Scottish independence will impact the UK’s global role

As the elections to the Scottish parliament show a majority in favour of leaving the UK, the implications of independence could be huge if it actually happened.

Interview Updated 7 July 2021 Published 10 May 2021 4 minute READ

Scottish independence will impact the UK’s global role

— Watch the full video of Philip Rycroft and Dr Kirsty Hughes outlining the implications of Scottish independence if it actually happened.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Greens won 72 seats in the 129-seat parliament between them, and both campaigned on a commitment to hold a second independence referendum for Scotland.

The 2014 vote saw 55 per cent opting to stay in the UK, but since Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic, which has seen the UK suffer a relatively high death rate from the disease, opinion polls suggest support for independence has risen to around 50 per cent.

This increases the possibility that, if another referendum is held, it could mean Scotland will become an independent country again and the UK would lose eight per cent of its population and around one-third of its landmass, as well as having a huge impact on the UK’s role in the world.

Alistair Burnett speaks to Philip Rycroft, former senior civil servant who served as permanent secretary in the Department for Exiting the European Union from 2017-2019, and Dr Kirsty Hughes, director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations.

What are the implications of Scotland leaving the Union for the UK’s soft power?

The biggest impact will be on perceptions of Englishness among the English themselves, who make up 85 per cent of the UK’s population, and the projection of Englishness as a national identity

Philip Rycroft: This is a huge question which has not really been considered thoroughly but those people in what would be the ‘remainder UK’ need to think hard about it. The loss of part of its territory, albeit through a democratic process, would be noted around the world and most people would conclude, understandably, it would be a diminution of the capacity of the remainder UK to project its interests.

Scotland has always had a bigger part in the projection of the image of the UK internationally than its population size would suggest. Scotland plays a big role in the cultural influence of the UK and Scottish products are a big part of the British brand – losing those would diminish that brand.

But I think the biggest impact will be on perceptions of Englishness among the English themselves, who make up 85 per cent of the UK’s population, and the projection of Englishness as a national identity. That identity has been subsumed into British identity for 300 years and the departure of Scotland would set in train a process of reflection the outcome of which is very difficult to predict, but, I think, would have a huge psychological impact.

Kirsty Hughes: It would be a huge shock to the rest of the UK, but, with or without Wales and Northern Ireland, England is a big country and its soft power is still going to be there. It will need to rethink its own identity and what that means to projecting its soft power to the rest of the world.

The remainder UK would be looked at very differently from the outside. Talking to diplomats and others in the European Union (EU), they say the break-up of the UK would be a national humiliation and some have told me it would be pay back for Brexit. Others are horrified and baffled at what they see as the self-harm of Brexit and the prospect that this old state could break up would confirm their view that the UK is a state in turmoil.

The SNP and Greens are committed to removing nuclear weapons from an independent Scotland. Given the UK’s nuclear forces are based west of Glasgow, what would be the implications of independence for the UK’s hard power?

Kirsty Hughes: The SNP talks of being a small north European country without nuclear weapons on its soil. Having said that, after what was quite a deep internal dispute, SNP policy is now for Scotland to be a member of NATO and UK nuclear forces are an important element of NATO’s strategy.

The party also wants good relations with the remainder UK after independence. So although the SNP’s anti-nuclear policy is popular in Scotland, it is possible there would be a transitional period when Trident would remain based in Scotland to give the remainder UK time to find an alternative location for basing its nuclear weapons, although military analysts seem to agree there are no obvious alternatives in the rest of the UK.

Philip Rycroft: It would be important an independent Scotland and the remainder UK seek very rapidly to establish a security partnership, both militarily and in terms of counterterrorism and policing. Scotland would be a second land border for the UK and the integrity of the defence of these islands will depend on the two working closely together so a lot would depend on how the independence negotiations were conducted.

Although the SNP’s anti-nuclear policy is popular in Scotland, it is possible there would be a transitional period when Trident would remain based in Scotland to give the remainder UK time to find an alternative location

Any sense of a breach in defence capability, even temporarily, would be welcomed by states that would like to see a weakening of the UK’s ability to project hard power so it cannot be stressed enough how much depends on the nature of the independence negotiations. If it were acrimonious, there would be a risk of weakening the security of both sides and, as we know from Brexit, there could be a temptation to approach negotiations with a sense of anger.

The break-up of the UK could also have an impact on the UK’s position on the UN Security Council. The world has changed so much since the Security Council was put together and the departure of Scotland could be a symbolic key moment of change in the post-1945 order which would be an opportunity for advocates of reform of the council to raise the question of whether the UK should remain a permanent member.

Scotland represents about eight per cent of the UK’s economy, however Scotland has one-third of the UK’s landmass and a much larger proportion of the UK’s natural resources, including renewable energy. So what would be the economic impact on the UK of the loss of Scotland?

Philip Rycroft: It would not be significantly weakened. There would of course be some damage from the loss of Scottish economic capabilities, such as natural resources and some iconic products, as well as its capability in the research base and the abilities of the Scottish population. But as the much bigger economy, these losses would be absorbed and would not disrupt the remainder UK’s economy materially over time.

Kirsty Hughes: The devil would be in the detail. The SNP says it wants an independent Scotland to join the EU and much of Scotland’s trade with the rest of the UK is in services not covered by the Brexit agreement between the EU and UK. Scotland also exports energy to the rest of the UK and so this would need to conform to EU energy policy. As Brexit has shown, such issues could complicate trade and increase the cost of commerce between Scotland and the remainder UK.

Are there any international precedents for the scenario of Scotland leaving the UK?

Kirsty Hughes: For states splitting off from larger entities and re-establishing themselves, the best precedent would be the Irish, a century ago. Ireland has had a lot of praise for its diplomacy during the Brexit process and got the support it wanted from the rest of the EU, but in Dublin you hear them say ‘but the UK is family’.

There is the Common Travel Area with the UK which presumably an independent Scotland would also be part of. In Ireland, you hear discussions of multi-level identity and governance which you are also hearing to an extent in Scotland. England and Wales could think a lot more about that, but there seems to be a fear that if they do talk more about this, it will encourage the Scottish independence movement.

Philip Rycroft: There really is not a modern parallel to speak of, though there might have been if Quebec had voted differently in its independence referendum in 1995. It is not comparable to other state break ups like the USSR or Yugoslavia. Even with the ‘Velvet Divorce’ between the Czechs and Slovaks, the state of Czechoslovakia did not have the longevity of the UK, and the scale of the entities was also very different.

The fact these two countries would still be sharing the same island will drive so much in the long-term, and sensible statecraft would recognize the interests of both countries is to remain closely knitted together – one would hope to see that close collaboration in the decades beyond Scottish independence.

I come back to the fact the Brexit example has shown that a lot will depend on the attitudes of the two governments as they go into independence negotiations, and what the starting point is.