Scottish Independence: turning away from the world

Flags outside Parliament

In under a month, our country could disappear. In some senses anyway. If Scotland votes on September 18th for independence, a big chunk of the United Kingdom is gone. While obviously it is a more important decision north of the border, the lack of interest here in the rest of the United Kingdom seems striking. Although we (rightly) don’t have a vote, the earthquake caused by Scottish independence would immediately ripple through every aspect of national life. There would be months spent debating: issues such as currency, border control, the national debt, the army, membership of international agreements and organisations would need to be sorted out.

Western countries face a choice of whether to engage with the world or whether to retreat. On the left, there are those who believe that every problem in the world is ultimately the fault of the USA or other ‘imperial’ powers and that accordingly we should stay out of the affairs of other countries and not assume our system of governance or our values are superior. On the right there is an isolationist ‘not my business’ attitude which says we should not spend our money or send our men to foreign places to whom we owe nothing. Lock the gates, pull up the drawbridge. With liberal democracy a distant prospect all over the post-Arab Spring Middle East, a resurgent Russia propagating nationalist ultra-conservative values, and a rising undemocratic China, the West faces a tough challenge to spread the progressive values of democracy, equality and secularism across the world. These are the values which we know produce the best recipe for universal prosperity.

What does this have to do with Scottish independence? The Scottish people have a collective choice, like everyone else in the United Kingdom, about whether to engage or retreat. The independence debate has rarely focused on foreign affairs, although yes supporters have spoken about a ‘softer’ Scotland. Support for an independent Scotland joining NATO has been uncertain. Many in Scotland would like to see Trident taken away from Glasgow and Salmond makes reference to the ‘illegal wars’ of ‘English’ governments he would avoid. There has been comparison made with Sweden, who accept having less influence in the world and do not throw themselves into international conflict as often as we do.

There are two misguided presumptions behind a lot of this. Firstly, that an active, ‘harder’ foreign policy is destined to have a negative effect on the rest of the world. You don’t need to be a neocon to realise someone, somewhere should put pressure, diplomatic or otherwise, on countries which are the ‘bad guys’. Yes, sometimes Western countries are too chummy with the bad guys, and are inconsistent in their treatment of the bad guys. But if Europe and North America were full of Swedens, would you really feel safer from Russia, ISIS, Iran et al.? I imagine when it came to it, you wouldn’t. The second misguided presumption is that the United Kingdom has illusions of grandeur: that it thinks it can do more than it can and should resign itself to managed decline, like a gradually eroding coastal settlement. This is self-fulfilling. Through openness to the rest of the world and in particular through active involvement in the likes of the UN, the EU and NATO, Britain punches above its weight.

As for cooperation with other countries, it is presumed Scotland would join the EU, although how easy this will be is unknown. As an independent country it would surely lose its place on the UN Security Council and in the G8 and the influence this brings. Within the EU, Scotland would have about as many votes as Lithuania under current rules. So whether an elected government in independent Scotland would choose foreign policy that is hard or soft, facing inwards or outwards, Scotland would ultimately lose power from independence. As would, by the way, the rest of the United Kingdom, losing clout by way of losing the population and economy of Scotland. Scottish nationalism, which puts itself in opposition to the rest of the United Kingdom, represents a retreat from international cooperation and influence.

Australian Prime Minister was overly hyperbolic a few weeks ago when he said that Scottish independence will be cheered on by our enemies, but he has a point. If the SNP and UKIP both have their way in a few years Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom will be cut off from each other and from Europe. This is to our detriment, to Europe’s detriment and to the world’s detriment. For all the talk of the English Tories’ barbarous welfare cuts and NHS privatisation (although of course privatisation in the sense of paying at the point of use has never been on the cards) we live in a free, civilised country with a stable system of democratic government that tries, although not enough and not always successfully, to help other countries. Scottish independence makes us weaker and makes this task harder. It therefore helps those inside and outside the United Kingdom who oppose our progressive values.

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