Common Weal’s White Paper 1

Last Saturday along with around 800 others I attended the Scottish Independence Convention’s conference on preparing for the next indy referendum. A lot of very interesting and challenging points were raised and I thank SIC for organising the event. Thanks are also due to the indy live team and a special thank you goes to Shona McAlpine who seemed to single handedly be responsible for the event, which she did with charm and efficiency. I don’t want to say anything about the event itself as Thomas Widman has already written about this and I concur with all his points.

What I want to do here is move things on a bit by looking at the draft White Paper produced by Common Weal. This is a positive initiative which deserves a wide audience and constructive criticism. My first thought on reading the paper is that there appears to be very little in the way of international comparisons. This is rather strange as since 1990 we have witnessed the emergence of 12 newly independent states in Europe alone. More if you consider the Caucausian republics as part of Europe. There is therefore a considerable body of evidence and precedent about building a new state. The White Paper as it stands seems to have ignored this.

This lack of international experience is most evident in the first section, which is entitled Interim Governance Period. According to the White Paper, Scotland will need up to three years of interim governance before becoming independent. No reason is given for this long period. It cannot be based on the experience of other European countries, none of which needed anything like a three year waiting period. Most managed to become independent with hardly any waiting period at all. For example, Slovenia held a referendum on 23rd December 1990 and declared independence on 25th June 1991. Montenegro needed even less time. The referendum was held on 21st May 2006 and independence was declared on 3rd June of the same year. Some countries moved to independence without a referendum. Slovakia for example passed an act of independence in their parliament on 17th July 1992. There followed five months of negotiations which ended with the dissolution of Czechoslovakia on 31st December 1992. Slovakia then became formally independent on 1st January 1993.

There are two points from the above that are relevant here. The first is that it appears that no other country has needed anything like an extensive interim period prior to independence. Certainly nothing like three years. This does not mean that Scotland does not need such an extensive interim period. What it does mean though is that if you are advocating this interim period, you ought to proved some kind of coherent reason for it. Not just plough on regardless. The second point is that in the examples above, independence came without the full conclusions of negotiations. In some cases independence came before negotiations had even started.

This leads on to the specifics of the proposals in the White Paper. Even if, as I would argue, an extended interim period is not needed, there will still be a need for negotiations and a transition. The White Paper proposes a National Commission(NC) for the creation of a Scottish State. There is merit in this idea. However where I take issue with the White Paper is its proposal that the NC be governed by a Council, separate from the government. Not at all sure why we would need this Council. It would be in effect an additional, parallel government. This would be cumbersome, burocratic, undemocratic and likely to be confusing to the public.

The White Paper charges the NC with five specific tasks. These are:

  1. design the institutions of an independent Scotland
  2. implement these institutions
  3. negotiate the terms of separation from UK
  4. develop a constitution
  5. set a date for independence

These are in essence what needs to be done. However it is not at all clear why they all need to be done after a referendum and before a declaration of independence. Tasks 1, 4 and 5 can all be done well before the next referendum, never mind independence day. They may not all be completed, but most of the work can be done before another referendum. This is particularly the case with the first task. Again the experience of other countries will come in handy here.  Developing a constitution can be started this year. I am in favour of this, as developing a constitution could be a positive way of engaging members of the public.

The other two tasks clearly cannot be completed or even undertaken before the next referendum.  However much work on the third task can be begun now. It would in fact be very helpful if the parameters of the separation deal were established sooner rather than later. Again the experience of other countries will provide evidence on how these negotiations can be conducted and what they will cover. We can also state in advance the principles that we would want to underpin the negotiations.

Much of the work which the White Paper seeks to entrust to this NC after a referendum is already underway. Some of it by Common Weal itself. Which makes it all the more surprising why the White Paper is so wedded to this Interim governance period. What we do need more of is to look at the experience of other newly independent countries and learn from them. Something the White Paper does not seem to have done.



