Friday, 29 November 2013

SCOTLAND-U.K.: Road to Independence

Next autumn, the people of Scotland will vote on whether the nation should become an independent country. After much teasing - Scottish First Minister and Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond named the day as Thursday, 18 September, 2014. Incidentally, next year is the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, which saw the English army defeated by the forces of King of Scots Robert the Bruce, during the wars of independence.

The campaign for Scottish home rule began in earnest almost as soon as the unification with England took place, in 1707. At the time, the view was that Scotland was desperate for cash, but opponents of the move were outraged by claims that the Scots who put their names to the Act of Union were bribed.

Fast forward many years to 1934, and the establishment of the Scottish National Party, created through the amalgamation of the Scottish Party and the National Party of Scotland. After decades of ups and downs, the nationalists won their first election in 2007, forming a minority government, before becoming the first party to win an overall majority at Holyrood in the 2011 poll - securing a mandate for an independence referendum.

The UK government agreed to give temporary powers to the Scottish Parliament to hold a legal referendum, under Section 30 of the 1998 Scotland Act - the piece of legislation which set up the Scottish Parliament. The Edinburgh Agreement also commits both governments to working together constructively in the best interests of the people of Scotland, whatever the outcome of the referendum - possibly easier said than done.

Now Alex Salmond wants to declare "Independence Day" in March 2016, with the first elections to an independent parliament in May. Before that happens though, a constitutional settlement would need to be agreed with the UK government, involving weighty issues which may take a long time to resolve, mainly defense and financial front. Even after independence is achieved there are other hurdles to clear - European Union and Nato membership to name but two.

It was the most detailed blueprint for a nation's independence ever produced anywhere in the world, Alex Salmond proudly announced on Tuesday as he launched his independence white paper in Glasgow. With the long-awaited and stylishly presented document weighing in at 670 pages, Salmond may well be right.

But that sheer comprehensiveness also masks the scale of the challenge facing Scotland's first minister between now and the historic referendum next September as he battles to turn around the consistently skeptical message of the opinion polls.

Defense Issues

According to Alex Salmond's blueprint, an independent Scotland would allow submarines and warships armed with nuclear weapons from the US, Britain and other Nato countries to dock in its ports as part of what was dubbed as a "don't ask, don't tell" policy to guarantee membership of the North Atlantic alliance. The fresh approach suggests that British nuclear submarines will be allowed to join other Nato nuclear vessels operating in Scottish waters.

Amid concerns in Washington that a nuclear free Scotland would ban its warships and submarines with nuclear weapons from the vast Scottish territorial waters in the North Atlantic, the white paper commits an independent Scotland to follow the example of the Nato members Norway and Denmark.
It starts by stating: "It is our firm position that an independent Scotland should not host nuclear weapons and that we would only join Nato on that basis."

But the white paper then states that – like Norway and Denmark – an independent Scotland would allow Nato to visit Scottish ports "without confirming or denying whether they carry nuclear weapons". It added: "We intend that Scotland will adopt a similar approach as Denmark and Norway in this respect." The UK government claimed that the Scottish government had embarked on a major dilution of its pledge to create a nuclear-free Scotland.

The white paper offered further assurances on defense by saying that conventional military bases would be shared between Scottish and UK forces in an independent Scotland for a transitional period. This could even continue after the transitional period.

The white paper said: "The negotiation of shared arrangements as a transitional measure would not preclude such arrangements being carried forward into the longer term, where both the rest of the UK and Scotland considered them the most effective means of delivering defense capabilities."

Currency Issues

As part of what is being called by the UK government a "de-risking strategy" to reassure undecided voters, who account for as much almost a quarter (24%) of the electorate, the white paper confirmed that an independent Scotland would insist on forming a sterling currency union with the remainder of the UK. The SNP had previously proposed such a union as an initial step before joining the euro.

