Ian Swanson: Are voters getting the right information on Scottish Independence?

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THE notion of Scottish independence has been around for many decades and it became a serious issue on the agenda after the SNP’s 2007 election victory.

So it might be thought that by now both sides of the debate would have their plans polished, their arguments honed and their answers ready.

But when the Electoral Commission produced its recommendations on the wording of next year’s referendum question, it took time to point out that there were lots of other questions people wanted answered first.

According to the commission, voters confronted with voting Yes or No to an independent Scotland want “unbiased information about what the pros and cons of each outcome were and what independence would mean in practice”.

It picked out six areas where people typically had questions – the economy, currency, monarchy, defence, immigration and citizenship.

But in a stinging comment, the commission noted: “Although referendum campaigners and others will promote their views and highlight the issues, this may not necessarily lead to greater clarity for potential voters.”

The Scottish Government’s paper this week on the transition to independence is meant to flesh out some of the detail about what might happen if there is a Yes – independence day in March 2016, elections in May 2016 and then work on putting together a written constitution for Scotland involving all parties and representatives of civil Scotland as well as the government.

It is meant to be the first of several documents ministers plan to publish in the months leading up to the promised White Paper in the autumn setting out what an independent Scotland will look like. The UK Government is also expected to produce papers setting out its perspective on the way ahead.

But just how enlightening will this flurry of paper prove to be?

Politicians on both sides of the independence debate are finding it difficult to break free of their party point-scoring and tit-for-tat attacks.

No doubt the criticisms each side makes of the other have elements of truth in them. Independence supporters are probably justified in accusing the pro-Union parties of “scaremongering” over some of the supposed consequences of Scotland going it alone and, equally, anti-
independence campaigners may well have good reason to think the 
Scottish Government paints an over-rosy picture of what an independent Scotland would be like.

The SNP regularly quotes the Edinburgh Agreement – the deal signed by the two governments paving the way for the referendum to take place – and a clause where they both committed to respecting the outcome of the vote and working together in the best interests of Scotland, whatever the result.

The Nationalists argue this means the UK Government should be ready to discuss now the details of what would happen if there is a Yes vote. UK ministers, of course, have no wish to give comfort to the idea there will be a Yes vote and so refuse to enter into such talks.

They will not “pre-negotiate” independence, they insist.

But with all sorts of questions in the air – about what a No vote would mean, as well as the details of independence – where is the line between avoiding your opponent’s trap and refusing to give the public the answers they need?

An opinion poll last weekend showed support for independence is still well short of a majority – 32 per cent for, 47 per cent against – although it also found one-fifth of voters, and a third of those aged 18-34, still had to make up their minds.

The anti-
independence parties will come under pressure to make clear what they mean when they say they are willing to look at more powers for Holyrood if there is a No vote.

Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has signalled she is ready to look at the issue, Labour has a commission considering the question, but so far the Liberal Democrats’ plans for a federal UK is the only detailed alternative which has been outlined – and given the Lib Dems’ poor poll ratings, it may be considered the least likely to come to fruition.

The Electoral Commission has urged the two governments to agree a joint position on what will happen in the event of either a Yes or No vote. It may still be almost two years before the referendum in autumn 2014, but voters deserve answers now.

THE SIX KEY ISSUES

Economy

Could an independent Scotland cope in times of global economic crisis? Critics say Scottish banks needed the UK to bail them out and being part of a larger country offers more security. Advocates of independence say around the world, bailouts were given proportionate to banks’ activity in that country and an independent Scotland would have borne its share of the cost.

Would Scotland be too dependent on oil? North Sea oil has contributed about 20 per cent of Scotland’s annual income in the past decade and critics say it is now diminishing and becoming less predictable. Pro-independence campaigners say Scotland is less dependent on oil than Norway and argues Scotland also has strong tourism, food and drink, life sciences and financial services sectors.

Currency

Would Scotland have to join the euro? Some Better Together campaigners claim the European Union would require an independent Scotland to sign up to the euro as a condition of membership, but supporters of independence say the EU has made clear it could not force any country to join the euro against its will.

The SNP says Scotland would continue to use sterling for the foreseeable future and would be part of a formal currency zone. Critics say that would mean tax and spending policy would be constrained, but the SNP says Scotland would want to have a disciplined fiscal policy in any case.

Monarchy

Would the Queen carry on? There was a time when the SNP promised a referendum on whether the monarchy should continue in an independent Scotland, but Alex Salmond has long insisted the Queen would remain head of state. He points out she is also head of state in countries such as Canada and New Zealand, and that there was a 100-year spell before 1707 when Scotland and England had independent parliaments but shared a monarch.

Defence

Would Scotland have its own army, navy and air force? The SNP proposes an annual defence budget of £2.5 billion and plans a Scottish defence force based on manpower levels inherited at the point of independence and Scotland’s share of UK defence assets such as ships, jets, helicopters, army vehicles and artillery.

The SNP remains insistent Scotland would get rid of nuclear weapons, though it might take some time to relocate Trident to a new home south of the Border. But the Nationalists now want Scotland to stay in Nato.

Immigration

Could Scotland have a different policy from England? Advocates of independence say Scotland would have its own immigration policy, seeking to attract young, talented people. But the SNP insists there would be no need for border posts – there is already a recognised free travel area between the UK and Ireland, which has its own immigration rules. Anyone illegally in a country would be subject to normal police action.

Citizenship

It is expected everyone living in Scotland, plus those born here and others with family connections, would be entitled to Scottish citizenship and a Scottish passport.