Scotland, Inside and Out – a study of imperial history and the future

imageYou’ll be relieved to find that this is not another Brexit article. But given the events of the summer, and the uncertain but seemingly endless combination of Scottish futures that it has left us to speculate about, 23 June seems an appropriate place to begin.

Brexit has brought about what may be the most unique moment for Scotland’s international presence in centuries. The significant difference in preferences between Scotland and rUK as demonstrated by EU Referendum votes, and the First Minister’s near-perfect navigation through the immediate aftermath of that Referendum, are two characteristics of the Scotland & Brexit story that send some salient messaging to the rest of the world.

Firstly, that Scotland is distinct from rUK. This summer, the world has received the message that Scotland is a country and not a region, which is a rarity that we’ll soon be able to distinguish as an event or a shift in global thinking. Secondly, (and perhaps more importantly if the first message endures) Scotland has a political leadership that is not only adept, but exceptionally so in comparison to what is on offer in South Britain.

“Can Scotland craft a foreign policy that truly contends with its global legacy? Can Scotland craft a foreign policy that Scots can be proud of?”

Furthermore, observing the seamlessness with which that political leadership is capable of conducting itself during a crisis, invites us to lapse into reveries in which we forget altogether that this kind of diplomacy isn’t business-as-usual for Scotland.

Independence is, as the First Minister has said repeatedly, just one of the many options on the table. But it is on the table. It may be within the EU, or not, or whatever niche option is the ‘may be’ of the day. But it is on the table.

In the case of Independence, Scotland will be crafting a foreign policy largely from scratch, and while we can take the SNP’s policy positions as a frame of reference, under the current circumstances the only certainty is that nothing is certain. And so, questions abound.

“If an independent Scotland is to truly be outward-looking, it must first be inward-looking.”

How will Scotland define and identify its interests and security threats? What will a Scottish defence force look like? Will it engage in combat missions? How will the public view those options, and how will Scotland square those domestic preferences with the preferences of allied states and multilateral organizations? How will Scotland relate to the UK, who will almost certainly be the largest and closest Scottish ally but, as we know, holds largely different views on global affairs than Scotland?

On the world stage, what does Scotland look like standing on its own?

“A properly cosmopolitan Europe,” Gurminder K. Bhambra writes, “I suggest, would be one which understood that its historical constitution in colonialism cannot be rendered to the past by denial of that past.”

Scotland has a unique history as an Imperial actor; not a core, nor a colony, but a semi-core (so named by Morten Skumsrud Andersen). Confronting that complex character is correspondingly complicated.

“But I do believe that a decolonial, or at least anti-colonial, Scottish nationalism can exist. And if it is to exist, it will be a process of becoming.”

A future, independent Scottish foreign policy necessitates contending with Scotland’s colonial role in order to engage with the world in the progressive, outward-looking way so many people profess to desire without replicating the Imperial dregs of British foreign policy. This is not an exercise of history; the systems, stories, and structures animated by Empire are features of the contemporary global system.

Faced with a foreign policy of entirely Scottish craftsmanship, will the public be more inclined to apologism than we would of the same results coming from the UK? Or will those policies be met with vigilance and critique, knowing that policy decisions will be made directly in the name of Scotland?

How Scotland relates to Canada, Australia, the United States will be telling. These large states share many commonalities with Scotland that make them natural allies, not least of all deep, historic relationships. The strength of those enduring relationships lay in centuries of institutional, cultural, and personal connections that facilitated, and were facilitated by Empire. How would a newly self-determined Scotland relate to the Indigenous nations currently heaving under the weight of settler colonialism to achieve fractions of such self-determination?

“Scotland has a unique history as an Imperial actor; not a core, nor a colony, but a semi-core (so named by Morten Skumsrud Andersen). Confronting that complex character is correspondingly complicated.”

