Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Beat The Clock

In the last few months of non-blogging I started to ponder buying an apartment here in Switzerland. I didn't get very far, though. The problem, you see, is that time is running out. A quick calculation revealed that buying a house is not in my financial interests because I will pay less in rent over my remaining lifetime than I would in purchasing equivalent property. It wasn't a huge existential shock or anything like that but it did make me realise that decisions have a time-frame of their very own: miss the deadline and the decision is made for you. It's also too late to become a train driver or a dentist, though neither really appeal. Being closer to 50 than 40 means it is probably too late to have a family because I don't want to be an almost codger, complaining about my dodgy knees when my kids want to be chased around the park. I don't mourn any of that but I do have to reflect that I've rarely actively taken decisions. Apart from the decision to leave academic research and then later on to move to Switzerland, I've pretty much drifted through life. I'd say everything turned out well but it isn't advice I'd pass on to the younger me because it could have been very different if luck hadn't been on my side.

Why am I banging on about life decisions and their timeline? Well, it's already too late for Brexit. The UK will leave the EU on whatever terms the EU believes benefit the EU most. That will happen because the UK has failed to reach a single decision. It has failed to make any decisions because half of the government (and the opposition) refuse to admit the trade-offs involved, while the other half are still trying to understand the issue in any meaningful way at all. The EU, meanwhile, has gone right ahead with writing up the Withdrawal Agreement. They will present that to the UK and the UK will either capitulate or repeat the mantra that no deal is better than a bad deal. Given that the UK has failed to make the decisions required for no-deal we can be certain that they will capitulate. The decision will be made by the EU on behalf of the UK. This is what taking back control looks like.

Scotland also has a decision to make. It needs to decide whether it wants to remain in the UK or the EU. Is time running out? Yes, it certainly is and if we don't make a decision in time then, just as it was for my property-magnate fantasies and with Brexit, it will be made for us. It will be made for us by Westminster who will choose that Scotland remains part of the UK. They will choose that because it also involves no decision at all.

Indecision will be the undoing of independence. We're getting perilously close to the end of the countdown clock without a solution to the conundrum.  Everyone on the indy side agrees that there is a political mandate for an independence referendum during the lifetime of the current Scottish Parliament. Indeed, the Scottish Parliament had a vote on this very issue. That mandate will end when the current Scottish Parliament ends in 2021. At the time of writing, that is just short of 3 years into the future. Plenty of time, right? Wrong.

How long does it take to organise a referendum? 3 weeks? 3 months? 1 year? 18 months? We've seen quite a few hasty referendums in the last few years. First off, there was a referendum in the Crimea that was organised in around 12 weeks. Does anyone think that upheld the highest standards of democracy? Let's face it, it was a sham, the very opposite of a democratic event. The Catalonian referendum was barely better. It was a badly managed referendum with insufficient time for voter registration, poor ballot box security,  lack of voter anonymity and allowed multiple votes to be cast at multiple voting points. It cannot be said to have upheld high standards of democracy, even before Rajoy's goons came along and needlessly broke it up. I don't want any of that to happen in Scotland because stable democracy can never flourish from an undemocratic event. If we are to have a 2nd indy ref then I'd like to see it uphold the highest standards of democracy. To do otherwise is to guarantee a poor outcome, no matter which way the vote goes.

Let's imagine we were all tasked with setting up a referendum. What steps might be required? Well, the first thing we need to do is decide the question. How might we do that? Well, we might invite interested groups to submit questions they believe sum up the choices on offer. Some will want the question to be skewed towards a Yes for change, others might want it skewed towards a Yes for the status quo. "Scotland should be an independent country" is quite different from "Scotland should remain part of the UK", even if they both lead to the same outcome. "Scotland should remain in a)UK b) EU" is a completely different question. Choosing the question requires studies on the political bias of words, reports being drawn up and distributed, and rounds of negotiated compromise. That won't happen in 3 weeks.

Who will get to vote in this referendum? 16-18 year olds? EU nationals? EU nationals with permanent residence status? Scots living outside Scotland? How do we define Scots living outside Scotland? We won't decide any of that in 3 months. What steps will be made to ensure that everyone in the chosen franchise has adequate opportunity to register to vote? TV adverts? Leaflets? Social media campaigns? Should those be in Gaelic? German? Polish? We won't do any of that in 6 months.

What about democratic legitimacy? We really do need the referendum to have democratic legitimacy because without that it will be all too easily contested (or just ignored) by anyone unhappy with the outcome. To be honest, if Rajoy wasn't an authoritarian blowhard he would have done exactly that. All of this means that the referendum must be backed by the authority of primary legislation. We could easily start a debate about whether or not that can come from the Scottish Parliament or must come from Westminster. The problem is that independence is most easily achieved with the cooperation of Westminster.  For example, to be an independent nation we first need to be accepted into the UN.  That will be impossible to do if a permanent member of the UN Security Council gives us the status of a breakaway territory akin to Abkhazia or Transistria.  I am, of course, arguing that the best outcome starts with an act of Westminster primary legislation. How long will that take? I'm sure everyone has noticed that Westminster is preoccupied with Brexit and is likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future. How's that project estimate getting along? 12 months minimum, I'd say. That sounds about right because the 2014 referendum took 18 months from its first announcement to the day of the referendum itself.

