Countdown Conundrum?

Published: Aug 15 , 2014
Author: John McMillan

On September 18th, Scotland, part of the United Kingdom for 300 years, is holding a referendum on whether to split away from the rest of the UK and become an independent country.

Assuming that there is a ‘Yes’ vote, the Scottish Government has a massive negotiating challenge ahead if it is to meet its self-imposed deadline of 24th March 2016; barely 18 months after the votes will be counted.

Deadlines are double edged swords.  Kidnappers set deadlines, “If the ransom is not paid by xx hours then we will kill the hostages.” Up until the deadline the power lies with the hostage-takers, but as the deadline approaches the balance of power is finely balanced. If it assumed the hostage-takers are bluffing then the best tactic is to do nothing. If the deadline passes and there are no dead bodies, then the power shifts and the hostage-takers credibility is reduced as their bluff is called.

So is it a good tactic for the Scottish Government to declare a date for the negotiations to be concluded?  Probably not. There are so many issues to be agreed between the rUK (rest of the UK) and the departing State that it extremely unlikely that they will be resolved within that timescale. This gives the rUK negotiators power, knowing that the Scots are working to a deadline; delay can work in their favour.

The other problem for the Scots negotiators is that their politicians have presented their opening list of demands as being the final agreement. Obviously, as this is a negotiation, the final agreement will be different from the starting point.  Any retreat from the declared list could be seen as a “climb down” with political ramifications.

Our experience of civil servants’ negotiating ability suggests that they could be unprepared and unused to the cut and thrust of the brutal negotiations that would follow.  rUK will be defending its interests vigorously.  This would not be a collaborative negotiation.  

Their workload would be considerably increased by two other parallel negotiations that would need to take place at the same time: with the EU over the terms of membership and with the countries of the UN over the 600 or so treaties that the present UK has in place. In addition politicians’ interests would be closely tied to the outcomes so they would be tempted to interfere at every stage.

All this would suggest that there would need to be a rapid expansion of the civil service to provide all these skilled negotiators, as well as those needed to duplicate all the services presently provided by the UK.  This should create great employment opportunities for skilled negotiators.  I wonder when the job adverts will start appearing?

John McMillan


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