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Putting the future into the future tense

This is a slightly longer version of article in the Scotsman today on why it is essential that we start talking about the mechanisms for independence and stop dealing only in slogans

Can we at least start off by agreeing on one thing; this isn’t the middle ages. Up until now the constitutional debate has been carried out as if this is the crusades and that, after battle, the country that remains is the victor’s to do with as they please.

Since we all know this isn’t true could we put away our fake armour for a second and consider what would actually happen if there was a vote for independence? First there would be a series of negotiations, between Scotland and the remainder of Britain, between Scotland and the EU, between the rest of Britain and the EU and so on. Then there would need to be the development of some sort of Scottish constitution, if nothing else to identify who is a citizen, who can vote and the arrangements for electing and running a parliament. Then we will need to elect a parliament and let it get on with its job.

It is of the utmost importance to Scotland’s future that we have a simple, clear and unambiguous framework for understanding what independence means. Until people can think sensibly about what would actually happen in the event of a Yes vote we will all be trapped in the alternative universe which is passing for a debate just now.

In this alternative universe people who have not yet made up their mind about independence keep emailing me with questions. Could we not join the Euro or have our own currency? How much harm do I think slashing corporation tax might do? Would abortion laws change?

Somehow we have managed to create a debate in which democracy has been written out altogether and we’ve all turned into astrologers. All three of these questions can be answered only by a democratically elected parliament. It is for neither independence negotiations nor a written constitution to make these decisions without reference to the democratic will of the people.

Surely this is self evident? Surely we would all be outraged if our laws were fundamentally changed without our permission? I have heard people say that these decisions might not be made by this SNP Government. Can we be clear on this – they will absolutely definitely and under no circumstances be made by this SNP Government. They can be made only by a democratically elected parliament elected by the people on the basis of manifestos written to explain how each party seeking election would use the powers of that parliament. Any other approach would be utterly abhorrent.

What currency would we use? Sterling as a transitionary currency and then parliament would decide from there. What would happen to corporation tax or abortion? That is neither a matter for negotiation or the constitution but for democracy. This is the fundamental principle that underpins more than 120 elected democracies throughout the world.

Does anyone disagree with this basic principle? Then can we move forward.

The question of how we would form an independent Scotland is well covered in a paper published by the Scottish Independence Convention at the weekend. It is worth reading whether or not you support independence because it provides a sensible framework to help understand how you can answer these questions for yourself.

But it does something else I think is important. Personally, I support independence. But there are many people in Scotland who have different views from me but whom I greatly respect. There are people who disagree with my left politics but agree with me on the constitution. There are those who agree with my politics but oppose independence, and so on.

What is crucially important to me is that if Scotland did vote to be independent, these people who don’t agree with independence or the left-of-centre pitch on which it is being made are every bit as much a part of that new country as me or anyone else. I don’t really want to be part of a country that stitches up the constitution with no reference to them.

The SIC paper suggests that a ‘team Scotland’ approach should be taken to independence negotiations with all political parties and others such as employee and employer representatives included too. And then it calls for a democratically produced constitution. And it sets out the principle that each stage in this process should do as little as possible to constrain the next – negotiations should not limit the constitution, the constitution should not limit democracy.

Does this mean the people of Scotland would not be allowed to ask legitimate questions about what independence means in practice? No. In fact, it means that we could get much more clarity on the smaller number of necessary transitional arrangements and then we can put the future back into the future conditional tense where it belongs. If, could, might, or, would like to.

The No Campaign can still talk about the difficulty of the decision a little down the road where we will have to decide whether to leave Sterling and if so what options there are. The Yes Campaign can keep talking about the sorts of things that could be achieved with independence. The SNP can still propose to stand on a platform of cutting corporation tax if it likes.

But the people of Scotland would no longer be treated like dafties. We wouldn’t have to pretend the future is certain when we know it isn’t. We wouldn’t have to pretend that either Scotland or the remainder of the UK would somehow skip over renegotiation with the EU when they won’t. We can reject the assertions either that independence will be anarchy with society falling apart or that the process of becoming independent is something we’ll barely notice. We know these things aren’t true.

There is no campaign – marketing, advertising, political – that is designed to ‘lead people to the truth’. A campaign is a clash of different sides trying to persuade you they are right. In any campaign there is bound to be an element of intentionally misleading the subject (I just changed my insurance and it really wasn’t simples). But everyone involved – including the media – has a responsibility to make sure that people have at least enough of a framework to make a good decision.

Bluntly, when people are emailing me asking me questions about the future that no-one can sensibly answer to help them come to a decision, I fear for the quality of that decision. After all, if the ability accurately to predict the future is fundamental to the legitimacy of a nation state, Westminster would have been abolished in 2007.

We have two years of this to go. If you are reading this and feel that just now neither side is really giving you what you need to make a good decision, make your voice heard. Ask for a simple statement of what has to be decided when and by whom. Use it to understand what you’re voting for and what you’re not voting for. Good decisions come not from more and more information but from good information.

Let’s shift the debate out of the middle ages and into the enlightenment. For all our sakes.

Robin McAlpine