The United Kingdom is under real threat. In just over a week’s time on September 18, Scotland will vote in a referendum on independence from a union that has lasted 307 years. Until this month, opinion polls were all predicting a clear “no” vote but a major surge had the pro-independence nationalists taking a very small lead in a September 6 opinion poll. This raises major questions for the future of the United Kingdom, its role in the world, and begs questions as to what impact it will have on the Middle East.
Even a narrow win for a “no” vote will still leave in its wake a huge debate about the future of Britain itself. The polls triggered frantic Westminster activity; the speedy rearranging of the prime minister’s diary and that of other party leaders as they made a mad dash north as well as a series of solemn promises of greater powers for a devolved Scotland.
Major international powers have woken up on recent months and have started voicing their concerns. Barack Obama has made it clear that he supports the United Kingdom. The Indian foreign minister was brutally direct about the implications, saying “God forbid.” In June, Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister warned of the “Balkanization of the British Isles.” At a diplomatic reception in London on Tuesday, every ambassador and diplomat in the room seemed to be in heated discussion about it, with quizzical looks of “what does this all mean for us?” One asked in fear, “Is Wales next?”
In the Middle East, Kurds and Palestinians might do well to watch and learn from the debate. Both peoples have aspirations to step up to full statehoodChris Doyle
Countries with their own secessionist movements, such as Spain, are worried. Catalans are watching closely and are helping their own independence consultation on November 9. In the Middle East, Kurds and Palestinians might do well to watch and learn from the debate. Both peoples have aspirations to step up to full statehood and can watch the debate on transition from region to statehood. The Scottish National Party (SNP) still has many questions to answer as to how for example it will set up a diplomatic service from scratch, and even then, cater for the needs of its citizens in the 100 or so states where it will have no representation. It has no external intelligence capabilities or anti-cyber-crime agency. Could it promote Scottish goods abroad effectively without the UK’s trade promotion network?
How would it affect the rest of Britain? Exit Scotland and Britain’s population drops by 8.5 per cent. It would become the same size as Tunisia. Yet it will draw strength from what would be a peaceful and democratic change, not one brought about by war and conflict. Nevertheless, there would be a messy divorce distracting British leaders for several years. Internationally there would be little change. It will remain part of the elite group of five that make up the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. No British government is willingly going to give up the cherished veto but adding other veto-wielding powers may become unanswerable with Brazil, India and South Africa heading the list. Perhaps the most serious knock-on effect will be to strengthen the hand of Eurosceptic forces (Scottish politicians have tended to be more Europhile) and push forward a referendum on leaving the EU.
An independent Scotland will have extremely limited influence in the Middle East. But many Scots do desire the ability to opt out of British overseas military adventures. The 2003 Iraq war was deeply unpopular in Scotland and cost the Labour party core voters to the SNP. Whilst there is no love for ISIS, many Scots would shy away from military intervention, a position that might change if David Haines, a Scottish aid worker held by the group, becomes the latest online decapitation as has been threatened.
The Palestinian cause
Maybe an independent Scotland would be fairly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. There are historical links. Back in 1980, Dundee voted to twin with the Palestinian city of Nablus. Glasgow, the largest city in Scotland, is twinned with Bethlehem and in August raised the Palestinian flag over its town hall in a gesture of solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza. More recently the Scottish government has supported calls for an arms embargo on Israel following its war on Gaza. The “No” campaign points out, that this is little difference from Ed Miliband’s Labour party and one leading member told me that the SNP “try to portray themselves as more radical than Labour on Palestine though in reality there is little difference.” However, it could impact British policy, allowing it to veer towards a line more sympathetic to the Israeli government, not least as without any MPs from Scotland, Conservative Party would have a majority in Britain. It’s leader David Cameron has shown increasing reluctance to speak out against Israeli violations and take on Netanyahu.
The question Scots sympathetic on this issue might have to ask is, is it better to be a smaller state with little influence or to fight for a better overall British policy that might have some chance of making a real difference. The harsh reality is that the latter will continue to matter more. The pro-Palestinian sentiment in Scotland has always helped to influence Westminster’s stance so without it, Britain might become less sympathetic to Palestinian rights and also more interventionist in other conflicts.
Militarily, what sort of weakening would there be for the second military in NATO? The SNP is far more reluctant to engage in external military interventions and insist that any deployment of Scottish forces must be dependent on having a United Nations mandate. The SNP has been scrutinizing the Nordic states and how they manage their defense and foreign relations and would like to mirror many of their positions on the global stage. Their messaging is all about the possibilities for small-state diplomacy.
So, does the world need more small states? The answer is probably not. At one level, the breakup of major autocratic regimes such as the Soviet Union has been a blessing even if Putin’s Russia is still a threat. Yet the fragmentation of major democratic states can only limit the chances of international alliances and effective joint action. Ever since the European Union expanded to 28 members its Common Foreign and Security Policy has been worse than non-existent. So many states and people have been waiting for a European role on the world stage, which simply is unlikely to materialize. An independent Scotland would add to that process and destabilize the United Kingdom at a time when the world needs international leadership more than ever.
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.