For a specific example of the relevance of these questions, we can look North. For years, Scotland’s steadily increased its posturing as an Arctic-facing nation, not only looking to the Nordic states for domestic policy best practice, but also for inclusion in regional conversations about climate change, transport, energy, and fisheries. How will Scotland dialogue with the Indigenous population of the Arctic (about half a million of the region’s 4 million) and the Arctic Council’s six Permanent Participant organizations?

Whether there can ever be a decolonial foreign policy in the current state system is a question best left for another day. But I do believe that a decolonial, or at least anti-colonial, Scottish nationalism can exist. And if it is to exist, it will be a process of becoming.

It will go beyond critical deconstruction of the mythology of Scottish sons abroad, and beyond acknowledging their hands in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and Settler Colonial state-building and the wealth accrued therefrom. Understanding the ongoing legacy of John A. MacDonald, Glasgow-born first Prime Minister of Canada, and the hundreds of others of his ilk is the bare minimum.

Can Scotland craft a foreign policy that truly contends with its global legacy? Can Scotland craft a foreign policy that Scots can be proud of? That at once grapples with how it relates to racialized and Indigenous peoples globally, and represents racialized and Indigenous people living in Scotland?

If an independent Scotland is to truly be outward-looking, it must first be inward-looking.

Comments (14)

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  1. Crubag says:

    “How would a newly self-determined Scotland relate to the Indigenous nations currently heaving under the weight of settler colonialism to achieve fractions of such self-determination?”

    Are we talking about Tibet? As a country, we seem to be taking the approach that increased trade is the path to political progress, not boycott.

  2. Bill Ramsay says:


    You say

    “Scotland will be crafting a foreign policy largely from scratch”
    Could you tease that one out a bit further?

  3. Haideng says:

    So the question that is therefore begged is why can’t Scotland do this already in the lead up to independence? After all Salmond and co are all over the other type of diplomacy/ foreign relations – Tartan week, Year of home coming, plenty Scot stuff for rich Americans (including Trump for a while). There is nothing material preventing say Glasgow Provost or say Sturgeon from making a public apoplogy for slavery + then setting aside a reparations fund for the Carribea/ Jamaica/ South US etc. 25% of the barnett formula + a public promise to continue reparations to all indigenous people’s who suffered under Scots (Tasmania/ Oz/ North America) for the next century?

    I won’t hold my breath.

  4. Broadbield says:

    I think a foreign policy should start with the here-and-now, having learned the lessons of history, guided by principles such as human rights, rule of law, non-aggression, reducing inequality, for example. We should speak out about the “colonialism” and abuses of peoples that still continue (such as in the Americas – north and south – and Australia, China, Middle East – you name it) and by Western/Northern institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF and other groups (including charities) which presume to know what is best for “less developed” countries and impose our values, our solutions on them in return for finance.

    The past cannot be undone, but we can prevent the same mistakes being repeated.

  5. Jack Collatin says:

    I suggest that the author check out the plight of the Hoi Polloi of Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales, during the Golden Age of Empire. Eric Blair’s Road to Wigan Pier hardly describes the citizens of England living high on the hog of plunder from the colonies.

    Scots belted earls, and land grabbers, industrialists, merchants, and bankers, then as now, were rapacious profiteers and elitists. The Great Unwashed here in Scotland (and rUK) were treated with the same contempt and oppression and grinding poverty as other ‘colonies’ in the British Empire.
    Why should I apologise for the excesses of the Word Order Establishment?
    My Parents and their parents lived in London generated, and enthusiastically backed up by the Scottish Establishment and Established Religions, poverty, depravation and constant grinding hardship.
    They were the Proletariat, with no place in society, no personal wealth, whose main reason for living was to provide cannon fodder, empty the bins, sweep the streets, and die a slow death in industrial hell holes, making money for the Man, both English, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh, and breed.
    The mere fact that I can put together a coherent sentence here is in itself a minor miracle given my background.
    I will apologise to no one for the rapacious and immoral past of the Fascist Empires of yore.
    A visit to the hillside where my father rests surrounded by many neighbours, who died in their fifties and sixties, who shared one common life script; fought for King and Country, toiled in the shipyards and factories for 4 decades, making money for The Man and died in near poverty, from industrial related diseases. I suggest that this just about sums up the wretched lives of many millions of Scots during England’s Imperial past. (I say ‘England’, because Scotland was merely their nearest ‘colony’ throughout the Age of Empire IMHO.)
    Nobody has apologised to me for killing my father, and our neighbours, prematurely, as much colonial slaves as any in the other ‘British’ colonies of yore.
    Our foreign policy starts from day one of Self Determination. I do not argue a tabula rasa stance, to deny Scots involvement in slavery, exploitation, and indeed ethnic cleansing in the gory past.
    It’s just that, well, the Great Scottish Unwashed suffered under the yoke of Imperialism too.
    I will not be held accountable for the misdeeds of Unionist Scots entrepreneurs, merchants, tea planters and slave owners of England’s Imperial Past.

