The Guardian’s April Fool story, suggesting that an independent Scotland will switch to driving on the right, has a hard time keeping up with the loopiness of some of the current arguments. It’s been suggested that there’ll be soldiers with dogs patrolling the border, that Scottish viewers will be banned from watching Doctor Who, that Scottish customers will not be able to pay for goods in pounds. The most recent argument at the weekend suggested that after a ‘Yes’ vote the governments would start negotiating, exchanging currency union for leaving nuclear missiles at Faslane. The idea that the horse-trading will focus on how to exchange livestock that’s already died in transit is pretty daft.
I should perhaps begin with acknowledgment that the scenario is not likely; the polls have been fairly consistently showing a ‘no’ vote, although the gap is narrowing. What a negotiation would have to focus on, of course, is the division of assets and liabilities: who gets the silverware, who gets the record collection, and who pays the mortgage. The assets include fixed assets (land, sea, buildings, holdings abroad) and movable property (such as art collections, museums, military hardware, computer records and money – e.g. the National Insurance Fund). The fixed assets are easiest to resolve by custom and practice, but the sea boundary would raise issues – how it’s drawn could have a large effect on oil holdings. As so often in a divorce, it’s the small items which are likely to lead people to blows. The most contentious part of the movable property is that many of these holdings are in the hands of quasi-independent institutions. Scotland would lose out, but as Britain’s national wealth is so substantially held in London, it already does.
The liabilities include debt, and commitments to pay benefits – for example, over a million pensioners who live abroad. The debt is the main reason why Scotland would have an effective claim on the assets – and the reason why a Scottish negotiating team would have to be prepared to walk away with neither.