Anticipating the White Paper

This is a peculiar moment in Scottish politics, and it’s very un-Scottish. We have known for more than a year that there would be an Independence White Paper, in which the Scottish Government would set out the detail of its plans for independence. We have known for months that it would be published in the autumn of this year, and we have known since the SNP’s conference in October that it will be published on 26 November. But no-one, it seems, knows what is in the White Paper or even what sort of document it’s going to be. Rumours abound that it is 500, 600, even 900 pages long.

Secrecy dominates the process. This is policy-making by a closed-circle elite and, as such, it marks an unwelcome break with Scotland’s recent past. The process in the 1990s by which Scotland made plain its demand for home rule was remarkably transparent. The Scottish Constitutional Convention was as open a body as could be imagined. It was all-inclusive, owned by no political party, and proceeded by consensus.

This style of constitutional policy-making has gone on to characterise the whole of the devolution era. The Calman Commission, appointed in 2008 to review Scottish devolution, conducted its business in the open, holding meetings all over the country, conducting more than 50 public evidence sessions and placing hundreds of papers online for all to read. Like the Scottish Constitutional Convention, it was a multi-party affair, in which politicians worked side by side with experts drawn from the professions and Scottish civil society.

The burden which the White Paper is expected to carry is heavy indeed. The Scottish Government have made no effort to downplay expectations. It is the White Paper that will explain how pensions will be funded in an independent Scotland. It is the White Paper that will tell us which UK services the Scottish Government proposes to share after independence. And it is the White Paper that will outline the nature, size, scale and costs of the new defence and security arrangements that an independent Scotland will need in order to keep its people safe.

But, as commentators on both sides of the argument have come to recognise, there are some matters that the White Paper cannot resolve. Whether an independent Scotland would be able to join a currency union with the rest of the UK, for example, is a matter that will depend on difficult, detailed and technical negotiations with the Treasury and the Bank of England.

Indeed, it is a striking feature of the SNP’s plans for independence that much of Scotland’s future would depend on negotiations such as these. Scotland, we have learned, would seek to negotiate membership of NATO. And we know, of course, that Scotland would seek to negotiate membership also of the European Union.

No-one should under-estimate how difficult these negotiations would be. I’m not for a moment suggesting that Scotland could not negotiate these matters successfully: of course we could. But the process would not be easy and the outcomes cannot be guaranteed. We know that the nuclear question poses real difficulties vis-à-vis NATO. And we know that the terms of Scotland’s membership of the EU would be strongly contested – would we have to adopt the Euro as our currency? Would we have to join the Schengen free movement area, meaning that the rest of the UK would have no choice but to close the border between Scotland and England? I’m astonished that there has so far been so little attention devoted to this question.

One theme of the White Paper is therefore likely to be that there is much about independence which cannot be known in advance. We cannot know for sure what the currency will be. We cannot know for sure what will happen as regards NATO and Trident. And while we can be confident, in my opinion, that Scotland will accede to membership of the EU we cannot know what the terms of accession would be.

Those who vote Yes at next year’s referendum will therefore – and inevitably – be voting for the unknown. It did not need to be this way. Were the Scottish Government going into this referendum with a clear policy that Scotland would have her own currency, or would not seek to join NATO, there would be much less uncertainty about what any Yes vote would mean. Likewise, had the SNP sought to prepare the Independence White Paper in the open rather than strictly behind closed doors, we would have had a much richer national debate about the meaning of independence.

Despite all the uncertainty, however, this is not a suck-it-and-see referendum. There is no prospect that we could vote Yes in September, negotiate for a bit, change our minds because it’s not all going our way, and come running back to the Union. Yes means Yes. Whatever that turns out to mean.