Scottish Activists Want a Quiet, Safe, Progressive Independence

The new country would scurry to join NATO and the EU.

A dog wearing a Scottish flag.
A dog wears a saltire, the flag of Scotland, with the word "Freedom" written across it, during a protest by anti-Brexit activists in Edinburgh, Scotland, on Jan. 31, 2020. Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images

Peaceful transitions of power rarely make history. Europe’s litany of wars, invasions, and uprisings eclipse the far more boring tradition of well-managed plebiscites and legally recognized independence movements. Amid the horrors of 1944, who remembers Iceland’s quiet decision to separate from Denmark? But while orderly departures like this may be forgettable, they laid the groundwork for productive, sustainable, successful nations—and inspired other small nations, like Scotland, to pursue similar ambitions.

A 2014 independence referendum in Scotland delivered a “No” vote, but frustration with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government and fierce opposition to an unpopular Brexit has served to reinvigorate the cause. The Scottish National Party (SNP), which leads the campaign and has been in power for 14 years, scored a landslide victory in the Scottish elections in 2019. The pro-independence Scottish Greens now have five ministers in Scotland’s Parliament. A new pro-independence party, Alba, was also unveiled this month. Polls suggest that the majority of Scots now support independence, albeit one predicated on close regional relationships, including rejoining the European Union and seeking NATO membership in its own right. But what would Edinburgh’s foreign policy look like?

“In 2014, people might have argued, well if you look at the geopolitics of Europe, independence is an unusual step to take,” said Stephen Gethins, a former special advisor to Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and author of Nation to Nation: Scotland’s Place in the World. “I don’t think you can argue that anymore. Independence as it stands means stepping back into the European norm. Whereas the U.K. has taken an exceptional, isolated approach.”

Indeed, the muddled messages around what “Global Britain” will mean post-Britain’s departure from the EU—which have oscillated between a “Britain first” insularity and neo-imperialist delusions—appear to have galvanized efforts on the pro-independence side to establish a clear foreign policy.

“I’m in no doubt at all that Scotland is not aiming to head off in some curious rogue state direction. Its central intention is to be a kind of progressive, social democratic European country of the sort that is quite familiar in northern Europe,” said Mariot Leslie, a former director-general of defense and intelligence at the U.K. Foreign Office who also served as the United Kingdom’s ambassador to NATO.

Carving out a niche within NATO could be an interesting starting point. While the SNP hasn’t always been a fan of membership, Gethins said that in recent years it has become committed both to the alliance and to EU action in support of Baltic states threatened by Russia. A NATO official confirmed that Scotland would need to officially apply to join the alliance—but given the country’s strategically valuable position in the far north, it’s hard to imagine it could be turned down. “I think in this case it would be really quite a fast process,” Leslie said.

Leslie expects that, following a “Yes” vote for independence, informal talks would start between NATO Headquarters and the Scottish government long before Scotland had officially left the U.K. By the time independence came into effect, Scotland’s membership of Partnership for Peace and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, as well as a NATO Membership Action Plan, could be agreed with months or even weeks. It would take at least three or four years for Scotland to actually accede to NATO, but during this time Scotland would be reporting regularly on defense planning and (with the agreement of the North Atlantic Council) likely take part in NATO exercises and operations, the former ambassador said.

As a smaller country in NATO, Scotland would have to pivot to its strengths. “I would certainly think that it could provide a significant support to NATO in the field of deployable military medicine,” said Phillips Payson O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “I would expect it to have particular strengths in maritime defense,” said Leslie, who believes Scotland could offer its NATO allies air patrolling and policing in the North Atlantic. Scotland also has specialist skills in artificial intelligence, advanced electronics, and satellite technology, coupled with a very good geographic position for space operations, she said.

This focus on technical support rather than military might reflects a wider movement in Scotland to distance itself from the imperialist projects of the past. Once an enthusiastic participant in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Scotland has striven to reinvent itself as an anti-colonialist nation. Until recently, this veered into flat denial of the country’s role in atrocities, but the last few years have seen greater willingness by key institutions and politicians to confront the issue. In 2019, Glasgow University pledged 20 million pounds, around $27 million, in slave trade reparations. Last year, Sturgeon responded to Scotland’s peaceful Black Lives Matter protests (organized in the wake of George Floyd’s death, but also in response to embedded racism in U.K. society) by arguing that Scotland shouldn’t try to disguise the “shameful” parts of its history.

