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One of the stranger customs in the US is that every year Americans celebrate Independence Day on July 4. But July 4 1776 was merely the date on which Thomas Jefferson and his fellow conspirators claimed they were independent of Great Britain. It was not until the Treaty of Paris was signed much later, on September 3 1783, that independence was actually achieved. In the meantime, a long war was fought.
In Britain, many people on both sides of the border between England and Scotland are making a similar mistake: assuming that, if a majority of Scots vote Yes in the September referendum, Scotland will inevitably become independent. The truth is more complicated and the final outcome less certain.
There is no way a formal separation could be organised by Alex Salmond’s proposed date of March 2016. It would take many years to unravel England and Scotland’s tax-collection and social security systems. But the date is only a detail. More important is the spirit in which the government in Westminster would negotiate with its counterparts in Edinburgh.
Mr Salmond claims that the rest of the UK would regard a Yes vote as binding and that the ensuing negotiations would proceed smoothly and swiftly. “England, Wales and Northern Ireland will always be our family, friends and closest neighbours,” he has said affably. He has even assured Scots of “a smooth transition of powers from Westminster to Scotland”.
If Mr Salmond really believes his own rhetoric, he is deluded. A split between Scotland and the rest of the UK would not be a velvet divorce. It would almost certainly be a no-holds-barred affair.
The Edinburgh Agreement that paved the way for the referendum asserted that the two nations’ governments would work together “in the best interests of the people of Scotland and of the rest of the United Kingdom”. But the peoples of the UK are plural, not singular, and their interests diverge sharply: over the desirability of a single currency, over who controls North Sea oil, over the division of the so-called national debt and over much else. Moreover, the government in London following next May’s UK general election will have every incentive to bargain forcefully – even brutally – with Edinburgh. No one south of the border will applaud an administration that appears to be caving in to the Scots.
On the contrary, every opinion poll suggests that a large majority of English voters will be appalled by, as they see it, Scottish apostasy. They would feel like a spouse who has been deserted after more than 200 years of seemingly happy marriage, during which they had fought innumerable battles side by side. Fairly or unfairly, they would also feel like the one in a marriage who had been paying a disproportionate share of the family bills.
Observers on both sides of the argument agree that if there is to be an amicable settlement after a Yes vote, the Scottish government will be looking for a significant amount of goodwill from Westminster. But that goodwill is unlikely to be forthcoming, especially if the UK government elected in May 2015 is Conservative. In principle, the Tories are pro-union. In practice, they would love to deprive Labour of more than three dozen Scottish Westminster seats. A few of today’s Tory MPs are even outright English nationalists, who would love to see England shot of Scotland altogether.
A Labour government in London would be torn. Historically, the party has had close ties with Scotland. Even now, it has a large contingent of Scottish MPs. It therefore has a large partisan stake in the union. On the other hand, public opinion south of the border would make it difficult for a Labour government not to take a tough line with the SNP.
A Labour or Labour-led government might be tempted to wield both carrot and stick: hold fast on issues such as the currency and North Sea oil and at the same time offer a generous form of devolution, with the prospect of another vote – not between independence and the status quo but between independence and a newly refreshed kind of union.
Any UK government would be legally entitled to invite the Scots to vote a second time. A “Yes” vote in September is unlikely. Even if it happens, that may well not be the end of the affair.
The writer is professor of government at Essex university and co-author of ‘The Blunders of Our Governments’