An Independent Scotland Would Bring No Surprises for Allies

Scotland is in a great position to be a good global citizen.

A protester holds a flag outside Scotland’s Parliament.
A protester holds a flag mixing the EU flag and the Scottish Saltire at a small protest against Britain’s exit from the European Union outside Scotland’s Parliament in Edinburgh on Dec. 31, 2020. Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images

We’re biased, of course, being Scottish representatives in the Westminster Parliament, but we think Scotland is the most interesting place in the world—and will be for a while yet. That’s not just because of our natural environment, food, music, or cultural footprint but also geopolitically. Scotland, strategically located in the North Atlantic between the European Union and United States, is at the confluence of all major global trends in foreign policy and global politics.

In an interdependent world, there’s an ongoing, lively discussion about Scottish independence, with recent polls showing no clear majority in favor for or against independence. Scotland has strong pro-European sentiment, with the ramifications of the United Kingdom’s voluntary (and Scotland’s forced) departure from the EU still reverberating. And the country has a unique kinship with Ireland, with a close interest in the still fragile peace process in the north of the island. The Scottish government has fought COVID-19 well with some relative success, but there’s the economic crisis in its aftermath to deal with.

Scotland also has a national election on May 6, which will give the people of Scotland the power to choose their national path. In that election, our political party, the Scottish National Party (SNP), has implemented gender, race, and disability balance mechanisms that could see the Scottish Parliament become one of the most representative legislatures in the world to match our already gender-balanced minority government. Scotland just legislated to change voting entitlement from citizenship to residence for individuals 16 years old and up. If you’re here, the Scottish government says, you’re one of us. And on the biggest issue of our age: climate change. In November, Scotland will host the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow that will hopefully make a concrete contribution toward saving the planet.

It is important the wider world understands the Scottish people, what is driving the debate in Scotland, and where the country might be going. As foreign affairs and defense spokespeople for the Scottish National Party in the U.K. Parliament, it is our duty to make our friends and allies aware of what is going on in Scotland and what it means for them.

We were part of the pro-independence team in 2014, when the country held a national referendum on whether to stay in the United Kingdom—and our side lost. We think that independence advocates did not sufficiently engage with the wider world to explain, contextualize, and reassure. We are committed to stepping up this effort now because we are quite sure another independence referendum is coming. We’re calling this effort, only half-jokingly, Project No Surprises.

A key part of Project No Surprises is to make clear we do not expect anyone to involve themselves in the domestic discussion—on our side or any other. That would be as crass as it would be counterproductive. Yet other countries and organizations have a legitimate interest in Scotland’s domestic debate because an independent Scotland will have implications for their own interests. As Alyn Smith said in a speech in Strasbourg when serving as a member of the European Parliament: “We don’t want you to solve our domestic discussions. We do ask that you leave a light on so that we may find our way home.”

We believe an independent Scotland is good news for the world—and Scotland too. Others disagree, and that’s democracy. Scotland did, of course, have a debate and vote on independence in 2014, and the pro-U.K. side won with 55 percent of the vote. In normal times, that would have settled the question for a while at least, but we are not in normal times. The U.K. government has made a fatal mistake in taking all those voters to be hostile to independence. They’re not. They were simply unpersuaded and their support for the European Union was contingent. The opposition campaign in 2014 made a series of promises, and its voters decided to stick with the U.K. on the basis of a number of assumptions—chief among them that the U.K. would continue to be part of a European Union that protected and empowered smaller countries. Those promises were not delivered, and those assumptions have been inverted by another referendum two years later. And the result: Brexit.

Where a nation sits in the world, who speaks for it, and how it interacts with the wider world is an evolving question globally. Most problems are global in nature and bigger than any state—however big or small. That’s visible in the evolution of blocs like the Association of Southeast Asian Countries, the Gulf Cooperation Council, or the EU in trade disputes, anxiety over the Belt and Road Initiative, and resource scarcity—and Scotland is no exception. In Scotland, the miracle of the independence movement is that after 314 years with the United Kingdom, there is still an independence movement at all, much less a vibrant and electorally successful one. Independence in Europe is not about the past; it is about the future. The people of Scotland have two unions to choose from and will test both on their merits.

This modern debate has ancient roots. Scotland has been independent for far longer in our history than we have been part of Great Britain. Great Britain was formed in 1707 by an international treaty between two sovereign states (Scotland and England, speaking for a subjugated Wales) to merge. The only time that union has ever been put to the people of Scotland in a democratic vote, in 2014, it was endorsed. But while the pro-U.K. side won, fundamentally the 2014 referendum moved the nation’s collective psyche from “could we” be independent to “should we,” and the debate thoroughly ventilated the economics of independence.