The distaste for anything with a whiff of imperialism makes military intervention deeply unpopular, too.  An SNP poll in 2002 found that Scots broadly opposed the Iraq War, with only 24% supporting military action without UN approval and two-thirds agreeing that Westminster should have to consult Scotland before proceeding.” The issue may have sparked the slow collapse of Labour’s once-loyal Scottish support base. SNP politicians also voted against Syrian airstrikes in 2015. In March, when the U.K. government announced plans to expand its nuclear arsenal and build a White House-style Situation Room in the Cabinet Office, Sturgeon responded by tweeting that in contrast to the U.K. government’s priorities, the Scottish government was focused on incorporating the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law—causing the hashtag #BairnsNotBombs, using a Scots term for “child,” to trend.

An independent Scotland would never be able to perform the functions of a “British Imperial State” said Murray Pittock, a professor and pro-vice principal at the University of Glasgow and the author of The Road to Independence?—but neither would it want to; there isn’t any desire to project power. The political scientist Michael Keating, a professor at the University of Aberdeen, expects that Scotland would not be sending aircraft carriers to the South China Sea, for example, because it “would have a foreign policy that’s adapted for a small country, not a big country pretending to be a superpower.” Leslie predicts a strategy centered around international aid, peacebuilding initiatives and close cooperation with the U.N. and EU. Caron Gentry, a professor at the University of St. Andrews, believes Scotland is embracing a more feminist foreign policy. Gethins pictures a future based on “good global citizenship,” centered around conflict resolution, multilateralism, and climate diplomacy.

But one tricky issue is Scotland’s nukes. Almost 50 percent of Scots want to see an end to Trident, the U.K.’s only nuclear deterrent—an American-made, submarine-launched ballistic missile situated less than 40 miles from Glasgow and one of the area’s least popular residents. For now, nuclear disarmament remains an SNP priority. But, as the St. Andrews professor O’Brien points out, the SNP has been quieter on the subject of late, presumably because it recognizes the bargaining power that comes with stewarding the U.K.’s sole nuclear capability. After all, the SNP has just watched the Brexit negotiations unfold—and seen for themselves how little clout the weaker party wields.

Starting negotiations as early as possible with NATO and the EU will be crucial for the same reason. The latter would have been impossible while the U.K. was still part of the EU. Now that it’s no longer treading on a member state’s toes, Brussels may have more leeway to talk to Edinburgh directly.

Peter Jackson, a professor and the chair in global security at the University of Glasgow, suggests that offering to bridge the intelligence gap left by Brexit would strengthen Scotland’s position, too. “There’s been a breakdown in the very intimate wiring of the criminal intelligence and counterterrorist systems that were in place,” he said. An intriguing solution could be for Scotland to mediate between the U.K. and Europol and other European monitoring systems.

Rejoining the EU is the most pressing foreign-policy priority. In the 2016 referendum, Scots voted overwhelmingly to remain in the bloc, and anger that the country is being wrenched out against its will helped reignite the campaign for independence. Reentry isn’t guaranteed, but many consider it inevitable. In January, Barbara Lippert, the director of research at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs and an expert on EU enlargement, told the Times she believed Scotland fulfils the entry requirements and would be “top of the list,” ahead of candidates like Albania and Montenegro, which have been waiting to join since the early-to-mid-2000s.

Days after the U.K. officially left the EU last year, former European Council President Donald Tusk said he believed “everyone would be enthusiastic” for Scotland to apply, should it become independent in the future.

There would be little incentive for EU countries to object; if Scotland were to become independent, it would be through legal means, formally recognized by the U.K. This puts it in an entirely different category to, say, Catalonia.

It’s unclear if Scotland does meet all requirements yet, though. The biggest problem is currency; Scots aren’t keen on adopting the euro. The SNP says it plans to use the pound sterling until the country is able to transition to its own currency, with its own central bank and ability to set interest rates. However, EU rules stipulate that applicant nations must either be in control of their own monetary policy or join the currency union. In theory, all EU countries (with the exception of Denmark and the U.K., which secured exemptions in the Maastricht Treaty) are supposed to join the euro eventually, although some, like Sweden, have dragged their heels for decades and possibly never will.

Continued involvement in the EU and NATO should also put to bed one of the more outré suggestions made about Scottish independence: that it will push Scotland closer to Russia or even China. The U.K. is, unquestionably, a top Russian target—for intelligence, money laundering, cyberattacks, and disinformation campaigns designed to sow distrust and discord. What isn’t clear, though, is how being part of the U.K. offers Scotland any protection against this.

