The agreement being signed now, 15th October 2012, by UK Prime Minister David Cameron and Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, is the formal opening of the gate to a single track road to a referendum on Scottish independence to be held in the Autumn of 2014.
The agreement confers upon Scotland the Section 30 powers legally to hold such a referendum, with the wording of the single Yes/No question and by the Electoral Commission and issues around campaign spending conducted under advice from the Electoral Commission.
The referendum will be held in 2014 and must be held by December 2014.
16 and 17 year olds will be permitted to vote.
Both the Scottish and UK governments are committing themselves to work for the future of Scotland – whatever the outcome – which binds each of them to positivity in the case of either result.
There is now no reason why a specific date should not be set on which this vote will be held. Will it be announced at the coming SNP Conference? That might focus minds away from the division on NATO membership.
We have around two years between now and this referendum – a marathon for all concerned.
During that time it is to be hoped that the Scottish Government drops the extreme tedium of its present campaign mode.
Just about every press release and every government minister’s statement on pretty well anything carries a version of the mantra that whatever Scotland cannot do, whatever unsatisfactory action its government may have taken or whatever problems it faces – it’s Westminster’s fault.
With two years to go and with planning for this event going on since 2007, what we need over this prolonged period is not endless reruns of praise and blame but hard facts. They must be known by now. If not, why not? They must be prepared and published.
We need to see the detail of what even bringing independence about would cost – with the severance of all of the unified systems managing records – on, amongst others, taxes, immigration, passports, driving licences – with complex data transfers and the creation of separate organisations and record keeping systems for Scotland.
We need to see the detail and the specific costs of an independence deal – what would we have to pay, for instance, towards a national debt run up, in part, on our behalf? We would need to accept a fair and agreed proportion of that debt burden which we ourselves would have to finance. Independence cannot be seen as a plan to take a nation into administration.
We need to understand what sort of border controls we would have and what these would cost us. The rest of the UK has an interest in this because if Scotland cannot afford the sort of defence services we have had or if its border controls are unenforceable, our borders then become a point of vulnerability for our sister countries.
At an experiential level, border controls will simultaneously create physical independence and physical isolation.
Currency is a borders issue, certainly in terms of reinforcing a specific identity. If, as seems currently planned, Scotland keeps the GBP, this does raise issues of the meaning of ‘independence’ but would create fewer problems and costs at a practical and an experiential level. When the Republic of Ireland broke parity with the pound sterling, I lived through the painful consequences in finding that, when I crossed the largely unmarked border into the south, I had to go to foreign exchange counters in banks. There was nothing unmarked about that alienation in a country where I had lived the sense of belonging in every part of it.
On its current spending levels, Scotland needs subsidy. Where, post-independence, would that subsidy come from?
We need to understand what we would no longer have, post-independence, because we could not afford it – such as the spectrum of universal benefits we enjoy. We need to be part of deciding what the priorities for benefits in an independent Scotland would be, because they will have to be prioritised. It is arguable that this will have to be the case in the UK too.
We need a detailed and costed balance sheet – our traditional spending needs are known but much of our earning power is projected. The accuracy and the sustainability of revenue generating projections needs to be tested by being given and interrogated. Wish lists will not cut it.
Whatever each individual spiritually prefers, union or independence, no one would vote for hardship.
Assurances of prosperity need to be replaced with the credibility of robust facts and figures that withstand the most hostile interrogation. Nothing else is good enough for Scotland. This is, rightly, a secure and hard headed nation, not one that can, overall, be sold a blindfold adventure to a largely unknown destination on a wing and a prayer.
Campaigning for independence requires the highest responsibility from our government because independence is a one way road.
We can choose to leave. We cannot choose to come back if it doesn’t work.
Therefore we have to know and be assured of the security of the detail of the consequences before we make our minds up.
We are entitled to expect the government to deliver the necessary detail of consequences; just as we are equally entitled to expect the UK government to put forwards costed details of possible political regeneration within the UK.
Whichever route we choose, nothing will be the same again after this vote; and that is an issue with which the unionists need to engage at a level of hard facts just as much as do the nationalists.
It is not just the future of Scotland that is in the hands of Scottish voters. It is the future of the UK.
One issue which marks irrevocable change as a result of the independence referendum now agreed is that 16 and 17 year olds are to be given the right to vote in it.
Yet the Prime Minister is saying that, nevertheless, these teenagers will not, be permitted to vote in UK general elections, This seems inconsistent to the point of being indefensible.
How can you argue that these young virgin voters may vote on the issue of taking a nation to independence in perpetuity – but cannot vote to elect a government to serve for a five year term.
If Scotland votes to stay in the union, how do you put these 16 and 17 year olds back in the box for a year or two? How can you logically regard them as worthy of carrying the weightiest responsibility one day but not to be trusted with a much lesser responsibility the next?
Is Scotland votes for independence, will 16 and 17 year olds in other parts of the UK accept that they cannot vote, where their peers in Scotland vote? Scotland, once independent, could not feasibly remove this right to vote on much lesser matters like transient governments.
This is a step that will change every part of the UK, whether or not it remains united.
Finally, it remains a matter of incredulity that the percentage of a majority required to enact independence has not been an issue.
When one thinks of the convoluted electoral arrangements made to elect, say, a leader of the UK Labour Party – who may never govern – how can it be deemed acceptable for a single vote to carry a nation to independence?