Everything you need to know about the Scottish independence white paper in five minutes

Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon at today's press conference.
Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon at today's press conference.
Ian Dunt By

What is it?

It's Alex Salmond's big document outlining his plans for an independent Scotland.

Why's everyone making such a big deal out of it?

Well, there is the small matter of how the economy, defence and politics of Scotland would be affected by it suddenly becoming independent, but the white paper will also form the basis of the debate up until the referendum next September . Salmond needs to prove he's got a mature, believable programme for making Scotland a successful country to counter the endless torrent of pointed questions directed his way by opponents.

Has he?

I've no idea. It's very long. The white paper clocks in at 670 pages, covering 650 questions. And to make things better, the website hosting it went into meltdown when everyone tried to log in at once. We've now had a listen to his press conference with deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon and a decent amount of time to skim over it. But the real nitty-gritty of the scrutiny will come in the next few days, as the Better Together camp pores over the details and tries to do maximum political damage to the first minister.

OK, but what's the headline?

Sterling. For the last two years Salmond has committed himself to staying in the currency union with the rest of the UK. That puts him in a vulnerable position because Better Together can argue that Westminster is under no obligation to allow Scotland to stay. In reality, this would be extremely unlikely, but they're using the uncertainty to suggest that voting 'yes' is a dangerous gamble.

But why would the UK stay in a currency union with Scotland?

Firstly, Scotland is the rest of the UK's second biggest export market after the USA, so it would be against Westminster's interest to force its own businesses into a separate currency. Secondly, Scottish oil and gas exports make a substantial contribution to the UK's balance of payments. Thirdly, having the same interest rates as your main trading partner has joint benefits. Fourthly, productivity in Scotland and the rest of the UK is pretty much the same. Fifth, the economic cycle of Scotland usually moves in unison with the rest of the UK. Finally – and here's the rub – if Scotland got forced out, it says it won't take its share of the UK's debt.

What? They seemed happy to receive the welfare spending. Doesn't Scotland have free prescriptions and all that?

Indeed. But the pound is a shared asset. If Scotland lost its assets then it wouldn't be keen to keep the liabilities.

Do these calculations stack up?

Maybe. The currency proposals are the work of Salmond's fiscal working group, which includes two Nobel laureates. Salmond says each Scot would have been £2,400 better off if Scotland had previously controlled its own finances, and that future independence could benefit Scots by £600 each.

That sounds optimistic.

Salmond is rather fond of optimism. He is running the 'yes' campaign after all. But there's a bigger problem.

What's that?

Holyrood and Westminster will hammer out the details of currency union in the event of a 'yes' vote, but it's hard to see how the current financial regulation framework would change much. The Bank of England would still be the lender of last resort. And the reason it's the lender of last resort is because it's backed up by the UK taxpayer. That gives the Bank's financial policy committee responsibility for overseeing financial stability in Scotland, a bit like the system that causes so much agonising in the eurozone. So here's the big question: What happens if a Scottish bank goes bust? Well, there's not much detail about that, but you can bet your bottom sterling it'll involve the UK public bailing it out.

What about the military? We'll still be an island right? Are we really going to have different defence structures?

Scotland will have a defence force of 15,000 regulars, with 5,000 reserve personnel. But the big question is on Trident, which Salmond wants scrapped – or at least removed from Scotland. That would mean the nuclear deterrent would probably need to be moved to Faslane, the UK's only existing nuclear weapons base.  Or we could build a new one – at the cost of billions of pounds – possibly even in a special zone in an enclave in Scotland.

Anything else Salmond wants to scrap?

Yep. Pretty much a shopping list for left-wingers. Universal credit is on there, as is the bedroom tax. And there are some sweeteners too. Salmond plans to offer free childcare for pre-school children. Of course, they could do that now but Sturgeon said that if they did the revenue from increased female employment would go to Whitehall. Behind the smiles, that comment did somewhat give away the emotional tenor of the debate.

Would Scotland get a constitution?

Apparently so. Salmond plans to set up a constitutional convention. He pointed out at the press conference that every other member of the EU and the Commonwealth has a constitution. Scotland would even have its own BBC. Well, an SBS: the Scottish Broadcasting Service.  It would be funded by the Scottish share of the licence fee as a joint venture with the Beeb.

So is this the game-changer Salmond needs to turn the polls around?

It's not impossible, but it seems unlikely. The document is surprisingly lightweight given its length. The legal advice supporting the SNP's position on Europe, Nato and the like is not in there, contrary to what was said leading up to its publication. Salmond is also in the difficult position of contrasting his economic calculations against those of the respected – and independent – Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS).

What did they say?

That an independent Scotland would have a national debt over 100% of its national income and could only deal with it by massively increasing taxes, cutting public spending and bringing in lots of immigrants. Salmond says this is the result of presumptions about Scotland being a low growth economy. The IFS says Salmond has grossly overestimated North Sea oil revenues and the role of an increasingly aged population.

Who's right?

Who knows? The IFS said there would only be residual oil and gas revenues after 2040, but Salmond says firms are investing in the North Sea in expectations of revenues after that point. But ultimately the Scottish first minister has built a reputation this year of not being straight with people, either about his oil fund or about legal advice on joining the EU. And the IFS are studiously independent and well respected among political insiders.

This is a bit of an anti-climax, isn't it?

It's too early to tell. But the early impression is that this does not provide the kind of detailed assurances and exciting vision of Scotland Salmond would need to fundamentally change the debate in the lead up to next September.

What's next?

Lot of journalists, politicians and analysts are about to do a lot of reading. See you on the other side.


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