The UK Government has now taken to using publicly a clear line about the independence referendum. A Yes vote, and Scottish independence, will lead to Scotland leaving the United Kingdom (despite semantic objections from the Yes side). That means an independent Scotland will also cease to be part of UK institutions. It can’t expect to be able to maintain participation in such bodies as the Bank of England (as emphasised by the row over currency union), the BBC (illustrated by Maria Miller’s comments in Oxford), and others. The European Union is another of these. Lord Wallace’s impending speech makes the point vividly clear. Expect to see the research councils added to the list over the coming weeks, as another body where an ‘independent’ Scotland would seek to share arrangements with rUK. There may be some hard choices to be made about a common travel area and its security implications. The ground for both of those has already been laid in the Scotland Analysis papers. And expect arguments about such detailed matters as the organ transplant ‘pool’, which currently operates on a UK-wide basis.
None of this should be a surprise. It’s been implicit in the UK Government’s position since the beginning of the Scotland Analysis programme. Remember that that kicked off with an analysis of the international legal issues, concluding that (r)UK would be the successor state in international law and Scotland would be a new state. The line of argument now emerging is simply the logical fulfilment of that.
This is also perfectly consistent with the strategy of the Unionist side in another respect. Since the May 2011 Scottish election result, and David Cameron’s prompt acceptance of the need for referendum and stipulation that it be ‘legal, clear and decisive’, the UK Government has pursued an excluded-middle strategy. It has drawn a clear line between being part of the UK and not. Independence-lite reflected not just long-term SNP thinking about independence, but also sought to appeal to centre-ground voters by persuading them that independence would deliver something close to what they wanted (and closer than the status quo). That ground is what the excluded-middle approach is intended to undermine. The SNP embraced this approach by signing up to the Edinburgh Agreement, and a single, ‘clear’ and ‘decisive’ referendum. The problem with such strategies is that they do exclude the middle, and the Yes side could not expect to maintain its monopoly on setting out the terms of debate indefinitely.
Nor is this ‘pre-negotiation’ of the terms of independence. If anything, it’s the opposite; declaring what items are not on the table for negotiation. That, among other things, complies with the Electoral Commission’s call for each side to indicate what would happen after a Yes vote. Those who think the UK side does not mean what it says – whether about currency, the BBC, a common travel zone or anything else – need to answer the question: what is in what they propose for rUK? How does that serve the evident utility of both sides, not just one? Many of the white paper proposals are negotiating positions more than firm, deliverable proposals, and it is becoming increasingly clear that there will not be negotiations on many of the key ones.
The Yes side are under pressure to redefine what ‘independence’ means, and that pressure will only increase – as, for example, businesses operating across the UK find the uncertainty of a post-independence world increasingly hard to deal with. If the Yes side stick to indy-lite, they will find their position increasingly hard to support – it will look more and more like an unachievable castle in the air. So either they need to find a way to make indy-lite look credible once again, given that the UK Government is neither sympathetic nor willing to remain silent, or find a strategy that is more convincing and achievable. A more radical approach to independence might do that, and would clearly appeal to significant parts of the Yes campaign, though its appeal to voters is much more doubtful. The middle ground that the Yes side have sought to occupy so far is turning into a more and more boggy morass.
So far, of course, the evidence is that this more clear-cut approach has produced little change in the polls. That is perhaps unsurprising; the objective of the different approach is to alter the terms of debate more than produce a quick bounce in opinion polls, and any dividends that produces will show in the longer term. But there is still a pressing need for the No side to emphasise the positive aspects of such a vote – that it will mean an extension of devolution, and ensure that the Scottish Government has the powers to deliver the aspirations of the people of Scotland. That, of course, is what the Devo More project seeks to do.