The steel and glass cathedral of Glasgow Science Centre will play the unexpected role on Tuesday of a Mount Sinai stand-in. Inside, in place of the Ten Commandments, Alex Salmond will hand down what has been billed by the nationalist-led Scottish government as the definitive document in its planned exit from the United Kingdom.
Scotland’s First Minister, in his now familiar role of political prophet looking to the promised land, will anoint the White Paper with the same blessing he used in Perth last month, its content: “Our vision, the why of independence , the Scotland that we seek.” His deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, has described the tome, expected to run to 500 pages or more, as the SNP’s blueprint for how separation will work, a “comprehensive” Q&A on independence.
Voters north of the border have 10 months to make up their minds before a referendum next September that could end 300 years of union with England. Traditionally, White Papers are supposed to be authoritative reports laying bare the facts of a political policy narrative. But this document will not do that. It can’t. And in place of facts, vision and aspiration will be all there is.
Mr Salmond’s intention is for his White Paper to become the focus of meaningful debate between now and the referendum. But without a detailed exposition of how an independent Scottish state would function and what institutions would be created to replace the existing anatomy of the UK, voters will be handed a grey document and told to dream rather than calculate.
The whole exercise risks being dismissed as blether and Brigadoon, dominated by rhetoric redolent with “our-time-is-now” emotion.
Westminster, at least from the outside, isn’t overly concerning itself with Tuesday’s event. Its comfort is based on the basic assumption that no one knows what a future Scotland will look like until after the votes in the referendum are counted. And only then can substantive negotiations on the split – with everyone from the EU, Nato and the rest of the UK (RUK) – begin.
The former Scottish secretary, Michael Moore, accepted earlier this year that expectations were sky high in Scotland about what the White Paper would contain, essentially because it has been unapologetically billed as biblically authoritative. That was as generous as Mr Moore got. He subsequently said he hoped the document would be “straight with the people of Scotland”. That translates as: “I know it won’t be. And the risks will all be played down.”
The CBI in Scotland is one of the institutions that has laid out what it expects the White Paper to contain. Again, the CBI exercise is one of choreographed built-in disappointment – the critical answers, it knows, can come only as a result of negotiations that would follow a winning Yes vote and the divorce case between Scotland and England begins in earnest.
But after September there will be no decree nisi, no subsequent petition. Next year, if Scotland votes Yes, there will be a decree absolute. This distorted divorce – where the financial and institutional red meat of the settlement arrives years after the decision to uncouple 300 years of union – is democratically deficient. As things stand, the choice of “still in” or “out” of the union will be made against a backdrop of economic and political unknowns. And when the fine details of the split are finally known, Scotland’s electorate will have no say in the deal.
Mr Salmond at one point believed a two-stage referendum was necessary: there would be a vote to back or dismiss the opening of negotiations, and a second vote examining the deal itself. But that logical process was shelved. Now the SNP believes any chat, without the authority of being an independent state-in-waiting, would leave it weak. Westminster won’t talk early either, fearing it may legitimise the independence cause.
Somewhere along the way, democracy in Scotland was seriously sidelined. The unknowns on Scottish independence are substantial, and the White Paper won’t change that. For example, the CBI wants a costed figure for “disentangling” Scotland from all UK institutions. It wants the price of transition to independence (which could take 18 months or more). It wants an explanation of how current levels of public spending will be maintained, and a definitive answer to key currency questions.
For example, if Scotland is eventually granted EU membership, can it opt to reject the euro? Or if it asked England to set up a “sterling zone” that allowed Scotland to keep the pound, and Westminster didn’t play ball, how would international financial markets view a new Scottish currency? How would the forecast value of a new currency fare against the backdrop of negotiations over Scotland’s share of the UK’s current £1.3trn national debt? What international credit rating and interest rate would a Scottish currency?
Such calculations are not problematic. An independent Scotland would be a relatively wealthy new state. But any figures, coming before serious negotiations have even started, are assumptions.
Some suggestions from Holyrood likely to be examined by the White Paper suggest policies not thought through. For instance, if there is a sterling zone, how would it be possible, democratically, for the Bank of England to function as an independent Scotland’s “lender of last resort”?
And there are bigger Q&As that the White Paper will dance around. Would an independent Scotland be automatically given membership of the European Union? What would the joining terms be? Would the current opt-outs enjoyed by the UK apply? Would the UK’s EU rebate be recalibrated for a secessionist Scottish state? And would, as was suggested in another SNP document, an independent Scotland be allowed to lower rates of corporation tax, when there is EU momentum for uniform business taxation?
The EU commission’s president, Jose Manuel Barroso, has previously stated that “obviously” Scotland would have to reapply for membership. A clearer ruling on this would be possible if the UK officially requested legal clarity on the matter. But it won’t. So how will the White Paper deal with EU uncertainty? Like Westminster, it won’t. It will assume, simply, that the EU will not – cannot, under its own human rights laws –just abandon 5.2 million Scottish citizens. And it will ignore the “contagion” fears in Brussels that the success of a separatist movement in the UK could spread to Spain, Italy and elsewhere. The message is clear enough: if Scotland gets preferential treatment, is Catalonia next?
The White Paper, should it be awash with legal realism, will acknowledge that the remainder of the UK (RUK) would be internationally recognised as the “continuator” of the United Kingdom, with Scotland having the status of a new state, and therefore all the allied uncertainty that comes with secession.
However, this metamorphosis will not happen the day after the referendum on 19 September. Instead, the bilateral and consensual process of a Scotland-UK divorce means that after negotiations Westminster would then grant Scotland the right to leave.
The White Paper should therefore correctly describe Mr Salmond’s vision of independence as simply conditional. So yes, Scotland has oil wealth. Nevertheless, its precise value will have to be one of the White Paper’s many assumptions.
The harsh political reality is that the White Paper’s status and intent have been oversold. It will fall short of being comprehensive, because that terminology cannot be correctly used when no negotiations have started and nothing has been agreed on. Like other allegedly fact-based documents on independence issued by Holyrood, it will be an exercise in aspirational marketing, whose aim is to lessen the fear – and the risk – of the independence journey, which will continue even if the nationalists lose.