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9 September 2014
London may try
to strangle the infant
nation at birth
Denis Park


The following article has been contributed by a retired senior civil servant in Whitehall. Denis Park is a pseudonym

Despite the latest wobble in the opinion polls within their margin of error, Mr Cameron, Mr Darling and Ms Davidson still predict that the No vote will carry the day. What is more, Mr Blair has said that Scotland will vote to stay in the union, so it must be true. However, I understand that at least Mr Kenneth Roy has recanted and considers a Yes vote to be a real possibility.

The one thing most people seem to agree on is that neither side has been sufficiently forthcoming about the future after the referendum. To its credit, the Scottish Government has produced a tome about the post-referendum scene in the event of a Yes vote. But it is all subject to negotiation, and it may be that 'Scotland's Future' will snatch the laurels from the 1983 Labour Party Manifesto as the 'longest suicide note in history'.

For its part, the Better Together campaign cannot even seem to agree to appear on the same platform, far less undertake such a difficult task as coming together to agree on what changes there will be in the governance of Scotland should there be a No vote. 'Voters can trust us there will be change, we are all politicians', seems to be the mantra. No wonder poor Sir Tom Hunter has convened his own expert group – please rush us all a copy of its guidance.

In short, this is a pig in a poke vote, which before the referendum leaves the voter between a rock and a hard place and which, after the referendum, will leave the nation in the same position.

If Scotland ignores Westminster's latest reported offer of some sort of, as yet undefined, constitutional convention and votes Yes, then Mr Salmond's best tactic will be to address the Scottish people and tell them it will take time to achieve an economically viable independent Scotland. There will be tough negotiations and some difficult compromises and sacrifices will have to be made. He will then have to put together the most effective negotiating team he can muster at both a political and official level. The old order will have ended; a new partnership will have to be melded.

It is not an overstatement to say that the impact on Whitehall, Westminster and the City will be traumatic. The main shock wave will hit politicians of all parties, while Whitehall and the City will turn to their contingency plans in both sorrow and anger. Against the background of a general election in 2015, there will be no votes in being conciliatory to the Scots, and tough, even brutal, negotiations will be the order of the day. There will be a faction in London who will wish to strangle the infant nation at birth. The fate of Britain's nuclear deterrent, sharing Sterling and the loss of oil revenues to the English exchequer will be the key issues.

Scotland will be under strong pressure from the US to fudge a deal on Trident and, if the SNP government can do this, then US pressure will be on England to accept some sort of deal, even though it means concessions in other areas. There are signs that such a deal may be on the cards. The recent Royal United Services Institute Study could point the way. Negotiate a move between 2020 and 2028 or 2030, with the submarines moving in the first part of this period and the weapons storage facility transferring at the end. The delay in moving the later facility could be justified politically on safety grounds. There are hints that SNP politicians have already had discussions with the military about this. One interesting by-product of these negotiations is that, in the absence of oil revenues, England may have to face a choice between guns or butter – or at least HS2.

Once the negotiations over the deterrent are completed to US satisfaction (remember it's their missile technology) membership of NATO should not be a problem.

By a delicious irony, the Sterling problem is likely to be solved by Adam Smith's invisible hand. Market pressure on Sterling, Gilts and Sterling-based assets, coupled with pressure from City grandees and Tory MPs are likely to prompt the chancellor to reach agreement on a shared currency without delay. Through negotiations with the Bank of England, this can be structured in such a way that it does not impede Scotland's membership of the EU, probably through the creation of some sort of joint currency board.

Negotiation of EU membership will be time-consuming and tiresome, but that's the nature of the beast. The Spanish, Italians and the French will all object because of their own separatist movements. However, Scotland will be successful in gaining membership, if only because events in the Middle East and the deteriorating relations with Russia will mean that the EU will not wish to exclude an oil-producing nation. Scotland's best tactics will be to make very good friends with the Germans. Historically Germany has displayed a strong interest in obtaining secure supplies of raw materials and, interestingly, there does not appear to be a record of Angela Merkel commenting on the referendum.

