Scottish independence: The foreign policy questions

12 Apr 2014

The UK, it’s fair to say, has had its fair share of decisive years down the centuries. However, constitutionally, 2014 could yet top any in living memory. Yes, as we all know, Scotland is bracing itself for the polls, with a referendum where 300 years of unity of the isle of Great Britain is at stake. Currently, polls still suggest it is one the UK will pass, but despite the furore over questions of currency unions and European membership, momentum remains in the hands of the Yes campaign. Wrestling that away won’t be easy. 


The ramifications of independence are obviously huge. True, amicable separations are not unheard of. The Velvet Revolution, for example, proved very advantageous for both the Czech Republic and Slovakia, but the longevity of the UK means a divorce would have a great impact upon all aspects of government policy, including foreign policy. Indeed, some practical questions already raised could deeply affect Britain’s as a foreign actor. The UK’s nuclear submarines, for example, are currently in Clyde and though the SNP has warmed to the idea of an independent Scotland joining NATO- an organisation built on nuclear deterrence- it’s unlikely that the fleet would remain. What could that mean to the UK while it struggles to find a new place to store its toys? 

These practicalities matter when considering where to place that pesky X on the ballot paper. But, like much of the debate, this is not want independence is all about. It is surely also a decision based on symbolism, feelings for the future and perceptions- not merely how much quid you’ll have in your pocket. So in foreign policy, as with all aspects of the independence debate, there are questions based not only on practicality but also on more subtle notions. In foreign policy circles, one of these is what sort of relationship would exist between Scotland and the rest of the UK with independence. The Yes campaign charge it would be much as it is now. True flirtations with Scandinavia may be more pronounced but the UK would remain a vital ally and trading partner and independence wouldn’t derail a relationship they see as symbiotic. This optimism is understandable, for the best comparison of how the relationship could be is that of the UK and Ireland. Though separate independent nations, the two still share a common travel area separate from the EU’s Schengen zone and when the going got tough for the emerald isle in 2008, it was the UK who provided loans independent of the IMF and the EU, reflecting the importance the UK gives to an economically strong neighbour. 

This relationship may well be wanted by Scotland and may in fact be desirable for both sides, but that doesn’t mean it will be happen quite like that. Of course, the UK wouldn’t cold shoulder their northern neighbour, there’s too much to lose. There is though a simmering anger as the campaign has got uglier. The currency union and the threat of Scotland to absolve its share of the national debt typifies this and has led some south of the border to see the independence movement as one which wants all the perks of separation without accepting many of the responsibilities that make it less appealing. These remain small scale, but remember a yes would begin years of negotiations. Should these turn bitter, and there’s a good chance that they might, the potential is there for this to manifest to the extent that the relationship Scotland may want may no longer be quite so shared. 

This question could prove less significant; pragmatism may well win the day. But it is clear that an independent Scotland would rear one more question, what is Britain and its place in the world? Despite decades of decolonisation, the UK still likes to see itself as a major actor. It certainly is militarily, with only the US, China and Russia having higher military expenditure. Moreover, positions like its permanent seat at the UN only serve to help this image. But while Scottish independence would not remove this ability, nor can removing a significant fragment of the country have any effect other than weakening the country. A yes vote on independence would therefore raise serious doubts as to the extent to which the UK could perform internationally as it has before, a question that has already been asked of late given its limited response to events in both Syria and Ukraine. 

It is an uncomfortable thought, but it is hard to see the global actors Britain strives to operate alongside as interpreting a yes as being anything else but an action that diminishes its ability. So while the many ramifications an independent Scotland would have upon the nation are huge, the UK would be faced with not only dealing with a new neighbour but also perhaps, more than ever, the question as to where it stands is in the world and what this means. In this way, in foreign policy at least, it may well be not Scotland but the rest of the UK who will face the toughest questions of all.

Backbench Foreign Secretary

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