Argument

Brexit Might Break Britain. What Will Scotland Do?

Scotland, six years after its last crack at independence, is hankering to be a “global good gal,” charting its own foreign-policy course independent of London.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon hosts a public discussion for EU nationals living in Scotland at the Corn Exchange in Edinburgh on Aug. 17, 2016. Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The United Kingdom’s latest push to abrogate its divorce deal with Europe and run roughshod over regional autonomy is renewing the urge of some restive British nations for independence—notably Scotland, where an independence referendum narrowly failed six years ago this month.

And that’s got many in Scotland—and elsewhere—thinking about what a future Scottish foreign policy might look like, and what that might mean for Britain, NATO, and the North Atlantic. Three centuries after Scotland bowed off the main stage, it might be set for an encore. 

Many in Scotland were already souring on their ties to the rest of the United Kingdom, as evidenced by a close-run independence referendum in 2014. But the Brexit saga has pushed even more over the edge. The latest move of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government in London to rewrite part of the already-agreed withdrawal agreement with the European Union would raise the question of an Irish border and test the integrity of the U.K. itself. That has renewed calls for Scotland to try to break free of England, rejoin the EU, and follow its own north star, with a worldview a lot closer to Brussels than to London.

“Brexit has changed absolutely everything,” said Stephen Gethins, who until last year was the foreign affairs spokesman in Parliament for the Scottish National Party (SNP). Polls throughout 2020 have shown a sustained but narrow majority for independence and the SNP on track to win another landslide in Scottish elections next year. “Brexit has changed absolutely everything.”

“It has changed the independence debate. It has changed how Scotland is perceived overseas. People now get it, they get the divergence between the unilateralist view down in London and the multilateralism that cuts across political parties in Scotland,” said Gethins, now at the University of St. Andrews. 

London’s seeming willingness to trample the rest of the U.K. has many seething. “There is no trust in the relationship, absolutely none now,” said Mike Russell, the Scottish constitution, Europe, and external affairs secretary, the point man for Scotland’s Brexit portfolio. The four-year Brexit drama has changed the international perception of Scotland. If formerly seen as a leaver—and the last independence bid, in 2014, provoked open hostility from everybody from Barack Obama in the United States to Vladimir Putin in Russia—Scotland is now seen as a joiner. Scots, more than used to sharing sovereignty, voted overwhelmingly to stay in the European Union in the 2016 Brexit referendum, while England, narrowly, opted to leave. 

An independent Scotland, at least in the current SNP vision, would be a member of the EU and NATO, and especially engaged in Arctic and North Atlantic security; SNP politicians compare their planned future sovereign state to Ireland and Nordic and Baltic nations. 

Scotland is trying to reassure Europe and the West that an independent Scotland would be, as the European security analyst Kirsty Hughes said, “one of the global good gals.”

And there’s something to that. SNP leaders, including party boss Nicola Sturgeon, wax about Scotland’s ability to fight the good fight and “engage constructively with partners around the world.”

An independent Scotland, at least in the current SNP vision, would be a member of the EU and NATO, and especially engaged in Arctic and North Atlantic security.“Scotland very much sits in the European mainstream about how we see ourselves in the world,” Gethins said. “If you are a state the size of Scotland, you don’t see yourself as having nuclear missiles and sitting in the U.N. Security Council, but you do see yourself sharing sovereignty with other states—that is where your strengths lie.”

But for a not-yet-sovereign nation hoping to soon be one, Scotland has some work to do, Hughes said. “They are still not thinking strategically,” she said, describing Scottish efforts to craft an independent foreign policy as “shallow,” if not “ad hoc.” 

“Some people in Scotland don’t seem to realize how hard-nosed foreign policy is in Europe,” she said. But Scotland’s future defense and foreign policy—if there is one—will matter a great deal. 

“Scotland is really important from an international security perspective,” said Peter Jackson, an expert on global security at the University of Glasgow. 

What’s really furrowing brows is the fate of the British nuclear-armed submarines that are currently based on the Clyde near Glasgow. Scottish leaders like Sturgeon have said they don’t want nuclear weapons on Scottish soil. But Scotland wants to play a role in NATO and North Atlantic security. And those subs are Britain’s sole nuclear deterrent. 

“The whole security realm is very fraught in the argument for independence, and it needs to be sorted out one way or another,” said Jackson. He suggested the U.K. could lease the naval base from a cash-strapped Scotland struggling to find its economic footing after independence, even if it would be politically unpopular. “Some kind of defense modus vivendi with the U.K. would be essential,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean an independent Scotland would hew to London’s line on all the big issues—raising yet more questions for a country already wondering what kind of trade and security relationship it will have with Europe and the United States.

“What would Scotland’s role be in a future Libya or a future Iraq?” asked Jackson. “I imagine it would be very different to a future U.K.’s. That will raise all kinds of issues.”

David Leask is a freelance journalist who has covered the international impact of Scotland's independence movement.

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