The question of oil revenues should be an open and shut case, governed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Scotland’s Exclusive Economic Exclusion Zone is Scotland's Exclusive Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ), full stop. In using a calculation based on the convention to redefine the fishing zone between Scotland and England in the North Sea, England has already set a precedent, but there is still likely to be haggling over the EEZ.

Because of the potential value of their EEZ, there are also bound to be political moves after the devolution settlement to split Orkney and Shetland from Scotland, justified because (as seems likely) they did not vote for independence. The best defence for Scotland will be to persuade big oil and the small islands that they will both get a better deal in an independent Scotland. Our German friends might also help if they thought they might get favourable access to concessions in return.

Many other 'problems' identified in the referendum debate are not really problems unless someone wants them to be, but this always happens in negotiations. Border security, pensions, banking and financial regulations, the national debt etc, can always be resolved if the will is there. And do not forget, brass plates have a long and honourable history in the financial sector. Some issues will be tricky – for example Scotland has predicated its investment in wind farms on the basis that England will buy the power. But for sound economic reasons or just spite, England could choose to buy its power from France. While in negotiations on conventional defence, an over-enthusiastic Scotland could buy some very expensive kit it does not really need. However, an angry and resentful England, in its own argot, is likely to cut up rough in all negotiations.

Opinion polls suggest that Scotland will also face English anger and resentment in the event of a No vote. Having been brought to the brink, there will be an unspoken consensus between Westminster political parties, Whitehall, the military, the security services and the City that never again can a minority be allowed to threaten the political, economic and military security of the country in this way. UK politicians will also be told by the US administration that, if they want to still be able to think of themselves as America's best friend, they must ensure it never happens again.

Westminster is likely to be split between those who believe they can achieve this through a looser grouping of power in the UK, and those who will want to permanently hobble or destroy the nationalists. The chances of the first group prevailing are pretty thin, given Westminster’s inability to agree on constitutional reform from Irish Home Rule, through reform of the House of Lords to the recent attempts to introduce changes in the voting system.

While some will wish to dissolve the Scottish Parliament, death by a thousand cuts will be the game plan. Give the Scottish Parliament powers to raise income tax, but cut or abolish the UK exchequer grant under the Barnett Formula. Break the back of the SNP administration by reducing the revenue base, and then reward the voters when they see the error of their ways and vote the Westminster parties back into power in the Scottish Parliament. There will be carrots and sticks to split Orkney and Shetland from Edinburgh. A crude, but effective approach.

Meanwhile, never before has a nation of peaceful voters been admonished by such a wide range of national and international headmasters. Presidents Obama, Putin, Xi Jinping and Hollande have all warned voters of the danger of a Yes vote. The Pope has politely warned against it, while the Australian prime minister has been downright rude.

John Major popped up on the Today Programme to warn of the dangers of losing Scotland. He made it sound as if the country was something kept in a drawer in No 10, presumably along with his Y-fronts. Like a bland Grendel threatening the voter with his mother in a dull Westminster Mummers reading of Beowulf, he warned that the United States will not 'forgive or forget'.

There have been some bright spots though, mainly thanks to the 'luvvies'. Dan Snow, the great grandson of Lloyd George, announcing his 'let's stay together letter' from near Tower Bridge in London or his cousin, Jon Snow, tramping around the Highlands and Lowlands in his tweed jacket talking to the indigenous peoples. Finally, Bob Geldof has just warned us off…

In the face of all this, what can the poor voter do? Sadly, in our form of democracy the individual voter cannot profit by selling his or her vote. This is a privilege open to only the largest members of the corporate sector. He or she could rely on promises that a No vote will be a vote for change, but there are as yet no party manifestos for the 2015 election, no detailed proposals from any Westminster party and certainly nothing new binding in writing. Parties will inevitably trim their sails in an attempt to win the 2015 general election.

