westminster from ever rolling back devolution against the wishes of Scotland, and enshrining Scotland’s eternal right to self-determination.

There’s no reason why all of the above couldn’t be signed into law before the referendum to ensure that the Unionists don’t suddenly change their mind afterwards.

Sadly, it’s probably more likely that pigs will fly. Unionist politicians are showing absolutely no signs that they’ll ever agree to something as simple and reasonable as this.

Views from visitors

My friend Kakha in the Pot Still
My friend Kakha in the Pot Still, a photo by viralbus on Flickr.
In the past months, foreign visits have taken up a lot of my spare time. A couple of weeks ago, my old friend Kakha from Tbilisi (the capital of Georgia) visited us for a few days, and now my mother has arrived from Denmark. Both have been political activists in the past, so it’s always refreshing to hear their views on the independence debate.

Georgia declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and the following year its autonomous region Abkhazia declared independence from Georgia. Later South Ossetia decided to do the same, which led to the Russo-Georgian war in 2008. In other words, Georgia has both positive and negative experiences with independence movements.

It was therefore necessary for me to persuade Kakha that Scotland is similar to Georgia, not to Abkhazia or South Ossetia. However, both Scotland and Georgia experienced many centuries as independent countries before they became part of a political union with a big neighbour, they maintained a distinct identity within that union, and their right to self-determination was never seriously in doubt, so it wasn’t hard to convince him.

Once that had been settled, Kakha spent the remainder of his visit asking how anybody in their right mind could vote No to independence. He simply couldn’t understand how people who consider themselves Scottish could even contemplate voting against independence. I tried to explain the Scottish cringe and all that, but he didn’t get it. The only explanation that he could see any merit in was when I suggested that some people overestimate Scotland’s influence within the UK. Most other potential reasons were dismissed with words too strong for this blog, especially when I dared to quote the “we’re too poor” line. “But you’ve got whisky and oil!!!” cried Kakha.

My mum is less agitated about the independence issue than Kakha, but she keeps repeating that she doesn’t get why people don’t understand that Westminster wouldn’t be bullying and scaremongering if they didn’t have a lot to lose from Scottish independence, and that Scottish independence must consequently be a good idea.

In their own ways, Kakha and my mum both demonstrate that The Herald’s foreign editor was spot-on when he summarised typical foreign views of the independence referendum:

[E]ven in countries all too familiar with the risks and costs that political separation brings, the anecdotal evidence suggests people still think it a cause we Scots should embrace. Viewed through the prism of such people and their experiences, the ludicrous scaremongering that has been a hallmark of the debate within the UK can be seen for the nonsense that it is. If such people are not afraid, why should we Scots be?

More powers evitable

The Scottish Parliament
The Scottish Parliament, a photo by viralbus on Flickr.
We see many headlines at the moment proclaiming that more powers for the Scottish Parliament are inevitable after a No vote.

I believe many of the people saying this are sincere, and it’s true, of course, that there is an overwhelming consensus in Scotland for many more powers. A referendum offering a system whereby the UK government makes decisions about defence and foreign affairs and the Scottish Parliament decides everything else would have been won by an overwhelming majority if independence hadn’t been an option.

However, if we listen to Scottish unionist politicians (for instance Gordon Brown and Ming Campbell who released their separate proposals today), they don’t agree on much. The common subset might consist of as little as devolving income tax, air passenger duty and the right of the Scottish Parliament to control its own elections. Hardly earth-shattering stuff, and much, much less than what a majority of Scots want.

At this point it’s important to remember that Scottish politicians cannot decide on extended devolution on their own. Whereas a nation such as Scotland arguably has the right to seek independence at any point, changing the devolution settlement can only be done by the Westminster (and rightly so — you cannot have a club where individual members can change the rules on their own).

So how likely is it that Westminster will accept the wishes of their Scottish colleagues after a No vote? In terms of realpolitik, this is what we’re likely to see:

  • No urgency: If the Yes side has just lost the referendum, it’ll take years before the SNP can feasibly try to call another one, so nothing bad will happen if further devolution doesn’t happen immediately. This means it won’t be urgent to do something, so it’ll be tempting simply to set up a commission and tell it to spend five years writing a report.
  • No consensus: Whereas there is consensus in Scotland for further devolution, that is definitely not the case in Westminster. For many different reasons, there is a lot of resistance, and many politicians there would probably call for reduced devolution in some areas as well as cuts to the Barnett formula for calculating the block grant.
  • Other priorities: Scottish independence has dominated the political debate in Scotland for the past two years, but that’s not at all the case in England, where topics such as immigration and the EU seem much more important. This means that it’ll be immensely difficult for the Scottish politicians to get their English counterparts to put anything meaty into the manifestos for the 2015 general election.

In other words, more powers are definitely not inevitable. I’m sure the Scottish unionist politicians will waffle for a long time about more powers, and it’s very likely a Calman II commission will be established, but I sincerely doubt anything more significant will happen after a No vote until such a time as a second independence referendum is about to be called. More powers are very much evitable.

A quickie divorce?

David Cameron and Alex Salmond
David Cameron and Alex Salmond, a photo by The Prime Minister’s Office on Flickr.
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.

Why is devo-max so popular?

Paul Rogers -- Iraq's Pressure Point
Paul Rogers — Iraq’s Pressure Point, a photo by openDemocracy on Flickr.
According to the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey (PDF), 32% of Scots agree that “the UK government should make decisions about defence and foreign affairs; the Scottish Parliament should decide everything else”.

