The United Kingdom, or at least parts of it, faces two potential referenda in the near future. The Scots will vote on whether to remain part of the UK in Autumn 2014. Whatever country is left is set to be offered a referendum on European Union membership after the next election, assuming the Conservative party win that election or ally with the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).
At the moment, the media is engaged in a fevered waltz of speculation and argument over the outcomes. Different commentators predict extremes consisting of either disaster or utopia, keen to harness public opinion and sway the outcome. This is barmy.
Because nobody has any idea what will happen. In both issues, politicians have fundamentally failed to set out or agree exactly what the public will be voting on. This is not so great a problem for the European Question, since Cameron’s has pledged a fundamental ‘Renegotiation’ before we vote. For Scotland, however, our current ignorance utterly undermines the rationale behind participatory democracy.
The issue is that the Scottish National Party and the major Westminster parties have not agreed exactly what an Independent Scotland will be. The SNP paint a merry picture of wealth, international standing, strong welfare provisions and burgeoning well-being. Westminster backbites, arguing the opposite on a number of key resources and competences.
Who will control North Sea Oil? What proportion of the armed forces will Independent Scotland inherit? What percentage of the EU rebate? What trade relations will an essentially new country have with the rest of the world? Will it face unwelcome WTO tariffs, or will it enjoy all the treaties the UK previously negotiated?
To mess things up somewhat, the EU itself illustrates this issue. The SNP have until recently claimed that Scotland will automatically become part of the EU when it leaves the UK, and as such enjoy free markets, structural loans, emergency funding, and a voice in global issues. This delusion was undone when the President of the EU Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, announced that membership would not be immediate –instead subject to the negotiations other applicant countries such as Croatia are currently experiencing. Barroso’s announcement led to comical backtracking from the SNP’s deputy leader, Nicola Sturgeon.
There is a paradox here. To present the Scottish people with a meaningful, concrete set of choices, Scotland needs to have already negotiated its future place in the world, especially with Westminster and Brussels. To negotiate such a position, Scotland needs (to some extent) to be its own country. Beyond that, there’s the issue of electioneering. The SNP are unwilling to have such negotiations since inevitably Westminster will not yield up all the concessions the SNP are promising as fact, so to hold talks would weaken the pro-Independence side’s position.
Instead, then, the Scottish people are likely to be faced with a vote between the (pretty good) status quo and a daunting exercise in predicting the future – which could leave Scotland almost anywhere, from a healthy small-midsized European nation with great economic prospects, to an isolated periphery with few resources, no armed forces, low tax revenue and years of painful negotiations ahead. (My bet is somewhere in between, but fortunately nobody’s asking me.)
Although further off, the European question is equally perplexing. The ‘Euroskeptic’ side is far from unified, and there is no consensus on what Independent Britain might aim for, let alone realistically achieve. Could it be like Norway, a member of the European Economic Area which enjoys free trade but conforms to most EU regulations and costs? Would it be like Switzerland, maintaining most free trade and free from most regulations, but under strong pressure to integrate? Would it be ‘outer tier’, would it continue to court a strong US ‘special relationship’, would it face similar problems to a theoretical Independent Scotland? I believe there is serious potential for an Independent Britain, but it’s currently hard to be sure behind all the rhetoric.
Indeed, the current EU debate might be considered more uncertain since the ‘renegotiate or leave’ model provides no status quo. We have no idea how Dave’s chats will go.
Both Scottish and Westminster governments need to take their electorates seriously. They cannot campaign, or even begin to campaign, on questions so crucial to their people’s futures, without solidifying the options. And the raucous media could admit this, rather than deciding on one hysterical possible future, and sticking with it.