Let's say that a concerted political and diplomatic effort to stage an indy ref began with immediate effect. What dates might work? Given that the 2014 indy ref took 18 months to organise we might set the earliest date to be October, 2019.  For perspective, that will be 6 months after the UK has left the EU by the automatic process of law. The UK might already be rapidly diverging from EU and EEA membership criteria. If we're being honest, and despite the urgency, October, 2019 is an unrealistic target because both parliaments are about to close for an extended summer break. Let's reschedule for December, 2019. Nope, Christmas is in the way. We can also rule out January and February, 2020 because they would involve campaigns that overlap with the New Year. Right, then, March 2020, one full year after the UK leaves the EU. Yes, the earliest achievable opportunity to have an indy ref is March, 2020. What is the latest opportunity? To avoid interference with the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections, the latest opportunity is around March, 2021. We need to be aware, though, that the proposed post-Brexit standstill arrangement will end on December, 2020. It is imperative to complete the indy ref before that date. I think we have our window of opportunity: March, 2020 to November, 2020.

If March, 2020 only happens if diplomatic and political efforts begin with immediate effect, then it follows that November, 2020 only happens if that effort begins in the next 8 months or so.  Time has already run out on Brexit.  We can no longer have an indy ref before the UK departs the EU.  We can still have an indy ref before the UK substantively leaves EU regulation but that windows closes in just 8 months time.  I wasn't kidding when I said that time is running out. 

Over and out,


PS The Venice Commission of the Council of Europe are clear that a referendum ought to have a 12 month life-cycle.  All details here.

PPS There is an excellent discussion of the Electoral Commission's formulation of the EU referendum question in "Brexit Time" by Kenneth Armstrong.  If you ever wondered why the words "Remain" and "Leave" were on the ballot paper then go ahead and get the book.  Still not convinced?  Well, if you  want to know why 16-18 year olds were denied the vote then go ahead and get the book. Still not convinced?  IT HAS AN ENTIRE CHAPTER TITLED "LITIGATING BREXIT".  I don't know why I bother with you people.

PPPS I took liberties with the actualite in my opening paragraph.  Mortgages here are effectively indefinite loans and only the very rich plan to complete repayment.  A 30% deposit is the norm and many opt for the minimum of interest repayments.  The owned portion of a house is subject to a tax on the theoretical rent and calculated as though it was extra income.  The intention, of course, is to prevent property speculation.


  1. Good to see a post from you again. It's been a while!

    I agree with your analysis of the timeframe. I believe Sturgeon will make her move in October - four months from now and when the EU withdraws its negotiating team, saying "Those are your options. Take one of them or bugger off in accordance with your constitutional requirements."

    Then we might just manage September 2020. The fly in the ointment is the possibility of a no deal exit... so many unforeseeable consequences on top of the ones we can see coming.

    Or if they withdraw Article 50 notification - but I can't see where they'll find the political legitimacy to do that.

    1. Yes, the Autumn conference season would be the obvious platform to launch the referendum. To be honest, I would be worried if that doesn't happen because it is the best opportunity to start with momentum.

      Today's events in parliament show it to be meek and uncoordinated in opposition to the UK gov's attempts to implement Brexit. I don't personally see A50 being withdrawn or extended.

      Been away for a while on work deadlines! Those pesky capitalists...

  2. I'm glad to see you writing again, as I find your stuff really helpful. On this issue, in my part of Scotland a lot of people just don't want to think about it, and some (too many) would like the door to independence to be slammed shut and bolted.

    I hope Alan is right about The First Minister's intentions. I think it is our only chance, and all this "wait till we are certain to win" stuff is nonsense- The UK deep state will make sure we are locked in, abolish Holyrood, and impose Westminster rule on all issues.
    On a completely different note, but still commenting on the above, my youngest son was born when I was 47, is now at University, and it was all great, so I don't think you are too old!

    1. I can understand people not wanting to make more decisions. The problem is that not making these particular decisions is the same as making a decision.

      Brexit has dire consequences for the devolution settlement. Even if we lose again I believe that asking the question of independence is vitally important.

      Yeah, I'm probably not too old for having kids. My knees are starting to get a bit creaky, though. Those Entoure genes are a nuisance.

  3. Hmmm. Someone might have told me you were back.

    Completely agree. It has to be decided this autumn.

    And I say we take this chance now while we remain members of the EU and before we lose all our EU guaranteed rights.

    And with all that is happening, there won't be a better time for years, I suspect.

    1. This blog sneaks in under the radar.

      Alan really nailed it on the head - party conference season is the ideal opportunity to get the ball rolling. Real concern if this doesn't happen. Next Spring is the absolute last chance to start the process. After that it is too late.

      I wrote this post because I see a lot on Remainers on twitter saying that if an election can be organised in 6 weeks then so can a referendum. This is just so, so wrong. Last March was already too late for Brexit. It's not yet too late for another indy ref but we need to be aware of the time required. The lifecycle is 12 months at a push but plan for 18.

      I get the impression that the First Minister is cautious but this is a bit like asking if it's the right time to move house. It is literally never the right time to move house because there is always a risk of something going wrong or worries about interest rates or job relocation. Scotland needs to move house.

  4. Welcome back!

    I can't fault your analysis about timing. I just hope we haven't already left it too late otherwise I might be finding out about rental prices & mortgages in Switzerland (or other realms of exile).

    P.s. if you want to rejuvenate your knees get thyself into a gym & get squatting. That is my professional & personal advice based on the last 4 years of life. My 38 yo self couldn't climb stairs without the assistance of the banister while my (nearly) 44 yo self is pain free & much stronger in the knee department (& that will be £40 please).

    1. Thanks for the knee advice. My Dad had bad knees and my brother has them, too. I reckon this is a genetic timebomb waiting to happen. But I will give this a go.

      If I want to put myself in a very bad mood I look at Swiss mortgages. Daylight robbery!

      Welcome back to you too.


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