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My taxi driver in Glasgow last week told me he had switched from No to Yes. I asked why. He listed the reasons and I countered, to little avail. Then he delivered the killer blow. Of course there would be difficult negotiations after a Yes vote. Of course there were a lot of risks. “But,” he added, “the negotiations will be done by the likes of you and Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. You guys will sort it out.”
I was stunned. He was prepared to break up my country; unpick three centuries of integration; face unquantified risks and the cost of setting up a state – yet he wanted defenders of the union to save him. Pure brass neck, but he is not alone.
A lot of us in Scotland underestimate the strength of feeling in the rest of Britain about what might happen on September 18. Belatedly the English, Welsh and Northern Irish have come to appreciate the damage that would be done to the UK. And as they awaken to it they realise that they have had no say and no voice. They are growing angry.
Institutions such as the British armed forces will be dismembered, the BBC robbed of millions of pounds, foreign embassies reallocated, the nuclear deterrent evicted from its northern berth. Pension funds will be carved up, their assets weakened. Oilfields will be torn away and the land mass of the UK reduced by a third. Six hundred thousand Scottish expatriates will be forced to pick between Scottish and British citizenship – and their grandchildren will have no choice at all. Yet my taxi driver – and the separatist leaders who so beguile him – dare to imagine an amicable divorce.
Last week I took part in a debate in London with two of the nationalists’ formidable figures. We addressed a bemused gathering of businesspeople who were hearing, many for the first time, the case for separation. They were neither happy nor convinced. One questioner summed up the mood when he complained that the UK would be mutilated beyond recognition by a Yes vote. Yet neither he nor anyone else outside Scotland had had a say. He denounced all the politicians who had betrayed him and his country.
Whoever conducts the negotiations to set up a new state will have a difficult task. A currency union has been ruled out by the UK parties, and even if they are bluffing as the nationalists claim, the breakaway state will contend with severe constraints imposed by the Bank of England and Westminster.
When Scottish delegates, however eminent, arrive in Brussels to negotiate entry to the EU, they will be led by representatives of the country from which theirs will be departing. The talks will be slow and painful, and the resulting deal expensive.
They cannot hope for the same rebate as the UK, or exclusion from the Schengen agreement that allows passport-free travel between most EU countries. And negotiation, by its nature, means trading good for bad. Even the canniest Caledonian negotiators will have to contend with understandable resistance from EU countries anxious not to give succour to their own separatist movements.
The door to Nato will be still more closely guarded. Even a former secretary-general will have to offer more than sweet talk to persuade the alliance’s 28 members that they should admit a new anti-nuclear country which has effectively disarmed one of the founding members. The best Scotland can expect is a prolonged delay while pressure is applied in Edinburgh.
Backed by what they loftily call the “sovereign will” of the Scottish people (the Yes camp would be unlikely to receive support from a majority of these people, even if there is 80 per cent turnout) the negotiators will have to fight on many fronts against determined adversaries.
And at the end of it? What if Scotland, whoever does the negotiations, does not win the deal that the nationalists have promised – a currency union, easy entry to the EU and Nato, oil funds, an amicable share of UK assets, a warm welcome on the world stage? Then what?
No further referendum is planned. No more tests of the Scottish people’s “sovereign will”. Just a dog-eared white paper, Scotland’s Future, whose 670 pages made no mention of risks or downsides; a divided and disillusioned people; and an embittered close neighbour.
The writer, a former chairman of the Labour party in Scotland, was British defence secretary from 1997 to 1999