On the 18th of September 2014 people who live in Scotland are going to have to vote “yes” or “no” to the following question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”, but I wonder how many of us really know what we’re being asked to vote for. What exactly will happen if enough of us vote “yes”?
The debate so far has been dominated by supporters of independence talking up the economic prospects and telling us that Scotland will be a fairer, more prosperous place, free from weapons of mass destruction and constitutionally barred from engaging in illegal wars. In short, the “Yes” campaign is putting forward policies and outcomes that it thinks are popular and suggesting that these will come to pass in an independent Scotland.
At the same time, in order to attract support from voters who aren’t fans of the ruling Scottish Nationalist Party, the “Yes” campaign is keen to point out that the referendum is about Scottish independence, not the SNP’s policies, and a general election will quickly follow to determine the shape and colour of the new government of the newly independent nation.
The “Yes” campaign would do themselves and the rest of us a service if they made it clear that the policies and outcomes they are touting are merely possibilities, and concentrated instead on telling us exactly what we will be voting for in the referendum.
As far as I can make out from the Scottish Government’s website, if enough of us vote “yes” in September next year there will be a transition period of approximately 18 months where the existing Scottish Parliament, led by the current SNP government, will work with the government in Westminster to untangle the political and bureaucratic connections between the two countries, as well as negotiating membership of international organisations such as the EU. The stated aim of this transition period is to create a “constitutional platform” on which a new constitution can be built by a new Scottish parliament and government, which will be elected in 2016.
This approach seems to be sensible, easy to understand, and should be broadcast far and wide so that everyone who is eligible to vote knows what their “yes” vote is specifically going to deliver: nothing more or less than what you find in paragraphs 2.7 to 2.15 of this document, published by the Scottish Government in February 2013.
Everything else that’s being trumpeted by the “Yes” campaign as arguments for Scottish independence is nothing more than a wish list, a vision of what their proponents would like to see Scotland become. If you share that vision then a vote for independence might provide opportunities to steer our society in that direction, but the same could be said for those who are keen on welfare cuts, PFIs, nuclear submarines, and strategic military intervention without UN approval.
Independent or not, our society will continue to be shaped by an mix of electoral will, political patronage, and economic clout, the net effects of which will be very similar to what we have now. If you like the idea of an independent Scotland then by all means vote “yes” in the referendum, but don’t expect the world to change for the better. Its location may shift a few hundred miles to the north but the machinery of democracy will operate exactly as before, churning out the same old stuff.