The sterling currency union was rejected as fantasy by the former Labour chancellor Alistair Darling, who heads the pro-UK Better Together campaign. This prompted Salmond to warn that David Cameron would be in breach of his undertakings to the Scottish people if he rejected a currency union.

The first minister pointed out that in last year's Edinburgh agreement, which paved the way for the referendum, the two governments agreed to respect the referendum result and to work constructively "in the best interests of the people of Scotland and of the rest of the United Kingdom". Salmond said: "The Bank of England and sterling are as much Scotland's assets as London's assets. They are certainly not George Osborne's assets. We put forward in this paper our willingness to accept liabilities. We are also entitled to the share of assets."

The warning on the shared currency was dismissed by the UK government and by pro-UK campaigners. UK government sources said that sterling is an institution, rather than asset, which means that an independent Scotland would be in no position to link it to a negotiation on the breakdown of UK assets and liabilities.

British Prime Minister David Cameron on Wednesday dismissed the Scottish government's vision of how the country would look if it votes for independence next year, accusing nationalists of ducking the biggest policy questions. "When it comes to the economy, when it comes to jobs, when it comes to Europe, all the arguments are for staying together," David Cameron told parliament on Wednesday. "Should the people of Scotland vote to become independent, a currency union would be highly unlikely," Cameron concluded.

European Union Issues

The SNP's White Paper on Scottish independence published on Tuesday argues that Scotland will be able to negotiate a "smooth transition" to full EU membership between the referendum result in 2014 and 2016 when the break with the UK would be complete.

"The Scottish Government, supported by the overwhelming majority of Members of the Scottish Parliament, believes that membership of the EU is in the best interests of Scotland. It is our policy, therefore, that an independent Scotland will continue as a member of the EU," the document adds.

However to become the 29th member of the EU, Scotland would need to win agreement of all current 28 members. And the Spanish may be less than keen to set the precedent of giving a breakaway state an easy ride in its membership talks.

An independent Scotland would not automatically become a member of the European Union, the Spanish prime minister has warned. "I respect all the decisions taken by the British, but I know for sure that a region that would separate from a member state of the European Union would remain outside the European Union and that should be known by the Scots and the rest of the European citizens".

The comments by Mariano Rajoy are a damaging blow to Alex Salmond's claim that Scotland would be able to negotiate its long-term membership of the EU from within the bloc, should Scots vote to break-up the United Kingdom in 2014. Rajoy's comments have also been interpreted as a warning to the Catalan region of Spain, whose regional government wants to hold its own referendum on independence from Madrid.

A spokesman for Scotland's deputy first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, rejected Rajoy's assessment. “Scotland is already an integral part of the EU, and there is nothing in the entire body of EU treaties which provides for the expulsion of an existing territory or the removal of its inhabitants’ rights as EU citizens," he said.

Looming Struggles

Many of history's classic struggles for independence have come down to the inspirational allure of a single word – freedom – rather than 170,000 words of densely packed argument. But that's a tribute to the nature of the task that Scotland's nationalist government has set itself. It won't win next year's vote by Braveheart-style appeals to blood and soil. But it may win by persuading enough doubtful Scots that separation offers them a better material deal than anything that is likely to come from London in the near future.

Alex Salmon and the SNP have put an immense effort into the new document. It is full of detail on everything from economic policy to international relations, taking in the nationalists' signature pledges to banish the UK's Trident submarines from the Clyde but to keep the pound. All these issues will be tested to destruction in the months ahead. Some already have been.

But this is not a conventional white paper. Many of the document's most-important pledges are aspirational. It is not in the SNP's power to guarantee that an independent Scotland will share the pound, or be able to join the EU, or be a member state of the Nato alliance. All of them are probable outcomes, in some form, if Scots vote yes next year. But all of them are subject to negotiation. The real outcomes, if they happen, will be compromises. So this document is in many respects not a pledge but a bargaining position.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

Photo-Credit: AFP- First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond-presenting his blueprint for Independence in Glasgow, last Tuesday.