Book Review – ‘How to Start a New Country’


I found this book by Robin McAlpine and published by Common Print (part of Common Weal) inspiring, annoying and deeply troubling. Inspiring in that it illustrated some of the many possibilities of independence; annoying in that we don’t appear to have done much, if any, pre-planning and deeply troubling that we probably won’t be able to prepare for independence in the way outlined but instead be forced to act in haste in order to extricate ourselves from what looks like being a Brexit bourach.

The main strategy the book outlines is that of a clean-break, taking on minimal moveable assets and not buying into existing UK systems as temporary solutions.  As well as getting to a truly independent Scotland more quickly, this would also, according to  McAlpine,  provide the rUK with much less bargaining leverage during separation negotiations – the less we want, the less opportunity HMG have to be difficult. Such a strategy also provides the maximum opportunity to implement ‘Scottish solutions’  He therefore proposes a 3 year transition period between referendum and independence day. The 2014 referendum assumed a handover period of 18 months, however this involved sharing a number of existing arrangements with the rUK, notably currency and central Bank. As we know the proposal was vetoed by George Osborne, making the pro-independence campaign a hostage to fortune.

As part of the clean-break strategy McAlpine argues for instance that we shouldn’t take a share of Royal Navy vessels which would be a poor fit for a Scottish Navy whose priorities would be very different from those of the Royal Navy. Instead he proposes we build our own naval vessels.  Such a strategy would have the added benefit of providing a boost to jobs and the Scottish shipbuilding industry.

Speaking of jobs, McAlpine calculates that an independent Scotland would require an extra 20,000 Civil Servants to run the new Ministries (Home Office, Treasury, Foreign Office, Social Security, DVLA and so on).  To provide an illustration of the potential of these additional Civil Servant jobs, imagine all these new (mostly well paid) civil servants moving to a new town in Scotland with their partners and families. This new town will require housing, roads, schools, shops, restaurants, garages, heat, light, water and sanitation plus the staff to service this new infrastructure. The size of the new town very quickly approaches 100,000 people. That’s one massive economic stimulus, worth according to McAlpine about £3 billion per year.

He also notes the need for many more MSPs to cope with the expanding responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament. Here I feel Robin McAlpine misses a trick (or possibly he was channelling his inner socialist centralising tendencies), as he merely pointed out that the current Holyrood Parliament wouldn’t be big enough to accommodate such an influx and a new building would be required. However, there may be an opportunity to move to a Federal system of Government. Holyrood would then become less of a focal point as more of the day-to-day business of the Federal Government is conducted in the Regions while Government departmental business (Home Office, Foreign Office, Work and Pensions etc.) could be conducted in a new purpose built campus of Ministries, ideally somewhere other than Edinburgh.

A Federal Government offers possibilities for further devolution at a local level. The current monolithic Highland Council might become a federal government region within which there could be a number of local Councils (such as Skye and Lochalsh) which would have revenue earning capacity and the ability to act autonomously. There’ve been calls to create a Skye National Park in order to better manage the creaking infrastructure to cope with the influx of tourists. However, a National Park would still need to liaise with Highland Council as they would continue to hold the purse strings. A Skye & Lochalsh Council on the other hand could act more decisively.

Much of the above could be agreed through Robin McAlpine’s proposal for a further plebicite (pre-independence day) on a new constitution. He suggests that at that time the electorate could also be asked to vote on matters such as the monarchy and EU membership (McAlpine himself seems keen on EFTA, at least as an interim as this offers more flexibility and is less contentious than full EU membership). So federalism might be added to the list of questions to put to the electorate. The author proposes that a National Commission should be set up to manage the entire transition process, reporting to the Scottish Government who otherwise will continue with their existing duties. He also points out that this should be in place, at least in embryo, before a further Independence vote!

On the question of an England – Scotland border the author suggests a hardish border would be no bad thing as that would give Scotland much greater control over customs duties. He points out that the official annual customs duty fraud in the UK is estimated at £36 billion but that figure is regarded as conservative by numerous observers who believe the figure to be nearer £120 billion (partly because Customs are increasingly tied up with managing immigration). So a hardish land border with England would allow for much greater customs control which would, he argues, more than justify the expense. The Scottish Navy would also play an important role in deterring smuggling (hence the need for appropriate vessels rather than ex-RN frigates/destroyers). The hardish border could apparently allow private traffic to cross unhindered, with number plate recognition CCTV used to capture individual border crossings. Meanwhile commercial vehicles could have their customs checks well away from the border, for instance on the quayside for fish catches bound for export, thus allaying fears of rotting catches in lorries delayed by customs checks at the border.

