While we await with bated breath the outcome of the European Parliament elections, time for a little indulgence into the realm of speculation. In this case the date of Scottish independence if we vote Yes this year. The common assumption is that this will be in May 2016. This is what the Scottish government are proposing in their White Paper and most people seem to just go along with this timetable. But Alan Trench, an academic who specialises in devolution matters, begs to differ, and he has written an interesting article on this subject for the Guardian’s Comment is Free site. You can read his piece here.
As Mr Trench points out the May 2016 date is very convenient for Scotland as it fits in perfectly with our electoral timetable. It also has the advantage of allowing around 18 months to complete most, if not all, the negotiations around independence. However, this date is not at all convenient for the rest of the UK. Primarily because a UK general election is due in May 2015. This will throw up all sorts of complications and distractions for the UK side of the negotiations. There is also the not inconsiderable matter of what to do with MPs from Scottish constituencies during the period between May 2015 and Scottish independence in May 2016. Mr Trench’s proposal very nicely cuts away all these complications and distractions.
While Mr Trench’s proposal is primarily aimed at making this easier for the UK government, it also has in my view much merit from a Scottish perspective. Independence in May 2015 doesn’t affect the Scottish elections planned for 2016. The only argument against a May 2015 date for independence is that this is far too short a period for completing the negotiations. But is this either true or more important, relevant?
I suggest that whatever date is chosen for independence, it is primarily an arbitrary one. If the idea is to wait until all the negotiations are completed and signed off, we could be waiting a very long time for independence. Certainly May 2016 is no guarantee that everything will be signed off. Since any date for independence will be an arbitrary choice, why not go for the earliest date possible?
For a bit of perspective on this, let us look at the experience of Montenegro, the most recent country in Europe to become independent. The independence referendum in Montenegro took place on 21st May, 2006. On 3rd June, 2006 the parliament of Montenegro declared the country independent. Now I cannot imagine that any negotiations between Montenegro and Serbia took place in that short period, let alone were completed. Yet Montenegro became independent within a fortnight of its referendum. This early declaration of independence does not seem to have caused Montenegro any particular difficulty or damaging consequences. The EU recognised Montenegro as an independent country on 12th June, 2006, the UK did so on 13th June, 2006 and even Spain did so on 16th June, 2006. Montenegro was admitted to the UN as an independent country on 28th June, 2006. By the end of that same year, Montenegro had been accepted as a full member by most of the international and regional organizations.
So the case of Montenegro shows that independence can be declared almost immediately after a successful referendum. However I would caution against such a very early declaration for Scotland. The greater integration of Scotland in the global economy and its membership of the EU for example all point to the need for some kind of agreement with the rest of the UKK in order to make the transition to independence as smooth and seamless as possible. However, there is no need for most of these issues to be completely resolved before independence. The key will be to establish a framework and to carry out any negotiations with goodwill. Agreement will need to be reached on a few matters prior to independence, but not many. Surprisingly, currency is not likely to be one of them. If the UK government agrees in principle to a currency union, then the details can be worked out over time and a transitional package can be put in place to cover the early months of independence. If on the other hand, George Osborne sticks to his guns and absolutely rules out a currency union, then there is little if anything, to negotiate about. Scotland can make whatever arrangements it wants to continue using sterling, while we can decide in the long run what currency option to go for. Much the same will apply to the EU. Since it is inconceivable that the EU would or even could expel us, they will reach some kind of arrangement with us, more or less on the current terms, pending a full agreement in due course.
Perhaps the one issue that will need to be sorted out prior to independence will be over taxation. The Scottish government will need to be assured that all taxes due from individuals and companies based in Scotland do in fact got to Edinburgh and not to Westminster. Revenues from the North Sea for example. As the UK operates an integrated and rather complex, not to say inefficient taxation system, this could prove a bit of a hassle to resolve by May 2015. Again it may not be necessary to have everything sorted out by then. They key will be that both sides are satisfied that they can trust each other. Some kind of transitional mechanisms will need to be in place whenever independence comes.
The bottom line is that it can be done in time for a 7th May declaration of independence. As Mr Tench points out all that is needed is “a very rough-and-ready negotiation of independence”. This may or not be “horrendously difficult to accomplish”, but it will concentrate the minds of the negotiators wonderfully and most of all removes from the equation the uncertainties that holding a UK general election in May 2015 will throw up. Let’s go for 7th May 2015 as Scottish Independence Day!