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The World Hasn't Given Much Thought to Scotland's Independence Vote - But It Should

From the EU to NATO - not to mention independence movements around the globe - the international ramifications of a split in the Great British union may be huge.
September 16, 2014, 4:05pm
Image via Reuters

When Scotland's first minister, Alex Salmond, announced his plans for a referendum on Scottish independence in May 2011, it caused some waves. But then rather quickly, and with a decidedly British sense of stiff-upper-lip exceptionalism, it quieted down. Such a prospect was not new.

A majority of Scottish voters had cast their ballot for a devolved Scottish parliament in 1979 (if not the 40 per cent of eligible voters the terms of the referendum stipulated), and the British state endured unchanged for another 20 years. It took an Edinburgh-born prime minister and another referendum in 1997 to revive the ancient Scottish assembly, and while devolved powers include greater control over agriculture, education, health and tourism, key matters like immigration, defence, foreign policy and benefits are reserved for the British Parliament at Westminster. Importantly, on many of these final issues Scottish interests differ from those of the rest of the United Kingdom. Scotland's inability to steer its own path spurred increasing calls for "devolution-max" (a proposed ballot option for this referendum vetoed by the British government) or, by the Scottish National Party, independence.

Full independence, however, remained the gospel of a radical nationalist minority, while the status quo retained an air of invincibility. After all, Scotland had not yet felt the brunt of deleterious Tory policies and English condescension, so why fix something that wasn't broken? There were periodic spasms of interest, as the logistics of the voting process were debated and the make-up of an independent Scotland outlined, but it remained an issue overwhelmingly relegated to the periphery. Now, with less a week to go and 97 percent of eligible voters registered to participate, Scottish independence is not merely a nebulous concept, it's a distinct possibility.

So long as it remained nothing but a pipedream, the focus of debate remained narrow. It's now time not only for the United Kingdom, but for the rest of the world to recognize the far-reaching repercussions a successful vote on September 18th could have.

The most immediate effects will, of course, be felt by the rest of the United Kingdom. It will lose both its right to the name Great Britain ("great" being a reference to the entire island which the nations of Scotland, England and Wales share) and its right to claim greatness. At its peak, the British Empire encompassed a quarter of the world. Its place of prominence in both the League of Nations and the United Nations accurately reflected its power after each World War. But Britain has lost its empire, and the office of Russian President Vladimir Putin apparently felt no qualms in characterizing it as nothing but a "small island no one listens to." The United Kingdom is, as Prime Minister Cameron felt compelled to retort, the world's sixth-largest economy and fourth-best-funded military, but a central element of its perceived importance is just that - its perception.

In June 2014, President Barack Obama declared the United States' "deep interest in making sure that one of the closest allies that we will ever have remains strong, robust, united and effective." The subtext is clear. The breakup of the United Kingdom would undermine its self-proclaimed prestige, and not only by compelling others to question why a nation of people said to be the best educated in Europe would want out. Awkward questions have already arisen. How much is the United Kingdom's permanent seat on the UN Security Council a holdover from its 1945 position in the world? Would the loss of Scotland lower the shroud and reveal a nation less powerful than previously thought? Could it precipitate a reassessment of the Security Council and make room for rising powers like India and Japan in place of the once great imperial states of France and the United Kingdom?

London has proclaimed its seat to be secure, using the precedent of Moscow's retention of its spot despite the collapse of the USSR and establishment of a much-diminished territory in the form of the Russian Federation, but such a comparison is misleading. The Soviet Union expanded by conquest, with sovereignty always remaining decidedly in Moscow. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, was not established by an English take-over of Scotland - in fact it was quite the opposite. In 1603 the Scottish King James VI rode triumphantly into London to take up the English crown of Elizabeth I, becoming James VI & I of Scotland, England and Ireland. This "Union of Crowns" endured through a turbulent century of civil war, regicide and revolution before it was understood to be untenable. With separate parliaments, Scotland and England were able to pursue conflicting interests. Matters came to a head when Scotland refused to accept the German Hanoverians as heir to their childless Queen Anne, threatening the union of the isles. Highlighting the need for uniform policy and control centered in London, years of dispute over laws and actions unfavourable to Scottish interests culminated in the 1707 Treaty of Union, which established the United Kingdom and legally abolished both Scotland and England. While Westminster claims that it would be the successor to British sovereignty, such a selective reading of history is susceptible to challenge - and when power is questioned, its weaknesses are accentuated.

A decrepit United Kingdom would be a less useful partner, for the United States and all its allies. NATO's announcement that Scotland would have to reapply for membership added to the cacophony of international figures threatening an uncertain and isolated future for the Scots should they decide to end the 307-year union with England. Withholding membership would give the organization leverage in the debate over the four Trident nuclear submarines currently based on Scotland's west coast - the Scottish National Party has declared its absolute opposition to their presence. Strategically located in the middle of the organization's Atlantic territory, NATO has a vested interest in continuing to house its nuclear deterrents in the Clyde, especially considering the United Kingdom does not presently have another suitable location.

Like NATO, the European Union has painted an uncertain picture for Scotland, noting that it will have to reapply for membership as an independent state. While a long and arduous process, an independent Scotland should easily meet accession requirements, so ultimately a seat at the table awaits. But all member states have to agree on Edinburgh's path to membership, and Scottish independence could be a lightning rod for European insecurities. The government in Spain - where nationalist Catalonians are watching events unfold in Scotland with almost as much excitement as the Scots themselves - has warned that accession would take at least five years, and would require adoption of the euro, joining Westminster in slapping down the yes campaign's insistence that it could keep the pound. Catalonia has repeatedly demanded the right to vote for its independence, and there's also the Basque region of Spain, the Flemish region of Belgium and, farther abroad, Quebec, Taiwan, Tibet, Chechnya and east Ukraine. The precedent set on September 18 would give hope to peoples striving for self-determination, and fear into those conglomerate countries intent on preserving their territorial integrity.

The truth of the matter is, no one can know for sure what a successful vote this Thursday would mean. But it's clear that the break-up of one of the most powerful countries in the world will not play out in a vacuum. Scotland may be a small nation on the edge of Europe, but it has never been isolated. The impacts of an independent Scotland might not be felt immediately, but it would be foolish for the world to continue to ignore the very real reverberations looming just beyond the horizon.