Dr Nicola McEwen, ESRC Senior Scotland Fellow and Director of Public Policy, Edinburgh Academy of Government, assesses the White Paper’s prospectus for shared cross-border arrangements after independence.
It used to be called the DVLA question. A vision of Scottish independence which is embedded within the British Isles, with lots of cross-border arrangements and services jointly delivered. In the White Paper published this week, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency is in fact one of the institutions that would be replaced by a Scottish body after independence, but there are many more where the Scottish government wants continuity and shared service delivery.
Many of these are functional, low profile institutions, like the Office of Rail Regulation, the Civil Aviation Authority and the Green Investment Bank. The National Lottery and the Big Lottery Fund would also continue as now, and the UK research councils – an issue dear to the heart of many academics – would be shared and co-funded.
And while no-one should expect the UK government to pre-negotiate this side of a referendum, one is left with the feeling that the electorate deserves more clarity from both sides in this debate.
Other shared arrangements are envisaged on big ticket issues like the BBC and the currency. In the former, a Scottish Broadcasting Corporation would participate in a joint venture with the British Broadcasting Corporation, ensuring access to existing BBC services and programmes. In the latter, the White Paper reaffirms the Scottish government’s commitment to press for a formal currency union with the rest of the UK, with Scotland’s government effectively becoming a shareholder in the ownership and governance of the Bank of England.
Managing institutions and services on a cross-border basis would require some mechanism for joint decision-making, oversight and governance. Yet, the White Paper says very little about how such governance arrangements would be designed. Experience from elsewhere suggests that a variety of treaties and bilateral agreements would be necessary, supported by less formal day-to-day co-ordination and communication. But some formal mechanism for intergovernmental relations would be needed to underpin and facilitate informal coordination, not least to resolve any disputes that may emerge.
All such shared arrangements would of course be subject to negotiation with the UK government if Scots vote YES next September. The White paper presents Scottish-rUK co-operation and co-ordination as the common sense approach, which would be in the interests of both an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK. This is somewhat presumptuous. The Scottish government may legitimately claim to be in a position to determine what is in Scotland’s best interests, but it can’t define the interests of the rest of the UK. The UK government, for its part, has given heavy hints that formally sharing a currency and other such arrangements may not be in their interests, with the Secretary of State and others demanding a ‘plan B’ from the Scottish government in case such offers of partnership and co-operation are refused. This is clearly a politically pragmatic response, raising doubts without offering a definitive position. And while no-one should expect the UK government to pre-negotiate this side of a referendum, one is left with the feeling that the electorate deserves more clarity from both sides in this debate.
Dr Nicola McEwen is ESRC Senior Scotland Fellow and Associate Director of the ESRC Scottish Centre on Constitutional Change.