Of course if they really wanted to save the day, on the Monday before the vote, in a coup de theatre, Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband could shoot the nationalist fox by announcing a generous devolution settlement, giving Scotland a sound revenue base directly from oil revenues, to be legislated for before 2015. But now Murdoch tweets and London is galvanised. Hints have appeared in the Sunday newspapers that Westminster may be about to launch a devo-max or federalist initiative.

At this late stage, this is a bit rich coming from a government which eschewed convening a royal commission on the governance of the UK and excluded devo-max from the ballot paper. It could appear that this is a case of London politicians desperate to remain in control, rather than trying to introduce constitutional reform in response to a democratic movement. An independent Scotland should be able to negotiate a better deal.

There was always the possibility that the referendum was really a giant piece of political theatre, with devo-max or a federal state as the dénouement. To some extent the enthusiastic reception of the Edinburgh Accord suggested that this could be the case. However, it may be that the Scottish groundlings, not knowing their role in the plot, have embraced their part over vigorously, to the point at which events seem out of Westminster's control.

In Scotland, the signs are now that canny politicians like Mr Carmichael, Ms Lamont and Mr Murphy are positioning themselves to be able to shift sides and Alistair Darling's body language appeared to say it all when he was invited by Mr Salmond to join his negotiating team in the event of a Yes vote. John Prescott is coming to Scotland soon, no doubt to watch out for any movement in his beloved tectonic plates.

In England, Mr Cameron wants to be able to respond that it was all nothing to do with me Gov. After tea at Balmoral, the prime minister is no doubt aware that Brenda is unlikely to be amused by a Yes vote. Our ruling classes appear to be somewhat in disarray on the basis of a couple of opinion polls.

Perhaps the only parallel to the current political atmosphere in Scotland is the 1945 general election, when a nation wanted change. By and large, people do not queue up to register to vote if they want to retain the status quo. The democratic genie is out of the bottle. History suggests it is unlikely to disappear. If there is a No vote this time, then those who suggest we can expect another referendum within five years are likely to be correct.

It is at this point the voter might like to pause, think and do a little arithmetic. The history of the exploitation of North Sea oil and the way in which the worth of the resource was concealed and then used on tax breaks and transfer payments rather than renewing ageing infrastructure, could raise doubts in people's minds about the wisdom of trusting London. The same thing seems to be happening over the new fields in the North East Atlantic in Shetland's EEZ. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. It is also worth remembering that if a week is a long time in politics then 2015 is a long time ahead. Circumstances can always change especially when what seems to be on offer is some sort of constitutional indaba under Westminster's patronage and open to its manipulation.

Now the simple arithmetic. A federation of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would not work because England would be too large a partner for the other countries and would unbalance the numbers in any political institution. England would want to hold the purse strings and control the distribution of funds from the centre. A federation with English regions might work, but given the timeframe it is unlikely English voters could be consulted before 2015 and, anyway, it might be rejected. Any agreement would have to be endorsed by Westminster. Against the backdrop of UKIP threatening English MPs of all parties and Mr Johnson snapping at Conservative MPs' heels, there is no certainty the government could deliver.

Faced with a cross-party offer on the eve of the referendum, the voter could be forgiven for deciding that this might be a ploy to appeal to the 'don't knows' in an attempt to thwart the Yes vote. If the Scottish Government chose not to negotiate, then it again would be described as Scottish intransigence. If SNP agreed to join the negotiations, any delays or breakdowns again could be attributed to Scottish intransigence. The words poison and chalice could spring to the voter's mind.

If the voter considers that, irrespective of the outcome of the referendum, Scotland is set to receive a very hard kicking from Westminster, even though it may be wrapped up in fancy paper, then a Yes vote may provide the best option, since it gives more room for manoeuvre to recast relationships with the remaining UK and does not leave the country as a supplicant at Westminster's table.

In the face of all this, the logical thing to do is to light the blue touch paper, vote Yes, and adopt a comfortable position to enjoy the fireworks. After all, Judi Dench, Helena Bonham Carter, Patrick Stewart et al, can do very good shock and anguish.

Ah! Ça ira, ça ira, ça ira...