The tone of the campaign against Scottish independence hit a new low this month. With the polls narrowing recently and voters becoming turned off by the “Better Together” group’s negative campaigning, several senior figures in the pro-Union camp urged their colleagues to adopt a more positive message. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg dubbed the proposed shift a “Sunshine Strategy”.
Unfortunately for them, it seems that Lord George Robertson – a Labour peer, former NATO Secretary-General and staunch Scottish Unionist – didn’t get the memo. In a speech to the Brookings Institute universally criticised even in Scotland’s pro-Union press, Lord Robertson claimed that a Yes vote in September’s independence referendum would be “cataclysmic in geopolitical terms” for the entire Western world.
With a poker-straight face and an earnest, urgent tone, Lord Robertson went on to contend that “the forces of darkness would simply love it” if Scotland became independent. Scottish independence would give “the dictators, the persecutors, the oppressors, the annexers, the aggressors…. the biggest pre-Christmas present of their lives”.
His warning was stark – should the people of Scotland dare to peacefully, legally and democratically exercise their right to self-determination, the global order itself would be threatened. The world as we know it would be imperilled.
A quick note, here. On one level, Robertson has a point – sort of. There is probably some truth in the idea that Britain and America’s rivals would rather like to see Scottish independence, if only to revel in the UK’s perceived loss of international standing. It is no coincidence that Russian-sponsored RT and Iranian-sponsored Press TV are among the foreign broadcasters which have paid closest attention to Scotland’s referendum debate.
Other than that, however, Robertson’s speech fell utterly flat – principally on two counts. The first is his hyperbolic, hysterical rhetoric, which drastically misjudged the mood of a Scottish electorate increasingly disillusioned by the negativity of the No campaign and a failure to present a positive case for the Union. As the Observer’s Kevin McKenna commented, “he may feel he was only pointing out the dangers of Scottish independence but instead, all he did was belittle his own country”.
As soon as they were trailed by the press, Lord Robertson’s dire warnings about “the forces of darkness” elicited incredulity and derision on social media, where Yes campaigners, politicians and journalists alike parodied his comments. They typified the anti-independence campaign’s tactics, which so are so centred on scaremongering and undermining confidence that last year, it emerged that “Better Together” insiders privately dubbed their outfit “Project Fear”.
However, the second problem with Robertson’s speech was its complete disconnect from reality. Every discussion of an independent Scotland’s foreign policy has been of Scotland as a good global citizen, participating in NATO with appropriate defence forces but leading the way with soft power and diplomacy, international advocacy and consensus-building. This vision of Scotland as another Norway or Denmark jars ever-so-slightly with Robertson’s apocalyptic vision of the “forces of darkness” being unleashed.
Of course, Robertson never once referred in his speech to the foreign policy posture an independent Scotland might have or the contribution it might seek to make to the world – he was solely concerned with the UK’s perceived loss of status. As Dr John MacDonald of the Scottish Global Forum think tank said, “Robertson’s thesis rests upon the assumption that the global status quo is to be defended, and that Western solidity and security is tied to the UK maintaining its current composition and military posture.”
He continued: “These are hugely questionable assumptions… The events of the post-9/11 period demonstrate that the UK’s capacity (even when allied with the US) to bring about desired political outcomes across the globe, whether or not through the use of force, is negligible. Not only has this expeditionary approach been damaging and counterproductive, it has also proved to be unaffordable.”
Indeed, Lord Robertson’s speech was ironically delivered in Washington on the same day as Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, was speaking in New York. Outlining his vision for Scotland’s foreign policy posture, Mr Salmond said: “You can aspire to be a great nation, without desiring to be a great power. The USA is both. But most nations can’t be. And they reduce their chance to be a great nation, if they pretend to be a great power.”
The message was clear – unlike the UK, where the Westminster establishment and politicians like Lord Robertson insist on maintaining nuclear weapons and undertaking illegal wars in order to fulfil a sense of international importance, Scotland could model itself on small, independent countries which make large contributions to the world.
Mr Salmond cited Norway, Switzerland, Denmark and Ireland as examples of small nations which, through diplomacy and advocacy, peacekeeping and contributions to humanitarian interventions, have helped to make the world a better place.
The United Kingdom’s foreign policy role, while often misguided, is not typically the imperialist, hyper-aggressive stance that many supporters of Scottish independence often think it to be. But there is a strong and valid case that a Yes vote presents a valuable opportunity for Scotland to pursue a new progressive, responsible foreign policy model.
In addition to the potential to participate more in peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts, Scotland could set an example on debt justice for developing nations. It could build on its already world-leading climate change legislation and use its place in international organisations to advocate for climate change action. It could integrate the principles of “Do No Harm” into its foreign, defence and international development policies. Under the Scottish Government’s plans, Scotland could become a “progressive beacon” not just at home but in its international role, too.
It is clear that Lord Robertson’s ears have been deaf to calls for a more positive debate, but perhaps more worryingly, he appears blind to the potential for the positive contribution Scotland could make to the world. Where he scaremongers about a Yes vote heralding the collapse of the international order, supporters of independence see the possibility for Scotland to help improve it.
We will find out in September which message Scotland’s voters find more appealing.