    1. Alf Baird says:

      A brilliant synopsis, thank you.

    2. MBC says:

      You are correct in your connecting the lack of progress of the people with the great progress made by the imperial elites during the Age of Empire, because it was the aristocracy, the great landed families, that made the greatest inroads into empire and hoovered up the wealth, consolidating their social power in land at home, once capitalised by wealth earned abroad. The so-called ‘gentlemanly capitalists’. Very little of the imperial wealth ever trickled down to the ordinary man in the street. The greatest ‘trickle down’ probably occurred via middle class Victorian industrialists who were public spirited enough to invest in urban infrastructure; railways, town halls, libraries, public parks, sewers, canals and water works.

      If it wasn’t for the success of Empire, there would have been far greater redistribution of wealth at home. Social tensions were let off by emigration, some of it enforced by transportation and some of it semi-enforced by the encouragement of the clearances. Elsewhere in Europe which lacked such imperial safety valves the ancien regime was felled by revolution, and the resultant redistribution of wealth and power has ensured that most European countries have better architecture and local economy than the degradation that is Britain today.

      1. Jack Collatin says:

        It is a mystery to me why belted Earls who were awarded great tracts of Scotland by kings and queens gone by as a reward for supporting them in wars and skirmishes centuries ago can still lay claim to this land in 21st Century Scotland.
        Their forebears were nothing less than savage plunderers and privateers.
        The Hoi Polloi were their serfs, and kept in penury and subjugation, but still their mansion house walls are bedecked by these ancient land grabbers and elitists.
        I ask, why is Scotland, with a land mass including the isles, larger than England, yet our population has been ‘culled’ over the centuries, so that we are still roughly five million, yet England has mushroomed to 11 times that?
        Wealthy folk roam the moors as I type shooting birds and deer for a laugh, land deliberately developed to let the Nobility and the rich treat Scotland as a theme park.
        Come the Revolution I demand our land back.

  6. Douglas says:

    “If Scotland is to be outward looking, it must first be inward looking…”

    Okay, let’s start there, because it’s a good starting point. The most comprehensive colonialization event the Scots took part in was the colonization of themselves, and in particular, Gaelic Scotland.

    No Scottish Foreign Secretary of the future could credibly argue the case for the rights of the indigenous peoples of the Arctic while continuing to treat Gaels as second class citizens in terms of their linguistic rights in Scotland, having even gone so far as to refuse to put the referendum question in Gaelic on the independence ballot paper.

    The same could be said of Scots, but Scots is much more easily recovered than Gaelic. Maybe there is a Gaelic expert out there who could put a ball park figure on Scottish culture written in Gaelic, but my guess would be 25% or 30%, which is a huge chunk of your nation’s culture to allow to fall into abeyance.