Filed under Independence, Politics, Scotland, Uncategorized

3 responses to “Common Weal’s White Paper 1

  1. Thanks Alister – thoughtful analysis, as ever. Your criticisms of the need for a long “interim governance period” and international counter-examples are well-made.
    I would partly disagree in that I think that there is no reason why some of the institutions can’t be put in place ahead of independence. For example the current local authority structure and lack of proper local democratic councils and their financing in Scotland can be addressed within the powers of the Scottish parliament and is valuable and necessary work whether or not independence is achieved. There are other example too, such as national Investment Bank or regional investment banks. If structures and processes could be created or re-shaped to how we want them in advance of Independence this would surely not only reduce the work that had to be done after a Yes vote, but would also demonstrate our capacity to do this sort of work (and thereby improve the argument for ability to govern ourselves). Like you I thought that Common Weal previously argued that in the Book of Ideas?

    At the same time the interim period can be reduced if we don’t think we have to have a 100 percent perfectly mapped out constitution ahead of independence. Surely some of what is eventually put in place depends on the outcomes of the Separation terms – such as what portion of UK debt Scotland inherits (if any).

  2. Hi Alister.
    As one of the contributors to the White Paper I hope I can offer something by way of reply to your comments here.
    We have looked in detail at the separation processes employed by the countries mentioned but we’ve so far (albeit tentatively) concluded that many of them wouldn’t map to Scotland’s case exactly. In many cases the new and successors states involved had previously been members of Federal countries and enjoyed far greater levels of internal power and autonomy than is presently seen in Scotland. In particular, many of these states had their own already functional Central Banks which worked in conjunction with the Federal bank above them. This meant that on the declaration of independence (or even quietly beforehand) the printing and issuing of new currencies could begin very quickly. Similar levels of autonomy were enjoyed in many areas of the civil service too which, while they took instruction from Federal level, were still employed locally and could be quickly redirected.

    Scotland currently lacks a lot of these structures therefore we felt that some time would be required to set them up. (As has been mentioned, some of these structure might be able to be set up beforehand but this would quickly run up against the very tight limits set by the Scotland Act not to mention some uncertainty introduced by the very nature of any Scotland – rUK deal). The three year timetable is particularly set by the desire to have our currency up and fully running on independence day.

    I should also point out that some of the separation arrangements were not so straightforward or as fast as you may have implied. The Balkan states in particular (placing the wars they fought between themselves to the side) ended up spending years, more than a decade, sorting out issues such as the final agreement of debt and asset negotiations especially as the fractious breakup of the state resulted in creditors (including the UK:- themselves becoming involved in the separation. Our position on debt and asset separation reflects the desire to avoid this situation.

    This all said, we have stated that our v1.0 of the White Paper is provisional and iterative so if it becomes clear that the timetable can and should be compressed then we are more than amenable to that.

    Finally, we are more than happy to bring on board anyone who thinks there is something in the White Paper which is either missing or could be improved and who think they have a particular expertise in that area to help us iterate the next version, We can be contacted at

    Thank you for the comments. They are genuinely helpful and we hope that our work has helped push on the independence debate in a similarly helpful manner.

    • Thanks for your considered response. I appreciate that the former communist states of central and eastern Europe had a quite different history from Scotland.
      However as part of a command economy I am not sure how much real autonomy these countries really had. As regards central banks, from my limited research these were only established either just before or at independence. They may have been preceded by some kind of national bank, but one without the full regulatory or currency issuing powers of a central bank. In most if not all cases, these countries emitted their own currencies within months of declaring independence.
      It is also the case that in Scotland we have had already four years in which much has been written and produced about transiting to independence, including a new currency. This work is continuing by Common Weal and others. When independence does come, we will be very far along the line regards preparation.
      A final point on the politics of this. I would find it very hard to campaign for a Yes vote on the basis that after winning a referendum, Scotland was to remain for another three years at the mercy of a nasty right wing government able to wreck further havoc on our economy and welfare. Not to mention the risk of getting forced into further illegal wars.

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