On the much touted UK single market,  in which we’re told, Scotland does considerably more trade than with the EU and which the UK Government, using the Project Fear playbook, suggest might be imperilled by Scottish independence, Robin McAlpine points out that electricity accounts for about 1/3 of all exports from Scotland to England via the national grid, so it’s highly unlikely the UK would want to jeopardise this, while a good deal of the rest is cross border movement of supermarket goods. He points out that supermarkets really like frictionless borders so any difficulties caused by the UK Government would meet stiff resistance from Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons.

Robin McAlpine concludes by stating that the book doesn’t set out to make the case for independence. However he goes on to say, ‘…it is hard to miss just how big an opportunity this is. To create a fit-for-purpose tax system, to have a defence system which efficiently focuses on defence rather than power projection, the chance to fundamentally fix public IT, the impact of having a proper Customs and Excise system, the chance to build a humane system of social security, the enormous injection of investment into the Scottish economy that would result, the thousands upon thousands of jobs it would create, the expertise it would bring to Scotland, the way it would effect how we see ourselves…In so many ways it is possible to see in this technical attempt to understand a transition to independence the very reasons so many people want that independence in the first place.’  Amen to that.

Whatever you think of Robin McAlpine’s views, he and Common Weal deserve credit for conducting a rigorous analysis of the planning required for Scottish independence, unlike another recent ongoing constitutional issue, the plans for which were simply written on the side of a bus.



2 thoughts on “Book Review – ‘How to Start a New Country’”

  1. Thank you for this, Phil.

    Firstly, let me say that I haven’t read all of this book, but I read several of the chapters when they were published on the Common Weal site.

    One general comment I would like to make is that from what I know of it I find it to be a bit naive, both politically and economically.

    Scotland’s independence is a divorce from the other constituent parts of the UK. To, as far as I understand the author to be proposing, walk away without attempting to wring every last asset/value of asset from the UK that Scotland is entitled to is just madness. So what if UK warships do not fit in with a new Scottish Navy’s requirements? Something is always better than nothing and we will need to patrol our waters from day one, not from years down the line when we can build bespoke craft. Likewise with every other part of Defence. We need to receive our share of the capital value of every building (UK and abroad), every piece of UK propery and every project we have contributed to outwith our border (HS2, Crossrail, etc). If the UK refuses to negotiate we are in a very strong bargaining position due to Trident. If the rUK wants us to host Trident for an agreed period then they need to (a) recognise our claim to other UK assets and (b) not to be obstructive in negotiating that share. Oh, and let’s not forget (c) – paying for the privilege! Another strong point in our favour is regarding UK Debt. We know that we did not incur this and there is a very strong argument for us not taking on any of it at all. I’ll just leave that hanging as it warrants another excellent essay from you on its own!

    We already know how poorly the rUK (the tories) negotiate – through the Brexit farce. I have confidence in the Scottish Government’s ability to do a good deal for us.

    1. What Robin McAlpine proposes is to offset the value of any moveable assets which we decide not to take as part of the division of assets. So instead of taking warships as mentioned in my article, his proposal is that we take the cash value of said warships. Though he doesn’t mention it, we would probably need to lease suitable vessels while building new ones, so we wouldn’t be like the Austrian Navy (nae boats). More broadly he proposes Scotland takes a share of the book value of all the UK’s defence assets, less the value of those fixed assets (dockyards, airfields, military bases etc.) which are in Scotland and can’t be moved. He definitely doesn’t suggest we give anything away.

      There is a lengthy chapter of the negotiation process and the need for the Scottish negotiating team to be clear about what they want, what they are prepared to cede to the rUK, what are their ‘red lines’ and also their major bargaining chips, one of which, as you suggest is likely to be Trident. He sees part of the negotiation as agreeing a valuation of all the assets and liabilities initially, then negotiating what (if anything) Scotland might want of those assets and agreeing a financial balance sheet prior to getting on to trickier stuff like Scotland’s share (if anything) of the UK debt. On this he writes at length about international precedents when agreeing the division of assets, for example ‘successor states’ and the rights and responsibilities therein.

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