Monday, 4 August 2008

What Scotland must do to leave the Union

Robert Hazell is Director of the Constitution Unit at the University of London. On Comment is Free he has outlined why the route to independence along which the SNP would wish to steer Scotland is much more circuitous then it is often presented. Those who present the Union’s demise as an inevitability would do well to read Hazell’s article in full. I’ll provide a brief synopsis.

1) The SNP must have authorisation from the Scottish Parliament to hold a referendum. Currently the SNP hold 49 seats whilst unionist parties hold 79.

2) An initial referendum would need to show a positive result for independence. Over the past 10 years support has run between 25-30% for an independent Scotland. The referendum for a North East regional assembly, held in 2004 suggests that opinion poll support for separatism / localism diminishes when it is required to crystallise at the polls.

3) Supposing the SNP gained the result they were looking for they would merely be entitled to start negotiations with the British government as regards the terms of independence, ‘some of which would be unwelcome’.

4) Scotland would be forced to reapply for membership of the European Union. Several member states such as Greece and Spain might block Scotland’s application in order to discourage separatism in regions of their own states. If the rump UK was to support Scotland’s claim, agreement on North Sea oil, division of national debt and the future of defence bases amongst other issues would have to be reached, most likely on unfavourable terms for Scotland. Hazell cites the Czech – Slovak ‘Velvet Divorce’ when 31 treaties and over 2,000 separate agreements were required.

5) Having established the terms of an independence agreement there should be another referendum to give the Scottish people a chance to endorse them. This would be likely to involve endorsing a spell of financial hardship as the British exchequer subvention (which allows per capita spending 25% greater than in England) would be stopped.

Of course each of these hurdles is fraught with difficulties and offers the possibility, that in the unlikely event that the Scottish electorate actually endorse the notion of independence, that that endorsement could be withdrawn after the exact consequences of that decision are revealed. It also seems probable that when a sustained debate examining the historical and cultural links which bind Scotland to the Union is entered into and when Scots voters are asked to make concrete decisions about their future links with the rest of Britain, national chauvinism will dissipate and a more considered mood will prevail.

Scottish Unionist has some statistics which underline the cultural and family links at work between the two original members of the Union. ‘Almost half of all Scots have English relatives’, one in six Scots currently lives in England, one tenth of the population of Scotland is currently composed of English people and so on. He correctly argues, ’political separation would – by necessity – result in social and cultural divergence, which over time would diminish us greatly’. If Salmond and his ilk get their referendum, they could find that their putative supporters begin to examine the subtleties of identity which such figures suggest, and refuse to transfer their endorsement of the SNP to its project of dismembering the United Kingdom.

Regardless, any attempt to break up the Union between Scotland and the rest of the UK is at worst a long way off and at best will never seriously get off the ground at all.

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