Could Scotland really choose to leave the United Kingdom?
EDINBURGH, Scotland – At the entrance to Stirling Castle, close to the field of Bannockburn where the Scots under Robert the Bruce crushed the English in 1314, an old man shouts at the guards about the British flag flying overhead. Anger contorts his face. He is, as we say in Britain, "effing and blinding" — using swear words beginning with "f" and "b." They are laughing at him. "It is an English flag. It is disgusting," he says, before storming out of the gate.
I ask the local guards if this happens often, especially as Stirling is the heartland of Scottish nationalism. One replies that it doesn’t, but that in summer American tourists ask about the flag. "We say it is the British flag, and as long as we are in Britain we will fly it." But how long will that be? If the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) — which leads the autonomous government here — has its way, Scotland will vote in a referendum on independence towards the end of 2014. That could lead to the dissolution of the United Kingdom in 2015.
So be prepared for some more effing and blinding. FUK, joke academics, stands for Former United Kingdom, a la FSU for Former Soviet Union. Then there is the milder RUK, already used to refer to the "rest" of the U.K. but which can now mean the "remainder" of the U.K. when discussing Scottish independence. For every Union Jack flying across Scotland, there are probably at least ten Saltires, the blue and white Scottish flag. The British flag symbolizes the 1707 union of England and Scotland, but its original version predates it by more than a century. With the 1707 union of the two countries, the Scottish parliament was abolished but Scotland kept its own distinctiveness with, for example, its own legal and education systems.
In 1999, the Scottish Parliament reopened and powers were "devolved" to it and what is now called the Scottish Government. They deal with day to day affairs, including education and health, but foreign affairs and defense remain the prerogative of the British government. In the 1997 referendum that led to the reopening, 74.3 percent of voters were in favor of a Scottish parliament; 63.5 percent were in favor of giving it tax-varying powers. Today, although opinion polls show that only one-third of people living in Scotland support independence, many desire more autonomy. But as foreign affairs and defense become issues, a lot could change in two years.
Consider this possible scenario: Britain now bases its entire Trident-missile carrying nuclear submarine fleet in Faslane Naval Base, Scotland. But in the run up to independence, the four subs and the missiles are removed. Meanwhile, switching to its own currency, Scotland faces financial meltdown. Russia launches a plot, called Operation Braveheart (referring to the inaccurate but rousing historical movie starring Mel Gibson), where it promises to support Scotland in exchange for moving its own nuclear missiles into the now vacant Faslane. The closeted gay Republican U.S. president who succeeds Barack Obama plans a coup in Scotland in tandem with unionist militias.
This scenario is described in the novel Rogue Nation, a thriller published in 2009 by television producer and grandee of the Scottish establishment Alan Clements. Clements seems to have done quite a lot of thinking about the issue of foreign and defense policy for an independent Scotland. That may be because, until the January announcement of the referendum, the SNP — led by Alex Salmond, Scotland’s wily first minister (as the Scottish prime minister is called) — never actually had to.
Jim Wyllie, a reader in international relations at Aberdeen University who is against independence sees the SNP’s position as "logically inconsistent" because the party deplores defense cuts, which hurt job prospects, though in an independent Scotland the British military would presumably leave. Angus Robertson, the SNP’s defense and foreign affairs spokesman, calls arguments like this "nonsense," because Scotland would have its own defense forces based on existing Scottish units, filling the gap of the withdrawing British forces and which would keep a negotiated chunk of military hardware. Subject to agreement he says, some RUK forces could also remain in certain places in Scotland.
Whatever happens on the military chessboard, the fate of Trident submarines will have the greatest ramifications. William Walker, a professor at St. Andrew’s University who has written about Trident, says that while the subs could move to the English Channel, nowhere in the RUK is equipped to store the missiles. New bunkers would take years of wrangling to get planning permission and years to build. "If they insist on evicting the Navy from Scotland it would be the equivalent of forcing nuclear disarmament on the U.K.," he says. Others disagree. A transitional agreement might be reached giving the RUK the several years needed to construct the new bunkers before the missiles were evicted, or the U.K. could switch to a different type of nuclear deterrent.
Alongside Trident, when it comes to thinking about foreign and defense issues for a future RUK and an independent Scotland, the European Union is the most pressing question. The untested issue of succession arises. If Scotland leaves the U.K., it is conventional wisdom that it would have seceded and thus left the EU, says Wyllie. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a Scot and former British foreign secretary and MP agrees. "The U.K. is a member and Scotland is not," he says.
Wrong, says Professor Drew Scott of Edinburgh University. Both England and Scotland came together to form a union and if they agreed to dissolve it, then both would be successor states: more Czechoslovakia then than the end of the Soviet Union, not to mention Yugoslavia. In the Soviet case, Russia was deemed the successor state of the USSR. In Yugoslavia, Serbia tried and failed to claim to be the sole successor of Yugoslavia; in the Czechoslovak case both the Czech Republic and Slovakia were deemed to be equal successor states. When it comes to the EU, says Scott, it would not only be illegal to expel Scotland but both it and the RUK would have to renegotiate their status, including voting weights, within the EU. Ask people in Brussels about this and you get different views, as you do in Westminster, precisely because this issue has never come up before.
