“In a joint statement issued yesterday by the Leader of the House of Commons at Westminster and the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament it was announced that negotiations had been successfully completed between the two parliaments on the new constitutional arrangement between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. The statement recorded that the guiding principles of co-operation and reciprocity which underscored the historic agreement heralded a new era of prosperity and recognition of mutual interests from which all would benefit.”
Is this imaginary press release fantasy or achievable? The current debate in the UK on issues raised by the possibility of independence for Scotland (made more immediate by the Scottish National Party’s victory in the recent elections to the Scottish Parliament) throws up a number of important questions. But although many issues have been canvassed and different viewpoints expressed, relatively little attention has been paid to the process by which any negotiations about independence would take place. If the prospect of independence (or indeed radical re-alignment as suggested by some) became reality, the manner in which deeply contentious matters are addressed would be critical, not only to the constitutional future of the UK, but also to future relationships between Scotland and its southern neighbour and other institutions, such as the EU and NATO. The quality of these relationships would determine our future.
If, for example, we ended up with a series of prolonged disputes over the allocation of assets, debts and resources, or with a fight over the way in which oil and gas tax revenues are to be assigned, or where to draw the boundary line for oil or gas between Scotland and England, the prospects of a mutually beneficial outcome would be greatly reduced. The traditional adversarial approach, seemingly inherent in politics in the western world, with people staking out positions and courting antagonism in order to be seen not to make concessions or concede rights, could result in destructive posturing and fruitless stand-offs. Such a win-lose, black/white attitude would diminish the reputation of both parliaments, not to mention adversely impact on investment and other economic prospects. If parochial point-scoring is more important than intelligent discussion, we run the risk of paralysis and years of strife.
It could be different, however, if the key players adopted mature and respectful negotiating techniques and strategies, focussing on addressing the differences objectively – whatever they may think of their counterparts or their beliefs. They would need to remember that the interests of the two nations will remain significantly intertwined and mutually dependent. Scotland and England will have a number of shared concerns, as close trading partners and as inhabitants of this island off the west coast of the European mainland. This may impact, for example, on the selection of currency, on the extent to which we vary our clocks from those of mainland Europe, on passport and travel arrangements and on how we organise our system of defence.
One of the first tasks therefore would be to identify what the two countries have in common and how to address common needs. Working first on undisputed issues will help to build trust. Then we can look at the really contentious matters, where different points of view will inevitably be genuinely held. What are the real concerns of each government? What are the priorities for each nation? What are the options for dealing with diverging positions? Instead of chipping away at each other, can we look for creative solutions which will enhance the prospects of each country? This would need much patience, imagination and generosity.
What if a Council of the British Isles was proposed to handle international matters? Ridiculous? Why? What are the pros and cons? OK, what are the alternatives for dealing with defence of the British Isles? If we can’t agree on how to deal with terrorism, what will be the consequences? We may need to be bold, to show leadership, sometimes making unilateral concessions in order to gain other benefits. But with clarity of purpose and an eye for the big picture, rational decisions could be made.
These days, many complex negotiations at international, community and corporate levels are assisted by the involvement of an independent facilitator, whose impartiality and lack of interest in the outcome can be of great benefit where the issues are difficult and inevitably supercharged. President Carter at Camp David and Senator Mitchell in Northern Ireland are two examples of the effective use of a mediator, replicated day in and day out in business and neighbourhood negotiations.
Perhaps one of our European partners would offer to fulfil this role between the parliaments at Holyrood, Edinburgh, and Westminster, London. Recently Martin McAleese, husband of the Irish President, Mary McAleese, spoke movingly and eloquently of the continuing role which mediation has played in bringing together the different communities in Ireland. He, or his wife, might be ideal facilitators of constructive conversations between the two parliaments in Edinburgh and London. Such a role might bring the necessary discipline to a process which could lead to the kind of press announcement with which we began.
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