To a naïve observer, that sounds like many Scots aren’t too happy with Westminster’s social spending policies, but that they think their foreign-policy interests are handled well by the government in London.

However, very few Scots seem to love Trident (located very close to Glasgow), and most think the Iraq war was a disaster. Scots in general don’t seem to get excited by the thought of defending the Falklands, either. Furthermore, the instinctive hatred of the EU so common in England is quite unknown in Scotland.

In other words, it seems to me that Scots disagree more with the Westminster consensus with regard to defence and foreign affairs, not less. So why on Earth would a third of Scots want to retain these links?

Could it be that what they actually want is independence with a lifeline? Basically this group of Scots might desire full independence, but they don’t trust themselves and their compatriots not to make a mess of it, so they want the UK to stand ready to save them, in the same way a young adult can move back home with their parents if living alone doesn’t live up to expectations.

I guess that all these devo-max supporters really want is a guarantee by Westminster than the UK can always be recreated at Scotland’s behest. Of course London will never say this, because such a guarantee would be the surest way to ensure a Yes in September.

What we need to do instead is to reassure these voters that Scotland is in a better position than probably any other non-sovereign nation to be a successful independent country, and that an independent Scotland will thus never ever want to recreate the UK. We won’t need that lifeline.

The Eurovision Song Contest, Kosovo and Scotland

Eurovision Song Contest 2011
Eurovision Song Contest 2011, a photo by ianxn on Flickr.
Today’s scare story (do they coordinate them to ensure there’s at least one every day, I wonder?) comes from the Daily Mail:

But now Alex Salmond faces perhaps the biggest threat his dream of Scottish statehood.

For the country’s first minister has now been warned that, if it opts for secession, Scotland might not be allowed to enter the Eurovision Song Contest.


The annual song contest is run by the European Broadcasting Union, and a spokesman said it would require the Scottish broadcaster to re-apply for entry once it leaves the Royaume Uni, as our country is known at Eurovision.

Application involves a complicated list of criteria they would have to meet – and Scotland would not be guaranteed admittance.

Kosovo is not able to enter the song contest, in part because of the opposition of Serbia, the country it seceded from six years ago.

Let’s have a look at Kosovo and Eurovision. Fortunately, The Eurovision Times has written an FAQ on this topic:

After Kosovo’s independence in 2008, the national broadcaster Radio Televizioni i Kosovës (RTK) applied for membership in the EBU (European Broadcasting Union). Membership of the national broadcaster in the EBU is the prerequesite for a Eurovision participation. However, in order to become a member of the EBU, the broadcaster first needs to be a member of the International Telecomunications Union (ITU). And there we have the problem: In order to become a member of the ITU, the country needs to be a member of the United Nations. As Kosovo is still not recognised as an independent country by many countries, for instance Russia, Serbia and Spain, it is not a member of the UN.

It sounds extremely unlikely that Scotland wouldn’t be accepted as a new member by the UN, given that independence will have been won through a democratic process agreed with the UK.

Kosovo’s problems seem to have been caused by the fact that new member applications can be blocked by the permanent members of the UN Security Council (the US, the UK, France, Russia and China), and Russia have decided to block Kosovo’s application (because they’re friendly with Serbia).

It’s thus actually irrelevant whether Spain would be happy with Scottish independence or not (and they have said repeatedly they don’t have a problem with it so long as independence has been achieved through constitutional means). It also seems very unlikely any of the permanent members of the UNSC would want to cause any problems.

In short, it’s practically certain that Scotland will quickly become a member first of the UN, then of the ITU and finally of the EBU, after which Scotland will be free to participate in the Eurovision Song Contest.

Dividing up the Bank of England like a CD collection

The Bank of England is avilable to rent...
The Bank of England is avilable to rent…, a photo by aminorjourney on Flickr.
During his brief visit to Edinburgh, George Osborne said that the pound is not a CD collection that can be divided up.

It was a bit misleading to talk about the pound when what he really meant was the Bank of England — what people commonly refer to as the pound is just the name of the currency it issues.

But why exactly can’t we divide up the Bank of England like a CD collection?

Let’s have a wee look at the BoE’s Annual Report from 2013 (PDF). On page 99 it states that the total assets are worth £58,022m (58 billion pounds), and the bank has put exactly the same amount into circulation as banknotes. This means that Scotland’s 8.3% population share last year was worth £4816m.

Now, obviously we can’t magically turn £4816m worth of banknotes into Scottish ones, so I guess what would happen is that the BoE would withdraw this amount of money from circulation and transfer the corresponding assets to a brand new Central Bank of Scotland, which would then be able to issue a corresponding amount of Pound Scots.

The amounts mentioned above don’t include the UK’s currency reserves (PDF), which belong to the Treasury (although they’re administered by the BoE). In August 2013 the gross currency reserves (including gold and all that) were worth $103,418m, and the net reserves had a value of $44,862m. I’m not an economist, but I presume it’s the latter that are of interest to us here. Scotland would in other words be due currency reserves (including gold) worth $3724m (or roughly £2232m).

Of course, it would hardly be great news for the stability of the Pound Sterling to lose such a great parts of the assets underpinning it from one day to the next, which is why it’s very likely the rUK politicians will start begging Scotland to accept a formal currency union soon after a Yes vote.

If the rUK politicians veto both a currency union and an asset transfer of Scotland’s share of the Bank of England’s assets and the currency reserves, then Scotland will definitely be entitled to refuse to accept any liabilities (in other words, Scotland will start out life as an independent country without a national debt).