Some negotiating basics

1. Some negotiating basics...

Consider the following story. A man walks into a motorway service station. He gets a packet of crisps and takes it to the counter. The checkout operator tells him that if he wants the crisps he's going to have to hand over more money than the price on the packet. The man says that's not fair. The checkout operator shrugs. The man pulls out a gun and points it at the checkout operator and says 'give me the crisps now or I'll shoot'. The checkout operator points to the CCTV camera above his head and says 'look, if you put the crisps down and go now I won't report this'. The man panics and runs.

Now let's hear the Better Together version of this story. A man walks into a motorway service station to buy a packet of crisps. The checkout operator doesn't overcharge him because it says so on the crisp packet. The man doesn't pull out a gun because that would be illegal. And the checkout operator doesn't offer to let him go because the statement lacks credibility. This is rule-topia, a mystical land where lawyers meet to agree a suitable time for the sun to set which doesn't interfere with the smooth operation of the state.

In this 'reality', Germany and France have both been thrown out of the European Union for breaking the rules of the Stability and Growth Pact by repeatedly running deficits bigger than the rules permit. Israel is under United Nations occupation for developing nuclear weapons outside of the framework of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The United States was thrown out of the World Trade Organisation for refusing to remove illegal import tariffs designed to protect US production from global competition. BAE systems is banned from any commercial operations in the European Union because of prima facie evidence of bribery and corruption which was fully and properly investigated by the Serious Fraud Office (Tony Blair didn't close down the investigation to ensure his future income from the relevant Saudi aristocrats). Oh, but that doesn't matter anyway because Blair is currently standing trial in the International Court of Human Rights for – oh, take your pick. Let's say... Iraq.

No, rule-topia doesn't exist. Except for Scotland. For Scotland the universal rule of negotiation does not apply. For every other nation that has ever existed negotiation is a process of, well, negotiation. For Scotland we are simply to be sat in the corner while Whitehall mandarins decide our fate by pouring over Articles 48 and 49 of some EU treaty. Oh, and spoiler-alert. We lose.

So let's just think for a second about the basic principals of negotiation. A well-managed negotiation involves each negotiating side having an 'ask', a 'minimum', an 'offer' and a 'sanction'. A rule book and some facts and figures are handy but not essential. An ask is the maximum version of what you want and a minimum is the least you will accept. An offer is just a 'carrot', something nice you give the other side if you get what you want. A sanction is just a 'stick', something you do if you don't get what you want, some sort of real or implied threat of a bad outcome for the other partner. As you progress the negotiations, the closer you find yourself to your ask, the more you offer carrots and the closer you find yourself to your minimum the more you hit the other side with sticks. Very good negotiation involves both sides working mutually for win-win. Bad negotiations are those that have two sides seeking outright victory.

Other than greatly overreacting to the price of the crisps, the wee story at the start is a classic negotiation. Offer: crisps. Ask: retail price plus markup. Sanction: gun. Ask: don't shoot me. Offer: no police. None of it was carried out according to rules but according to the interplay of circumstances. And in each case the negotiation moves in favour of who has (or more accurately is willing to use) the biggest sanction. Or, more accurately still, it is the relationship between what someone wants and how far they're willing to go to get it. So the guy with the gun may have the strongest sanction but the implications of him using that sanction are much bigger than any benefit he gets from applying the sanction. Or put simply, he's not going to jail for life for a packet of crisps.

Just like Spanish PM Rajoy isn't going to prevent or even delay Scotland's entry to the European Union because he can't afford for his fragile fishing industry to lose access to Scotland's fishing grounds for even a day. He's got the gun alright. He just can't use it.

This basic principle of negotiation – that everything is context-sensitive and next to nothing is decided by rules – is of the most incredible importance to Scotland just now. If people can come to understand what it means for us the whole referendum campaign becomes different. In future blogs I'm going to explore some of Scotland's potential and likely negotiating positions to demonstrate that in most cases our sanction is bigger and stronger than our negotiating partner's desire to not give us what we want. It's how we'll sail into the EU and why London will give us Sterling to use if we want it.

But for now, start here. You know all those pre-negotiations that are taking place in the minds of Better Together in which an army of Whitehall lawyers have the 'whip hand' (why do Whitehall types always use slavery and fox hunting analogies)? If you were envisaging them as a lot of powerful men with big rule books preparing to confuse us into submission with the sheer force of their rational brilliance, shift your thinking a bit. Instead imagine them as over-priviliged pen pushers running around trying to look wild-eyed and with a big bomb strapped to them shouting 'I'm going to do it, I'm going to press the button, I am, honestly, any minute now I'm going to press the button, and then you'll regret it, you'll see, you'll regret it, any minute now...'.

Not as scary, is it?

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