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