Scottish voters need more information and evidence to help them make an informed decision when they come to vote in the 2014 independence referendum
The historic agreement on a referendum signed by David Cameron and Alex Salmond in Edinburgh yesterday triggers the start of a two-year period, the end of which could see the current United Kingdom ceasing to exist. With all the wrangling over a suitable date, then latterly over the referendum itself, there hasn’t been a proper debate so far. Let’s hope that enough evidence emerges over the coming two years to inform Scotland’s voters.
Any discussion on independence tends to be framed around two things: can Scotland afford such a move and what would it look like as an independent country?
In the absence of hard evidence on affordability, it’s tempting to speculate as to what, in the event of a ‘yes’ vote, an independent Scotland might look like and what the then dis-united kingdom itself would resemble.
One of the early issues immediately after the vote could in fact be yet another vote. It’s conceivable that there would have to be a general election, Scotland’s first, given that the existing government would have been elected on mere devolved issues.
Scotland would have to decide whether to have more than the present 129 Parliamentarians or fewer. The Prime Minister of Scotland, (or would it be the President of the Republic of Scotland?) would have to negotiate immediately with his or her counterpart in Downing Street, who himself may be considering his constitutional rights to remain in office. Scottish MPs in Westminster would, in an instant, lose any mandate to vote in Westminster.
All of this would take place against the background of officials attempting to dismantle present UK-wide services, such as pensions and welfare, and then bundling them for each country.
Scotland with its free prescriptions, free university tuition and frozen council tax could become an attractive tax haven for the nearby workforce in the north-east of England. The much expected lower corporation tax for Scottish businesses could even see an influx of industries lured away from England.
Public services would strain to cope with the new increased population, perhaps meaning increased tax rates to pay for them. With the cost of public service delivery increasing and having to be paid for by the taxpayers in Scotland, an entirely different view of universal services could emerge.
Back in Westminster, foreign policy would now have to factor in another ‘special’ relationship (with Scotland) and also find the funds to finance a new English embassy in Edinburgh having successfully negotiated the relaxed border controls.
Meanwhile, Scotland would be negotiating entry into the EU based on the Copenhagen criteria. This would take place at the same time as England, Wales and Northern Ireland are conducting their conditions for entry – current membership of the EU being, of course, for the UK, which ceased to exist after the vote.
Any, none or all of this may be realistic. But, at this stage, it’s easy to speculate in the absence of informed debate. So, while two years seems to be a long time, it is a lengthy opportunity to enable all responsible stakeholders to make a contribution to the discussion.
The development of a robust evidence base on Scotland’s capacity to raise its own taxes and to finance its own public services has to take place. Scotland must be able to go to the polls in two years time better informed on separation than it is now. The future of all of the UK countries depends on it.
Don Peebles is policy and technical manager at CIPFA in Scotland