I spent last week in Scotland. It proved the worst week for Scottish nationalists since they took control of government there.
The Scottish National party government plans a referendum in the second half of 2014 on separation from the UK. But the core vote for independence is about 25 per cent of the electorate. The challenge for nationalists is to at least double that number. Extreme discontent such as a global economic crisis might do it. Otherwise they must persuade the complacent and fearful middle that under independence things would be just the same, only better.
That is a hard proposition to articulate, even more to sell. The attempt alienates many of your supporters. For 50 years after Irish independence, the country’s development was held back by a romantic vision of a self-sufficient utopia. Only after Ireland joined the EU in 1973 did it come to terms with the realities of life as a small country in an interconnected world.
But that fantasy has its Scottish analogue. Last week two pacifist members of the Scottish parliamentresigned from the SNP. Their defection theoretically jeopardised the Scottish government’s majority at Holyrood. Not really, because the romantics have nothing else about which to dream.
What would an independent Scotland actually be like, however? The only sensible answer is that no one really knows, because the outcome would be the result of protracted negotiations between the putatively independent country and its international partners, particularly the EU and the continuing government of the UK. The subjects of discussion would range from currency, fiscal co-ordination and immigration policies to value added tax dispensations, accumulated pension rights and maritime boundaries.
To ask either proponents or opponents of independence to explain how these issues would be resolved is a waste of time. A waste of time because both groups are presenting exaggerated pictures to rally support. A waste of time because initial positions are negotiating stances, not expectations of outcome. But most of all a waste of time because it is evident that few participants in the debate, on either side, have thought about the questions raised in any serious or specific detail.
As was illustrated last week when the strange claim that Scotland’s membership of the EU would be automatic confronted its own reality. The supporting legal advice which the Scotland government had fought in the courts not to disclose turns out never to have existed. To suppose the first minister of Scotland could arrive uninvited in Brussels, no doubt accompanied by the pipes and guns of the Gordon Highlanders, to demand his rightful place at the top table, was perhaps the most ludicrous of romantic fallacies.
An independent Scotland would inevitably become a member of the EU – to deny the application of a new democratic western European state would contradict all the principles on which the institution is based. But the grubby reality is that difficult details of accession would have to be agreed, and that Spain and Belgium, which have separatist movements of their own, would have reason to adopt an unhelpful stance.
Discussions within the UK would also be problematic. The record of the UK Treasury is that no power it currently enjoys is relinquished without a fight. Scotland is less than 10 per cent of the UK, and this creates an asymmetry in discussions with both the EU and the UK that reflects a corresponding asymmetry of resources – and of interest. For Scotland the resolution of its negotiations is crucial; for everyone else, the entire issue is an irrelevant distraction.
These exchanges illustrate that, at a fundamental level, this debate is not yet serious. Current polls show the independence movement well short of a majority. But there are two wild cards – the considerable political skills of Alex Salmond, the SNP leader and Scottish first minister, and the unpopularity of the UK coalition government in Scotland. Still, the likely result is that the independence vote will be lost. But only if, and after, such a vote is won will a substantive process of working out what independence would actually entail in practice begin.