Thursday 25 February 2021

Honesty and good faith are seen as optional extras


One of the almost semi-coherent ideas emerging from the fog of the unionists’ desperate attempts to prevent Scottish independence is the suggestion that a second referendum should only be held once the full details of what independence means are clear. Leaving aside the obvious question as to whether this is a serious suggestion or merely an attempt to tilt the scales against independentistas, it’s an idea which is not without merit. And had the same approach been applied to Brexit, things might now be rather different. However, for those applying the argument to Scotland, being consistent in their approach comes second to getting their own way. There are at least two major problems, though.

The nature of any independence settlement would require detailed negotiation – it’s not a matter of one side dictating what the outcome should be. And a negotiated settlement requires that both parties approach the discussions in good faith. And that brings us to the first problem – Boris Johnson is incapable of doing anything in good faith. Whatever he says or agrees is subject to change – sometimes in the next sentence, never mind the next day. It is inconceivable that any Johnson government will put the time and effort required into negotiating a detailed settlement (which they would then campaign to urge the Scots to reject); they will instead attempt to dictate the terms and, at best, bully Scotland into accepting them or, more likely, simply present them as though they had been agreed. It is, after all, the approach which worked so spectacularly well for Brexit. (And that’s not an attempt at sarcasm – it really did work well in the only sense that mattered to them, which was all about politics. Businesses and individuals whose futures were destroyed were just an acceptable level of collateral damage in an essentially political act.)

The second problem is that after independence, Scotland will set its own direction. Whilst the nature of an independent Scotland on Day 1 could, theoretically, be clarified by the terms of any agreement with England, the whole point of independence is to allow Scotland to do things differently. How different, and in what ways, depends not on the fact of independence, but on the policies put forward and implemented by whichever party or parties win Scottish elections in the years which follow. Whilst one party to the negotiations might attempt to constrain Scotland’s future options, the extent to which they can do so is necessarily limited.

The proposal that Scotland’s voters should have a more precise idea of what they are voting for is a wholly reasonable suggestion. However, the implicit assumptions being made by the proposers – that they can determine the terms unilaterally, and that ‘negotiation’ amounts to imposition – make it completely unworkable in practice. To make it workable requires an honest government in London, and that, to use a phrase from the infamous Scottish play, “stands not within the prospect of belief”.

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