- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Robert L. Goldich
Best Defense bureau for Celtic secessionism
Remember when the main character in the movie Braveheart, loosely, really loosely, based on the Scottish chieftain and military leader William Wallace, shouted “Freedom!” at the top of his lungs? Although the real Wallace defeated the English in 1297 at Stirling Bridge, he was captured in 1305 and hanged (but not until he was dead), drawn (four horses pulling his body apart in different directions) and quartered (just what it sounds like) for “treason” by the English.
It probably won’t come to that in the early 21st Century. But a more formidable successor to Mel Gibson exists in the person of Alex Salmond, the current First Minister of Scotland, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and its majority in the Scottish Parliament. Just about everybody in the United Kingdom seems to agree, whether they like him and his policies or not, that Mr. Salmond is an extraordinarily astute, charismatic, and dynamic political leader. He is currently engaged in a high-stakes interaction with the British Government and its political leadership to have a referendum, sometime in the next couple of years, on whether or not Scotland should leave the United Kingdom and become an independent country.
Well. As with all such disputes, it arises for domestic reasons which need not concern the United States and those responsible for, and interested in, U.S. foreign and national security policy. We may not be able to affect the process overtly, and doing so would almost certainly be counterproductive. But that doesn’t mean that some very important questions need to be asked about what the implications of Scottish independence would be for US national defense. Let’s start with general issues.
First, Scotland has been a part of the United Kingdom since 1707, when the “Act of Union” was enacted by Parliament. That alone means something. What would it say to American policymakers if our closest ally, one with whom we have been linked in peace and war since we entered World War I in 1917, suddenly broke apart after over 300 years of political unity? What would it say about the internal cohesion of whatever rump UK remained after Scotland left? Would Wales — which, arguably, has much more linguistic and cultural differentiation from England than Scotland — be next? Would moves for Northern Ireland’s independence from the UK, and union with the Republic of Ireland, be re-energized, with possible attendant violence? Or, more broadly, would a disintegrating United Kingdom be considered as reliable a partner?
There are some more pointed questions that American policymakers might start thinking about. Mr. Salmond has on occasion stated that he favors having the UK retain control over foreign and defense policy, but this scarcely squares with his also stated desire to eventually have all nuclear weapons — that is, British ones — out of Scotland, and his stated support for establishment of a “Scottish defense force” that would include the Scottish regiments of the British Army. (As a fair chunk of the enlisted soldiers, and most of the officers, of Scottish regiments, aren’t Scottish, this might not work out too well, but I digress.)
What would be the foreign policy of an independent Scotland, as it appears that Mr. Salmond in fact wants to have his own defense policy? Would it join NATO? How much, if at all, would it cooperate with the armed forces of a truncated United Kingdom? With the armed forces of other Western democracies, including, but not limited to, those of the United States? Would it cooperate with the British intelligence services in the maintenance of internal security against terrorism in the British Isles? Would it cooperate with other countries’ intelligence services, including those of the United States? Would it look more leniently on the presence of embassies and diplomatic representatives, and their activities, from anti-American and anti-Western states such as North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela? Mr. Salmond and his Scottish Nationalist Party, and the dominant political culture in Scotland, is quite far to the Left, for a variety of internal reasons that don’t matter here. This doesn’t augur well for a positive answer to any of these questions. It suggests that we have to consider that, a la the Republic of Ireland, Scotland might well be aggressively neutral, and avoid involvement all kinds of Euro-Atlantic collective security agreements that have been so important in maintaining European stability since 1945.
Finally, what would Scottish independence, and what it implies about the long-term political stability of the UK, say to American economic interests? To Americans, Great Britain is not, say, velvet-divorced Czechoslovakia, and certainly not Doonesbury’s Brzrkrstan. It is viewed as a bedrock of political stability that underlies a willingness to invest in a country. It could scarcely be considered such if Scotland left it. Moreover, Mr. Salmond has made all kinds of statements about the need for an independent Scotland’s economic policy to shift sharply to the Left, not something guaranteed to invite foreign investment.
The people of the current United Kingdom will ultimately decide, one way or another, actively or passively, about Scottish independence. But that doesn’t mean that Americans don’t have a strategic stake in it. Scottish independence may or may not be a good idea for Great Britain as it is currently constituted. But there are good reasons for us to think that it might not be too good for us.