    Given the SNP’s tokenism on Gaelic, and its flagrant failure to implement the Charter on Minority and Regional Languages on 18S, I wouldn’t hold out much hope for an indie Scotland being much more enlightened about its colonial past than England. Somewhat maybe, but nor much more…

  7. Alf Baird says:

    The SNP should have created ‘shadow ministries’ long before now if they had any notion of what an indy state is really about. I have suggested that the party should rent a large office block (using its vast new membership money) and set up/staff shadow ministries for all current reserved powers and others as required. This would allow for policy to be developed so that Scotland is ready for indy, and to enable answers to be given to all key questions (Defence, Treasury, Foreign Aff, Immigration, EU etc) including those mentioned in this article. The shadow ministries could have been headed up by SNP MP’s, to give them something useful to do – and to enable them to ‘internationalise’ Scotland with at least some legitimacy. Which raises the question are the SNP really prepared for indy?

    1. Jack Collatin says:

      Well said, Alf. prior the first Referendum, I postulated that the YES Movement should have set out the various Government Departments’ roles, and more importantly, locations.
      I would be uncomfortable if Edinburgh merely mirrored London, as a centre of power.
      I argued that Civil Service Departments should be spread more evenly throughout Scotland and the islands; Industry Glasgow, Energy, Aberdeen, Agriculture Dundee, Employment Inverness, Health Stirling, and so on.(arbitrary allocations)
      In the 21st Century there is no need for Government Administration to be centred on the Capital.
      Spread the Independence bonus, rather than rely on an unquantifiable ‘ripple effect’ spin off benefits from an over-centralised Holyrood Government.
      I agree that we must have answers to all the lies, threats and scare stories that Better Together hurled at us through the Fourth Estate Fifth Column.
      Currency, the EU, trade with England, Defence, and so forth.
      You may have the solution: set up reserved powers shadow ministries and develop expertise and post Independence models of Finance, Defence, Foreign policy, etc.
      Perhaps the Scottish Administration person charged with reading BC and other sites, may note this.
      It was Alf’s Big Idea, remember that.
      What are they going to do with all those chancers in the HoL?
      There is no place in Scotland for an unelected Upper Chamber.

      1. MBC says:

        Excellent suggestion Alf.

  8. MBC says:

    Scotland’s role in the British Empire underscores the schizophrenia that has beset us since 1707. Individual Scots have benefitted greatly from Empire, and have participated disproprotionately in Britain’s imperial project. But the country itself has not benefitted from either the Union or the Empire. In fact the opposite is true – they have held us back. Scots have thrived in every country they have ever settled in – every country except Scotland.

    This suggests that there is nothing wrong with Scots, but there is something far wrong with Scotland, if, in order to ‘get on’, you have to leave the country of your birth.

    It may be useful to revisit the main reasons for joining the Union in 1707; ‘trade with most’. It was for foreign trade, access to foreign markets, that induced most of the Scottish parliamentarians to give up our sovereingty for a prize which they considered, on closer reflection, to be actually more valuable – access to global markets, because it was recognised that we were not going to get rich, like the French, on agriculture. Trade (and manufacture) was going to be our ticket; and it was equally recognised that these would not thrive unless we had access to the global markets opening up under the fledgling British Empire.

    But that was only because trade at that time operated under conditions of mercantilism; aggressive economic nationalism. The continental wars of the seventeenth and eighteenth century saw trade impeded by conflict in which having a navy was an expensive pre-requisite to foreign markets.

  9. Alf Baird says:

    “If an independent Scotland is to truly be outward-looking, it must first be inward-looking.”

    Arguably Scotland is already far too inward looking. Everything Holyrood’s does is ‘domestic’. We spend billions (well one billion for the next W. Isles contract) on ‘shipping’, but its for CalMac (i.e. domestic), it is not to expand our international trade and grow the economy. We should be doing a lot more in the outward-looking context, and we can even within the existing union-imposed constraints, e.g.:

    Developing trade is the key to economic growth, and MBC alludes to the importance of trade historically, which is still relevant today, with globalisation offering plentiful opportunities as well as threats that need to be managed. How has China, Dubai, Singapore, Hamburg, Flanders etc become wealthy? – through trade. The SNP need to better prepare our nation for indy – and that mostly involves outward-looking initiatives and policies, of which trade (and hence ports infras/shipping/logistics etc) is crucial.

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