Scotland, Independence, and Internationalism

Feb 25, 2013

At a time of austerity at home and crisis in its near-abroad, Scotland is a nation undergoing an intense debate about its future and identity. In 2014, its people will vote in a referendum on whether or not to stay part of the Union with England—a Union that has lasted since 1707. In many respects, this has been a long time coming: since the 1980s, political nationalism in Scotland has been emerging as a significant force. Although this has never evolved into a majority in favor of becoming independent of the United Kingdom, the concept of Scotland's distinct interests and culture within the Union has become much more widely accepted. In 2011, the nationalist Scottish National Party (SNP) won a large majority in the devolved Scottish Assembly with a manifesto promising a referendum on independence. An agreement was made last year with the British government and a vote in 2014 was established. Now nationalist and unionist campaigns are underway, both making their respective cases as to whether the nation should continue to be part of the UK or not. Alongside the more prevalent topics such as jobs, the economy and welfare, the debate about Scotland's future has been accompanied by a discussion about what sort of country it wants to be on the international stage and how it should engage with the rest of the world. This clash of ideas is one that not only has ramifications for Scotland and Britain, but the rest of the world as well.

Despite being a small nation of 5 million people, Scotland has always been outward-looking and internationalist. Historically its people have been mobile, travelling across Northern Europe in the 17th century and throughout Asia and the Americas during the 19th and 20th. Even today, a large Scottish Diaspora with a strong sense of cultural identity exists in the United States and Canada. During the British Empire's heyday, Scots played a disproportionately large role in imperial expansion, commerce, and administration. Today the internationalist tradition continues through higher Scottish support for the European Union than among their English cousins and a strong commitment to international aid and development. The result of this is that the current debates about independence are very internationally-minded. Neither side supports shutting Scotland off from the rest of the world. Instead, the question posed is whether independence or union would best guarantee a place for Scotland as an engaged and influential actor in world affairs. Out of this have come two competing visions about what kind of country Scotland should be. The nationalists promote the idea of Scotland as a small but ambitious nation, committed to pacifism and the European project. The unionists see the nation as best placed in a continued partnership with the rest of Britain, highlighting the possibilities that union with such an internationally connected state can bring.

In many ways, the nationalist vision is the one that has attracted the most attention, precisely because it offers a break with the status quo. Whilst it is one that is largely promoted by members of the SNP it is important to note that other parties and groups, such as the Scottish Green Party, share it too. Not all nationalists have the exact same idea of what sort of international role an independent Scotland could play, but there are common themes running through the wider movement such as pro-Europeanism and pacifism. This concept of Scotland as an ambitious and independent nation, small but involved in a wider international body, is one that is well-rooted in the history of Scottish nationalism. When it was emerging as a political force in the early 20th century, internationalism played a key role in shaping its direction. The early SNP and its predecessor parties saw years of vicious infighting over what kind of role Scotland should play in the world. Moderates such as John MacCormick, a founding member of the Scottish National Party in 1928 and the SNP in 1934, who wanted a home-ruled Scotland to continue to play a major role in the British Empire battled 'Fundamentalists' who saw Scotland’s position as similar to Ireland, namely as a colonized nation. The latter believed that should the country go independent, it should break all ties with Britain, and in effect embrace isolationism. The clash between the two would divide the nationalists for years.

The isolationist tendency was marginalised by the late 20th century, as the pressures of globalisation forced nationalists to properly consider how an independent Scotland could exist in an interdependent world. The response, which came to be accepted by the majority of nationalists, was the idea of 'Independence in Europe.' This was articulated by the SNP Member of Parliament for Govan in 1988, Jim Sillars. A notorious schemer and political fixer, Sillars argued in an eponymous pamphlet that Scotland could thrive within the then European Community (which would later become the European Union). As a country within the EC, Sillars argued, Scotland could forge links with the continent and use the body's rotating presidency to shape the organisation's agenda, making it more responsive to the needs of small states. This was adopted by the SNP and used to rebuff unionists that argued independence would mean isolation. It also took pains to point to small nations that had done well within Europe, such as the Nordic countries and Ireland. The first argument appealed to the social-democratic sensibilities of many Scots, whilst the second, the SNP believed, showed that a former part of Britain could thrive as an active member of Europe and a hub for international investment.

This European element of Scottish nationalism is a reason why the matter of Scottish membership of the EU has been a key issue in the debates surrounding the 2014 referendum. The promise that Scotland would be an active European nation has been a core plank of the SNP's pitch for independence, but it has run into several stumbling blocks. The party's assumption that Scotland would gain automatic membership upon separating from the UK on the back of Britain's membership has been firmly rebuffed by the head of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso. The question of whether First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond and his Scottish Nationalist Party have sought legal advice on the matter of Scotland's position in Europe if it votes for independence has also become a contentious point. When it was discovered that Salmond had not sought such advice, when he had previously claimed he had, the nationalists' cause took a major blow. In many ways, the importance of the issue of European membership in the independence debate shows the keen interest Scots take in their position in the world.

As well as pro-Europeanism, the nationalist vision for an independent Scotland includes a commitment to pacifism. Politicians and activists across the nationalist spectrum are largely united by a desire to break with what they see as a militaristic British state. They look at the plethora of military engagements that the UK has found itself in over the past decade and the large amount of money spent on defence and are largely repulsed. Indeed the nationalists have often been strong opponents to most British foreign interventions; Alex Salmond for instance famously attracted controversy in 1999 for condemning NATO's bombing campaign in Serbia. There are two particular 'bogeymen' that stand out for nationalists, emblematic of Britain's militarism and how it is damaging for Scotland: the Iraq war and nuclear weapons.

