One of the few absolute certainties about the Scottish independence referendum is what would happen if the result is No: Scotland would not become a separate country, and would remain part of the United Kingdom.
If the result is Yes, however, the precise path Scotland would take to become an independent country is less clear.
Independence would not kick in overnight. It would not be here by Christmas. The Scottish government has said it would begin negotiations with a view to Scotland becoming an independent country on 24 March 2016.
That’s an awful long way off. But there’d be an awful lot to sort out.
In the middle of this period would come the 2015 general election. It’s worth stating that the SNP is anticipating the general election would take place. I haven’t read anything by the Yes campaign saying that the election should be postponed or even cancelled. The Scottish government has even published a chart (below, right) that includes the general election as one of the key staging posts on the way to independence.
For its part, the UK government has stated: “If a majority of those who vote want Scotland to be independent then Scotland would become an independent country after a process of negotiations. Following the negotiations Scotland would leave the United Kingdom and become a new and separate state.”
One of the first things to be decided would be the transfer of necessary powers to the Scottish parliament so it could establish the constitution for an independent Scotland, including the laws and administrative arrangements to set up an independent state.
In the Edinburgh Agreement signed by Alex Salmond and David Cameron on 15 October 2012, the Scottish and Westminster governments agreed to work together “constructively in light of the outcome of the referendum in the best interests of the people of Scotland and the rest of the UK”.
The parliaments at both Westminster and Holyrood would need to pass legislation to give the Scottish parliament the power to:
– declare independent statehood for Scotland in the name of the sovereign people of Scotland;
– amend the Scotland Act 1998;
– and extend the powers of the Scottish parliament and Scottish government into all policy areas reserved to Westminster. These include defence, foreign policy, international development, taxation and social security.
But there would also need to be provision for the “continuity of laws”: in other words, all laws, whether already devolved to Scotland or currently decided by Westminster, would continue in force after independence day until they are specifically changed by the independent Scottish parliament.
Some of the things to be resolved will be:
• arrangements for the Sterling Area and Scotland’s use of the pound
• the role and governance of the Bank of England
• a fiscal stability pact
• Scotland’s share of the UK’s £1,267bn of net assets, including buildings (such as offices and the Crown Estate) and overseas missions of the Foreign Office
• apportioning of the national debt
• current and future liabilities on public sector pensions
• civil nuclear decommissioning
• social security benefits
Some assets, such as schools, hospitals and roads, are already devolved to the Scotland parliament.
The Scottish government has proposed that certain assets would be shared with the rest of the UK, including:
• the Royal Mint
• the Research Councils
• the NHS Blood and Transplant services
• the Air and Maritime Accidents Investigation
• the Green Investment Bank
The division of responsibility for these assets would need to be negotiated.
All of this would necessarily take place while the government of the whole of the UK continued from Westminster; indeed, the UK as we know it would continue to exist right through this period, only losing its present form on 24 March 2016.
But even then Scottish MPs might continue to sit at Westminster for a few more weeks, as the first parliamentary election in an independent Scotland is not earmarked to take place until 5 May 2016.
It would be at this point that the UK government elected at the 2015 general election would potentially lose its majority, prompting a possible vote of confidence and dissolution. Voters in England, Wales and Northern Ireland could then choose a new House of Commons in response to Scottish independence, and the political story of a new United Kingdom would begin.