In July 2020, the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee released its Russia report. It found evidence that Russian operatives had attempted to interfere in the Scottish independence and Brexit referendums, but that British intelligence agencies had declined to investigate further. The report also flagged a worrying trend whereby Russian state-owned broadcasters RT and (indirectly) Sputnik are able to gain “legitimacy in elite circles” by paying members of the U.K. Parliament and peers in the House of Lords to appear on news programs. After leaving office, Scotland’s former First Minister Alex Salmond took part in this, to the fury of his former SNP colleagues—and it’s certainly cause for concern now that Salmond has launched his own political party, Alba.

But RT has hosted U.K. politicians of all political stripes, including Jeremy Corbyn (leader of the Labour Party at the time), Nigel Farage (then-head of the United Kingdom Independence Party), and Conservative MP Nigel Evans, a senior figure in the party

“Everybody is under bombardment of attempts to exert influence from Russia and China. I see absolutely no reason why Scotland would be more vulnerable to that than anybody else,” Leslie said. If anything, she believes Scotland would be “much less interesting” if it could no longer be leveraged to destabilize U.K. politics.

Scotland’s neighbors provide plenty of compelling models for its independence project.

Scotland’s neighbors provide plenty of compelling models for its independence project. Europe’s most economically successful countries are also some of its smallest. Of the countries that outperform the U.K. on GDP per capita, Ireland, Norway, Denmark, and Finland are (like Scotland) home to around 5 million people apiece, while high-ranking Luxembourg, Iceland, and San Marino number well under a million. Many nations on the continent only began to flourish after they decided to go it alone.

After voting to become independent from Denmark in 1944, Iceland rose from one of the poorest countries in Europe to within the top 10 richest per capita. Norway dissolved its union with Sweden in 1905 and is now the wealthier party, with a GDP per capita a little over that of the United States—it also topped the list as happiest country in the world in 2017. Even Ireland, once a financial disaster zone that fought a bloody war for its independence, now has the second-highest GDP per capita in the EU—far outstripping the United States and around twice that of the U.K., its former colonial master.

Crucially, this newfound wealth hasn’t been concentrated into the hands of a small minority. Income inequality may be soaring in the U.K., but it’s been falling in Ireland for the past 30 years, where it’s much better than the OECD average. Nordic countries all perform spectacularly on this metric, but even here, Iceland is slightly more equal than Denmark and Norway is more equal than Sweden.

If Scotland does become independent, it could start from a dramatically stronger financial position than any of them did. Official figures from the U.K.’s Office for National Statistics show that, even when you discount offshore oil from the North Sea, GDP per capita was 29,660 pounds (nearly $40,000) in 2018. This is a little behind England at 32,857  pounds—but London’s status as financial powerhouse massively skews these figures; almost all regions of England (as well as fellow U.K. nations Wales and Northern Ireland) are poorer than almost all of Scotland.

A second independence referendum—if it happens—would mean something very different now than it did in 2014. The upheavals of the past seven years mean the choice for Scottish voters is less, “Can we make it on our own?” and more, “What political climate do we want to exist in?” The U.K. has made it clear that it sees exiting the EU as withdrawing, specifically, from the liberal, consensus-building elements of this union, and that the U.K.’s future will be characterized by hard borders, restricted movement, militarization, and nostalgia for an imperial past. In short, everything that Scotland’s policymakers—and voters—have sought to reject.

Yet this question has been complicated by Alba’s entry into the fray; with no stated policies, Salmond appears to have launched the party in revenge against Sturgeon and the SNP for not shutting down an investigation into 13 charges of attempted rape, sexual assault, and indecent assault by their former leader (of which he was formally cleared) —hardly an enlightened starting point.

But for now, at least, it’s a fringe element in a movement broadly united by a progressive vision for Scotland. While the goals laid out by the pro-independence side may sound like lofty ideals, if Scotland’s foreign-policy priorities are anything like the domestic ones, it means them. And it might just pull them off.

Lindsey Kennedy is a journalist and documentary filmmaker covering stories related to development, global security, and abuses of civil and human rights. Twitter: @LindsAKennedy

Nathan Paul Southern is an investigative reporter and security specialist. Twitter: @NathanPSouthern

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