The 2014 debate proved that contrary to long held opinion in some quarters, Scotland has what it takes to be a successful independent country and would join the ranks of the world’s richest countries. So with that reality accepted, many Scots believed the “best of both worlds” argument that they would have a powerful Parliament in Edinburgh and a constructive partnership with the U.K. The opposition campaign said if we were a partnership of equals, we should lead the U.K., not leave it, and promised economic prosperity and “as close to federalism as it is possible to get.” It also promised continuing EU membership, casting doubts on the “yes” campaign’s promise of an easy accession into the EU. The EU, for its part, was squeamish about the legally unprecedented prospect of internal enlargement, a barrier now removed because a future independent Scotland would be applying from outside the EU as a regular applicant state, albeit one that had been part of the EU for decades.

The day after the no vote, then-U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron fatally miscalculated the mood in Scotland by bringing forward moves in the U.K. Parliament to introduce “English Votes for English Laws,” whereby Scottish members of the U.K. Parliament are disbarred from voting on English-only matters—hardly a “one U.K.” move. Similarly, promises of Scottish Parliament’s significant increased power were simply not delivered. The Smith Commission, which investigated the issue, did deliver some transfers but nothing to the scale of what was promised.

It was Cameron’s career-defining mistake in holding the EU referendum that reinvigorated the case for independence. For Scotland, the 2016 EU referendum was not a stand-alone event. It was influenced and colored by the 2014 independence referendum just 18 months before, with the promises still fresh in our minds. And 62 percent of Scottish voters chose to remain in the EU with every counting region also endorsing continued EU membership, whether urban or rural, on the mainland or on the islands.

In the U.K. as a whole, 52 percent of people voted to leave. Then, over the next four years, the country descended into political chaos as they tried to work out what Brexit actually meant. That chaos hasn’t gone away. The EU-U.K. Trade and Cooperation Agreement was created, so a crash out of the EU was avoided, but significant areas of policy, especially over trade in services, remain to be decided.

It is already clear that leaving has made trade more complex and expensive. It has made the whole of the U.K. poorer. Iconic food and fishery exports to the EU have been decimated, and freedom of movement for U.K. nationals has ended. It’s limited the horizons of everyone in the U.K. in a myriad of day-to-day practical, tangible ways—all in the name of a project Scotland rejected. For all the talk of the EU’s supposed democratic deficit, there’s a far more glaring one closer to home.

So Scotland has a lively pro-independence movement, not because we want to be separate or apart but precisely because the Scottish people want to join bodies and work with others on common challenges. Membership of the U.K. has taken Scotland out of the EU against its will and made everyone’s lives poorer.

From its earliest days, Scotland’s independent nationhood has been rooted in the wider world.

From its earliest days, Scotland’s independent nationhood has been rooted in the wider world. From the Auld Alliance with France of 1295, to the Lubeck Letter Scottish knight William Wallace sent to the Hanseatic League in 1297 declaring Scotland an enthusiastic trading partner, to the Declaration of Arbroath asserting Scotland’s independence in 1320 addressed to the pope in Rome, Scotland has always seen its independence as part of a wider picture. Scotland was comfortable in the EU in a way the rest of the U.K. never was.

So an independent Scotland will be a reliable and constructive partner, a staunch ally, and a fierce friend. The cornerstone of an independent Scotland’s foreign policy will be EU membership. The cornerstone of its defense policy will be NATO membership. The cornerstone of its trade and economic policy will be EU membership. Rejoining the EU’s single market and customs union will put rocket boosters on the already strong economic case for Scottish independence. Scotland seeks to accede into things that exist, not reinvent the wheel. Like Ireland, Scotland will be a smaller state but within a global A-Team, a good news story for the EU out of the despond of Brexit. Unlike Ireland, Scotland will seek to be a reliable NATO partner; it’s in too vital a strategic position not to be.

All that, of course, has implications for other countries, not least the U.K. itself. The pro-independence side must engage with the U.K. to discuss that. The state building envisaged will be an exciting, energizing project as Scotland emerges as a good global citizen. So while Scots get on with that debate back home, we welcome your interest, and we’re keen to explain what is going on. But meanwhile, all of us need to be thinking about how to turn the U.N. Climate Conference into a Glasgow agreement to be proud of. The world will be watching.

Alyn Smith is the Scottish National Party member of Parliament for Stirling.

Stewart McDonald is the Scottish National Party member of Parliament for Glasgow South.

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