Beware Scotland’s ambitions for independence

Beware Scotland’s ambitions for independence

Beware Scotland’s ambitions for independence
The First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, is interviewed, Tuesday, May 17, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo)
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Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party and first minister of the devolved government of Scotland, is on tour in Washington this week. Ostensibly, the main purpose of the visit was to deliver a keynote speech on Scotland’s role in European energy security at a conference organized on Monday by the Brookings Initiative on Climate Research and Action. But the Scottish leader will also be meeting a wide range of politicians and attending a number of other events on climate, energy security and the war in Ukraine. It looks very much like a state visit by an incumbent head of government — and that is by design.
For readers who are not familiar with the SNP and Sturgeon, the raison d’etre of the party and the avowed mission statement of its leader is for Scotland to secede from the UK and become an independent country. The party obtained a referendum on the issue in 2014, when the people of Scotland voted 55 percent to 45 percent in favor of remaining part of the UK — and the issue was supposed to have been settled for a generation.
But Brexit reopened the debate: The people of Scotland voted to remain in the EU by a ratio close to two to one, but overall the UK voted to leave, principally on the popular vote in the much more populous England. This huge gulf of opinion on the European project, but also the constitutional and economic consequences of the UK leaving the bloc, have galvanized the independence movement and now opinion in Scotland on the union with England, Northern Ireland and Wales is evenly split, and occasionally even marginally in favor of independence. Sturgeon is, therefore, trying to seize the moment for her cause and is in the process of trying to organize a second independence referendum, even though less than 30 percent of Scots support a referendum on the SNP’s timescale.
Organizing this second referendum is far from a simple matter due to a number of issues of British constitutional arcana, but the main obstacle is that any referendum requires consent from the UK government in London in order for it to be legally binding. And the nationalist government in London, whose popular appeal is meant to be predicated on making the UK a bigger and more consequential global player, is obviously not going to want to cede Scotland.
This is where the relative perceptions of Scotland and of the British government in the international arena and in the public consciousness matters. While technically London has all the veto it needs on the matter of the referendum, it can probably be shamed into granting it if the “democratic injustice” of denying the vote becomes too difficult to bear either for London’s international prestige as a genuine democracy or for the domestic electorate in the rest of the UK.
And so, Sturgeon is in Washington, looking statesman-like. And she is very good at it. Public image is certainly one of her fortes. This was seen during the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow last year, when she played the role of host for the cameras despite having no formal role in organizing or running the event. It is also often seen in public life in the UK, where she remains one of the most popular politicians even outside of Scotland, despite the relatively lackluster performance of her administration in Scotland over the past eight years.

By becoming independent, Scotland would paralyze the nuclear defensive stance of the UK for at least five to 10 years.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

But Americans — and the American leaders Sturgeon is meeting during her trip to Washington — should be aware that there are bigger things at stake than just the desires of 50 percent of the people of Scotland.
The main implication for the US is that, by becoming independent, Scotland would paralyze the nuclear defensive stance of the UK for at least five to 10 years, blowing a huge hole into the defensive posture of NATO at literally the worst time since the end of the Cold War. This is because the entire nuclear submarine infrastructure that the UK relies on is based in Scotland and the SNP has pledged to close it down upon independence. Relocating the infrastructure would be hugely expensive and, more importantly, would take an awfully long time.
And secondly, independence would also hamper Scotland’s ability to help mitigate the short-term energy crunch and also the long-term energy security of Europe. This is because, in Europe, Scotland is one of the countries with the biggest net surpluses of energy potential, especially on renewables, but departing the UK would leave the Scottish government with a 10 percent to 20 percent fiscal hole in its budget, hampering its ability to roll out the infrastructure necessary to support the fast development of those resources.
The current moment is the best opportunity the movement for Scottish independence has ever had. Ironically, it is also the worst possible time for actually delivering Scottish independence, both from the point of view of the prosperity of the people of Scotland themselves and also from the point of view of the security and prosperity of the Western alliance. Sturgeon seems to have chosen her priorities. We must be aware that her choices at this moment do not serve anyone except her and her party.

  • Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington, DC. Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim
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