The Iraq war was opposed by the SNP in 2003, something that helped the party and its cause significantly as the conflict went on. Salmond and the SNP have often reiterated the notion that Iraq demonstrated a latent imperialism within the British state, which leads it to engage in wars that cost Scottish lives and treasure. The idea that an independent Scotland would be able to break from this and focus internationally on trade and development is one that largely unites nationalists. The leader of the Scottish Greens, Patrick Harvie, has stressed that Scotland would still retain strong links with the UK and work with it on global issues where the two have a common interest, but stand back should the latter engage in any conflict that is detrimental to the former. The rallying call of 'no more illegal wars' is one that brings nationalists together and forms a key part of their vision for Scotland's future on the world stage.

The issue of nuclear weapons also looms large in the nationalists' pacifist vision. For several decades, the matter of Britain's nuclear arsenal and Scotland's rather unique position in relation to it has shaped nationalist views about the Union. The main point of contention is the location of the UK's Trident submarine fleet at the Faslane base on the river Clyde. Ever since the fleet was moved there in the 1980s, Scottish nationalists have been vocally opposed to it, noting that its presence effectively puts Scots on the front line of any nuclear conflict. Although the threat of this has died down since the end of the Cold War, the SNP and others still see it as representative of the attitudes of a militaristic British state that does not seem to care for Scotland. The idea that an independent Scotland should be nuclear-free is one that features heavily in the nationalists' vision: Alex Salmond has insisted that the government of a newly-independent Scotland would eject the Trident fleet from the country as soon as possible. However, it is also important to note that the ideal of pacifism has its limits, as can be seen over the issue of NATO membership. Nationalists have been traditionally antagonistic towards the alliance, again seeing it as a militaristic, pro-nuclear outfit that draws Scotland into costly foreign engagements. Yet many within the SNP hierarchy worried that insistence on leaving NATO would put off Scottish voters who like the idea of membership of the world's most powerful security community. At the party's conference last October, the SNP membership voted through a new policy ditching opposition to NATO whilst retaining opposition to nuclear weapons, a rather contradictory policy that some (including the former NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson) have noted might be untenable should Scotland vote for independence. The divisions and spats that emerged as a result of this debate show that the nationalist vision for a small and activist Scotland is still one that is not completely settled.

Of course the nationalist idea of Scotland's place in the world is far from the dominant one. The unionist vision, promoted by the cross-party 'Better Together' campaign, has also promoted an ambitious and internationally-minded vision for the nation. It still looks at how Scotland can thrive in the global system and give the best platform for its people to thrive. This is largely based on the idea that membership of the UK as a nation equal with England gives Scots a platform from which they can achieve great things internationally. For unionists, Scotland benefits enormously from being part of a still-significant power with global reach, thanks to the UK's leading memberships of the UN Security Council, the Commonwealth, NATO, and the EU. Being part of this network creates ample opportunities for Scottish businesses and Scots interested in promoting international causes.

This vision too has a historical precedent, in this case rooted in Scotland's experiences as part of the British Empire. When Britain ruled a substantial portion of the globe, Scots played a disproportionately large role in maintaining and expanding it. They took enormous pride in being a 'race of empire builders' that could stand as a nation equal to the much larger England. Whilst the empire has of course ended and Britain's place in the world changed, the idea that Scots can be a world-beating nation as part of the UK still resonates for some. One area where this has been emphasised by unionists is international development. Scotland has a strong community of NGOs and government organisations dedicated to charity and development. Arguably this is a legacy of empire, maintaining links Scots had to countries such as Malawi and continuing the tradition of doing good works overseas. The Better Together campaign has been keen to stress that Scotland's commitment to alleviating poverty abroad is made stronger by its membership of the UK, noting that a significant part of the widely-respected Department for International Development can be found in East Kilbride, near Glasgow. The unionist side also arguably puts a higher premium on security than pacifism in its vision for Scotland. Those who want to stay in the Union note that membership of Britain allows Scotland to receive protection from the UK-wide armed forces and intelligence services. Whilst nationalists argue that these latch Scotland onto a militaristic British state, their opponents are happier to say that it gives Scots security in an uncertain world.

Whilst these two ideas of Scottish internationalism mostly come head-to-head within the borders of the UK, other states are paying a keen interest in the debate about the country's future. In particular, it has generated talk about the future of the nation-state, particularly within multi-national entities such as the United Kingdom. The question of whether their future lies in flexible unions such as Britain's or breaking up into their constituent parts is one that many are interested in the answer to. Both sides of Spain's current debate on Catalan independence are watching to see which vision prevails. The debate over whether small nations can thrive as independent states in the world system, especially given the current predicament of places such as Ireland and Greece, will also receive international attention. Scotland may opt to become a nation with an independence based on interdependence, being an active member of a European community and NATO; or it might stay part of the UK, continuing to punch above its weight and using its membership of the Union as a platform for engagement with the rest of the world. In many ways, the latter seems more likely, as poll after poll suggests that Scots' commitment to the Union trumps their desire to become a separate state. Nonetheless the debates about how this small but significant country should place itself in a dynamic world will continue to resonate before and after the big decision is made in 2014.

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