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Is Time On Your Side?

Robin Copland

Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond has announced 24 March 2016 as the date for the country’s exit from the United Kingdom, should the Scottish people (or rather, those people resident in Scotland at 18 September 2014) vote for independence.  It is a date redolent with historical significance for the historically-minded, for on that date in 1603, the union of the Scottish and English crowns took place and later, in 1707 on the same date, the Acts of Union were signed creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain.

Commentators are wondering why there is such a time gap (18 months) between the referendum and independence.  The truth is that there is a lot to negotiate.  Agreement needs to be reached on issues like defence, social security, share of the national debt and currency.  These are substantive issues that will exercise negotiating teams, predominantly from the civil service, but ultimately headed up by the relevant ministers.  There’s a thought: civil servants and ministers negotiating.  I hope that they take good advice and, needless to say, Scotwork will be there to calm spirits and mop fevered brows, if required!

The last time something similar happened was when Czechoslovakia divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia on 1 January 1993.  6 months had been allowed between the decision being taken and the act of separation.  Believe it or not, but there are still some small items that have yet to be negotiated 20 years later.  18 months is judged to be enough time to cover the substantive issues between Scotland and the rest of the UK; there is general acceptance that there will still be issues that need to be resolved when independence actually happens.

Time is always an interesting negotiating variable.  The SNP is pressing for some negotiations to take place before the referendum takes place.  This is in their interests; it makes it look as if there is a fait accompli.  Needless to say the UK government is having none of it and is refusing to enter any negotiations until the Scottish people have had their say next year.  Polls vary, but most still suggest that the Scots are not minded to go it alone.  We still have a year or so to go before the vote and unionists will do well to remember whom they are up against.  The top SNP people are hardened politicians who have spent a lifetime campaigning as well as governing.

On the international front there was another interesting use of the time variable this weekend.  Observers knew, as soon as it was announced that senior foreign ministers from stakeholder countries were making their way to Geneva for a further round of negotiations with Iran, that something was in the air.  Israel, of course, is fundamentally opposed to any agreement with a state that has yet to renounce its ambition to wipe it off the face of the earth, so the likes of the USA and the United Kingdom had to tread very carefully indeed.  They introduced a six-month break clause to the agreement to help appease Israel, whose prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu was still moved to describe the interim agreement as an “historic mistake”.  I suspect that his reaction would have been much tougher without the break clause.

Negotiators should never forget the importance of time in a negotiation.  You can use it to set deadlines for negotiations; you can use it as a variable within the negotiation itself; you can use it to improve / worsen the deal; you can even use it to stall negotiations by putting an unrealistic deadline in place.

Robin Copland

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