George Osborne says the Treasury won’t permit Scotland to use the UK pound, supposing Scotland votes for independence. In May 2015 – regardless of how Scotland votes in September – Osborne’s reign as least-qualified British Chancellor since the one who forgot his budget speech in 1869 comes to an end, so his pronouncements are necessarily limited to campaigning for a Yes vote.
(What? There was another reason for his coming up to Scotland? Seriously, does anyone think a very posh, very English Tory Minister telling Scots what they can and cannot do is likely to be anything but a drawback for the Better Together campaign?)
Quite possibly the worst result for 18th September would be for fewer than 50% of the electorate to vote, but for Yes to win by a narrow margin. The more Conservative Ministers moved to join the debate the better in that regard.
In theory – according to the terms of the agreement signed by David Cameron and Alex Salmond – a 51% win of those who voted is enough to determine independence. And if enough people vote – if the turnout is 70% or so, equivalent to the general elections of the 1990s – then I don’t think people would cavil at a narrow margin of victory for Yes.
Well, yes they would – some people will always cavil – but looking at the figures for turnouts at elections and referendums from 1979 to 2012, which have clearly been diminishing over time but as clearly show a greater level of interest in voting for Westminster elections than for Scottish Parliament elections, if fewer than 60% turn out to vote, the status quo has effectively won by proven voter-disinterest.
The most disastrous result possible: if a low percentage turn out to vote – say 39.8%, as estimated in 2012 for the council elections – and out of that low percentage, 51% vote Yes, no one but hardline Yes supporters could regard it as legitimate for about 20% of the electorate to decide that Scotland should be independent – but those hardline Yes supporters would certainly get very, very angry.
For the result to be democratically satisfactory, enough people must vote.
This is not, however, what the dramatic headline in today’s Herald seems to convey. What an unnamed “senior coalition source” told the Herald was that even if Scotland votes for independence, independence day on 24th March 2016 “will not happen” unless negotiations between Edinburgh and London are “completed satisfactorily”.
“Dismissing the SNP Government’s 18-month timescale for completing negotiations as ‘totally unrealistic’, the source said: ‘A Yes vote in the referendum would be the start of a process, not the end of one; we would start negotiations. But if Alex Salmond made impossible demands, we would not just roll over and agree to everything he wanted. If we could not reach agreement, the status quo would be the default option.'”
The campaign grandstanding over the issue of currency union – especially Alex Salmond’s silly threat that Scotland wouldn’t accept the share of National Debt proportional to its population – was named as one such “impossible demand”, but there’s two other far more dicey areas. Use of the pound by an independent Scotland may or may not be the best decision for Scotland, but there’s no reason for rUK to object to it except as a campaign strategy.
But there are at least two “impossible demands” that Salmond is pledged to make: Nuclear weapons, and oil/Scottish territorial waters.
To ensure that the nuclear weapons are removed from Scottish soil before 24th March 2016 will cost the rUK government billions: if they decide to keep the nuclear subs and construct a base somewhere on the coast of England, this will be “eye-wateringly” expensive: according to the UK’s Ministry of Defence, there are no contingency plans for the nuclear vessels to leave Faslane for a base as yet unbuilt in the event of Yes winning, because the scale and cost of any such relocation away from Faslane would be so huge. Fantastic plans of declaring Faslane a sort of English Guantanamo Bay, or making Scotland pay for the costs of relocation, were being mooted last summer: in fact the White Paper includes a suggestion that rUK nuclear subs might well be allowed to continue to use Faslane.
The ideal solution, obviously, would be for the rUK government – which would then most likely be Labour, not Tory/LibDem – to acknowledge that nuclear weapons are an expensive, foolish waste of resources, and to accept that Scotland’s refusal to host them means the time has come for the whole of the British Isles to be nuclear-free. But, it is such a huge bargaining chip that no one can quite believe Alex Salmond would refrain from using it to gain other concessions, which he might regard as more important: the SNP u-turn on NATO membership certainly doesn’t suggest any principled opposition to nuclear weapons.
The other “impossible demand” is for the oil.
90% of the UK’s oil deposits are in Scottish territorial waters, if the territorial line is drawn according to the usual cartographer’s principles. But if the UK government say it is an impossible demand for Scotland to get 90% of the oil, and insist that independence can only be allowed if the UK oil is divided proportional to the UK population, or that the maritime boundaries must stay where they were agreed to in 1999, this is a matter which I doubt Alex Salmond would give in on or bargain away: but the rUK government is very unlikely to want to let those resources go.
Fighting over a currency union makes a loud and showy noise. It’s very unwise of Alex Salmond to try to tie this nonsense fight over currency to a threat that Scotland would refuse to accept its share of the National Debt, proportionate to its population. None of this matters if – as still seems most likely – No wins the referendum. But all of it matters if Yes wins, and Salmond has declared that all rights and obligations of independence are up for negotiation.
- 2012: Scottish council elections, 39.8% (est)
- 2011: Scottish Parliament election, 50.4%
- 2010: United Kingdom general election, 63.8%
- 2007: Scottish Parliament election, 51.8%
- 2005: United Kingdom general election, 60.6%
- 2003: Scottish Parliament election, 49.4%
- 2001: United Kingdom general election, 58.2%
- 1999: Scottish Parliament election, 59%
- 1997: Scottish devolution referendum, 60.4%
- 1997: United Kingdom general election, 71.3%
- 1992: United Kingdom general election, 75.5%
- 1987: United Kingdom general election, 75.1%
- 1983: United Kingdom general election, 72.7%
- 1979: United Kingdom general election, 76.84%
- 1979: Scottish devolution referendum, 63.8%
Update, 3rd June 2014: According to a recent Ipsos Mori poll, 82% of Scots intend to vote, which would give the referendum – whatever the result – strong democratic legitimacy.