There’s another difference as well: Scotland is stable, wealthy, and produces large amounts of oil. So, when it comes to the EU, "Is anyone seriously suggesting that it be put in a queue behind Albania and Macedonia?" asks Robertson. "It’s nuts." Yet Rifkind thinks the SNP is "naïve" if it believes that countries with breakaways or potential secessionist regions of their own, Spain and Cyprus foremost among them, will make it easy for Scotland. "The Catalans and the Basques will be watching like hawks," he notes.
As the debate heats up, Scots will keep being warned that both Scotland and the RUK, "would be weakened and enfeebled by such a schism and trauma," says Rifkind. Britain, long a declining power, would come under further pressure after independence. While it would only lose 5.2 million people, less than 10 percent of its population, it could be viewed as further weakening. "A lot is to do with perception," he says, especially in the face of the new order: The disintegration of the Soviet Union didn’t coincide with the rise of countries like India and Brazil. Why wouldn’t countries start publically wondering why the RUK still has a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council?
Meanwhile, Britain’s austerity under Prime Minister David Cameron has meant a smaller military budget for Scotland and the rest of the U.K. But it could be smaller still. An independent Scottish defense force would cost only $3.5 billion a year according to Professor Malcom Chalmers, a defense analyst at the London think tank, the Royal United Services Institute — $1.6 billion less than Scotland already contributes annually to the U.K. defense budget. British cuts have already left Scotland without maritime air cover, allowing the Russian navy to make forays within 30 miles of Scottish waters without being immediately detected, like it did last December. But a leaner Scottish defense force could mean even more gaps. For the SNP, however, at least Scotland would have control of its military, and not be dragged into what it calls "illegal foreign wars," in places like Iraq. As for future Scottish military priorities, look north: The melting Arctic ice caps are opening the Northeast Passage to Asia; Scotland would be part of the defense of this route, as well as its offshore oil platforms.
Scotland remains oil-wealthy, with reserves of between 16 to 23 billion barrels of oil, says Professor Alex Kemp of Aberdeen University, Scotland’s leading oil economist. Today 95 percent of what is now British oil is in — for fishing purposes — what is designated as Scottish waters, so Scots must hope that England will not dispute this boundary line, in the case of independence. Beyond oil production, which has been declining since 1999, Scotland’s energy hopes lie in renewables: Research has shown that northeast Scotland is actually the windiest part of Europe, says Kemp. And indeed, driving north from the oil town of Aberdeen to Elgin, more and more wind turbines dot the landscape. In the future, Scotland could export clean energy and also water to thirsty regions like London and the southeast of England. With engineering companies which had previously focused on the oil sector moving into renewables, Scotland has the expertise and the wind, waves, and fresh water to make it a major producer of green energy in the years to come.
In Elgin, the main town in Robertson’s constituency, the issue of wind turbines is huge. Battle rages in the local paper, the Northern Scot, between those who think the turbines are an eyesore and those that welcome clean energy. Wind turbines, farms, and warehouses packed with casks of maturing whisky share space with rolling hills. But the town’s economy remains bound to the fate of two local military bases, Kinloss and Lossiemouth. Both were threatened with closure by recent defense cuts, but a vigorous campaign spearheaded by the Northern Scot newspaper saved them last year. "We took on the campaign as a good local newspaper should," says Mike Collins, its editor. Some 7,000 people protesting on one day in November 2010, he says, was the "turning point." From then on, politicians started listening.
Unemployment is low in Elgin. In 2010, it was 2.6 percent, but most jobs pay poorly. Collins says that while the SNP is strong here, a 2010 study commissioned by the Scottish Government’s economic and community development agency for the region showed that 16 percent of all local jobs depended on the bases, which inject $252 million into the local economy every year. So even if they are sympathetic to independence, many voters will think twice about voting for it, in case the bases close and they are not taken over by the new Scottish military. For now, says Collins, the debate about independence has "not really caught fire" yet, but it will. For now, though, many "are undecided because independence could have huge consequences."
In Edinburgh, I go to visit Tom Devine, one of Scotland’s most distinguished historians. He mulls the question of Scottish martial history, its relationship to Scottish identity and the way that British military decline, especially in terms of numbers, has helped to weaken the bonds of Britishness. We discuss Scotland’s "ancient European connections" not just, most obviously with France, but also with countries like Poland and Lithuania. Just as England could be moving away from Europe politically he muses, "some say it is easier for us to shift back into a European set of relationships." Then he adds: "There is a lot of sympathy out there," for Scotland, "in a way that England does not necessarily have."