At the recent SNP conference Alex Salmond addressed his Party and massed supporters, bombastically stating, “Friends, what a parcel of rogues in a nation. Westminster is beyond salvation. But our social democratic Scotland can still be won.” Continuing his attack on Westminster, Salmond questioned, “Why on earth do we allow this bunch of incompetent Lord Snooties to be in positions of authority over our country?” While hardly evoking the frenzied jingoism that Mel Gibson, in his pseudo-Scottish accent, stirs up in Braveheart with the words “They’ll never take our freedom!”, the more rotund figure of Alex Salmond is becoming a behemoth in terms of grabbing political headlines. Independence has now become more than just a pipe-dream, it is a distinct possibility. Partisans will argue about the pros and cons of independence until their throats are sore, but few are asking a fundamental question: what path will an independent Scotland take and how will it choose to align itself in the international system? Factionalism, indecision and political flip-flopping within the SNP hierarchy mean that it is becoming increasingly clear that Scotland will be venturing into the unknown should it vote ‘Yes’ in 2014.
To not build on the hype generated by the tabloids on this topic, I would like to point out that the most recent YouGov opinion poll found that only 16% of Scots ‘strongly’ support independence, while 56% still favour union. Cameron and Salmond’s recent haggling has resulted in the exclusion of further devolution (‘Devo max’) as an option on the referendum ballot. This is a significant gamble by both sides. While Cameron may feel comfortable with over half of Scotland opposed to independence, a middle-ground option may have been a useful failsafe. Much can change in two years and Salmond appears to have a certain momentum, playing to his advantage the political schism which has divided the two nations and left many Scots feeling alienated since the general election. Add to the equation the continuously increasing unemployment rate and decline in industry and exports, 2014 may turn out to be a very juicy year in terms of political battles. It will be interesting to see if the SNP proves capable of paving a clear, unified path and agreeing on Scotland’s international positioning. For the moment there are myriad questions. Will Scotland be part of the EU? Will they have to apply for membership? Must they adopt the euro? What should be the future of Scotland’s nuclear capabilities and the deterrent fleet? How will Scotland guarantee the security of her (soon to be) overseas communities? … I believe there are simply too many unanswered questions and far too much division within the SNP for these issues to be resolved in time.
The top legal advisor in the coalition government, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, has stated that an independent Scotland will have to apply for EU membership, while the adoption of the euro will be a likely prerequisite for membership. This goes wholly against the pledges made by Salmond, who, although admitting recently that the SNP is seeking legal advice on the matter, has stated that an independent Scotland will both continue to be part of the EU and will carry on using the pound sterling. Such decisions will, without a doubt, be made in Brussels, not Holyrood, and may well turn out to be empty promises. Indeed Tam Dalyell (former father of the House of Commons) raised a very valid point when he prompted, “What about the Basques and Andalucians, the Catalans, or even the Belgians? Or the German states?” The European powerhouses have problems of their own in dealing with secessionist movements by minority groups. An independent Scotland with macro-economic autonomy would be a fantastic advertisement for nationalist movements throughout Europe. Outside Scotland, separatist movements have been enjoying new found success in Spain’s Basque country (with a separatist coalition now the region’s second largest party). Spain and Germany especially will be far happier to see an independent Scotland flounder rather than flourish. Thus, it is highly unlikely that Scotland will be allowed automatic entry into the EU and it is extremely unlikely that they will be allowed the economic autonomy enjoyed by the UK today. With Salmond stating, “We know that at heart people trust their own Parliament far more than they will ever trust Westminster”, it must be asked, are the people any more likely to put their trust in Brussels than they are Westminster? Given, however, that this case is unique and lacks any form of precedence, we can only speculate as to what will actually happen.
The other main foreign policy conundrum that is currently raging is that of security. The SNP has made a u-turn on its anti-NATO stance (to the disapproval of large sections of the Party), however retains a staunch anti-nuclear position. It is rather unfortunate for the UK that the entirety of its Trident nuclear fleet is based in Scotland, a country which may very soon be intent in its dismantlement. Part of the issue here is that taking a pro-NATO, anti-nuclear stance is somewhat of an oxymoron. At the very least Scotland will remain under a US-UK-French nuclear umbrella and will likely see substantial collaboration with England in terms of security (admittedly many NATO members are nuclear-free, however Scotland’s geographical location and current access to nuclear weapons make it a unique case). Again it is very unclear on what is going to happen. By the time this article is published it is not inconceivable that Salmond will be trumpeting nuclear weapons as being the best thing since sliced-bread.
Although never short of words and never shy of a fight, Salmond is a man of style but little substance. His speeches and pledges are as vacuous as his Party’s plan for the future. Unless many decisions are made and the SNP (which is only unified under the banner of independence) becomes a more decisive, monolithic body capable of making these tough decisions, an independent Scotland may well end up a failed project. Becoming an ‘Ireland’ or an ‘Iceland’ is no longer an attractive prospect. Perhaps Salmond will pick a new model. Maybe a ‘Finland’ or a ‘Switzerland’? Who knows? International isolation and domestic disarray may well be the buzzwords of 2014.