Vote on a knife edge, say diplomats in poll

The outcome of the referendum on Scottish independence remains “too close to call” according to an Embassy poll of diplomats. Of the few willing to offer a view, those predicting a No vote outweigh those envoys who think Scotland will vote for independence.

Comparing the Scottish vote to the referendum in Quebec, a Canadian diplomat predicted a narrow victory for the Better Together campaign. “In Quebec the pro-independence vote was ahead in the polls. But it was the undecided voters, who, when they were alone in the polling booth, decided not to take the risk. It will probably go the same way in Scotland.”

Constitutional battles ahead

But whichever way Scotland votes, diplomats are expecting major debates in the coming months over constitutional changes that could see UK becoming a federal state.

One Ambassador commented that no matter what the result, the First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond had got what he wanted.

“Salmond is already victorious, because the Westminster political class will offer an extension of more powers and autonomy, which initially was not on the political chessboard…Enhanced autonomy was always in [his] interests,” the Ambassador told Embassy.

Others are not so sure whether the party leaders’ pledge is deliverable: “Will this mean more devolution for the Welsh and Northern Ireland? How will the English MPs respond?” asked one head of mission.

Diplomats worry that constitutional wrangling will turn Britain in on itself at a time when its needs to be engaged internationally.

A senior British official warned that the issue of Scottish independence was likely to linger on the British political landscape long after the vote. “Those supporting independence are the youth and they are not going to give up. The independence question is not going to go away anytime soon.”

A step closer to Brexit?

European diplomats worry privately about the consequences of a Yes victory. Many fear a split would likely be followed by a Conservative majority in the 2015 general election, meaning a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU in 2017 is guaranteed, which could lead to a British exit from the EU.

The referendum has also been stirring up separatist sentiment across Europe, from Flanders in Belgium to Cataluna in Spain.

“Separatism in Europe seems very fashionable these days but unless you are under attack, why divorce?” commented an Ambassador from a country that had broken away from a larger federation.

Diplomacy the day after

Officially, few missions have made plans for a pro-independence result. However, the closeness of the polls has started envoys pondering the immediate consequences of a Yes vote for diplomats and consuls working in Scotland.

A spokesman for the Scotland Office told Embassy that diplomats based in Scotland would retain their diplomatic status during the 18-month transition. States will have until March 2016 to establish diplomatic relations with Scotland, after which diplomats should be accredited to Edinburgh.

The SNP aims to create a diplomatic network of between 70 and 90 missions abroad. Scotland already has 22 overseas offices, but most of these are located within British embassies so it is likely that they will have to find alternative properties.

There are examples of successor states sharing out embassy properties (as happened among the former republics of Yugloslavia).

Others have chosen to co-locate in a single property as the Czechs and Slovaks have done in some posts, including London.

The Czech and Slovak Ambassadors in London, who went through their own Velvet Divorce 21 years ago, have been careful not to interfere in the political debate over Scottish independence. “We are staying well out of this, but if the Scots do vote for independence we stand ready to offer our advice,” Czech Ambassador Michael Zantovsky told Embassy.

But Scotland and Britain sharing embassies would be “inconceivable” predicts Geoff Berridge, senior fellow of the Diplo Foundation and author of Diplomacy: Theory and Practice. “There will be great bitterness in England,” he said. “it would be a messy divorce.”

Recognising Scotland
Setting up Scottish posts also assumes that those countries are willing to establish diplomatic ties with Scotland, Berridge adds.

In the Embassy survey, respondents said it was “likely” their countries would recognise Scotland’s independence but recognition and indeed establishing diplomatic relations may require a vote in parliament.

This may prove problematic for some nations, warns Berridge: “Those [states] in which separatists of their own have been fired up by the success of the Scottish nationalists, might not rush to welcome them. China, Spain, and Turkey perhaps fall into this category.”