Seeing Scotland Differently
Something curious has happened over the past three and half years amongst the diplomatic circles of Europe and further afield. A force came into being that had previously not existed save in the imaginations of the most dedicated romantic. Scotland the geopolitical.
For the first time, its unique political existence, separate from the rest of the UK was undoubtedly beginning to be fully appreciated. It is realised by all but the most dedicated of its defenders, that the British state is no longer a structure capable of culturally, politically and economically representing the interests of Scotland. This realisation that the UK can not and does not officially or ideological represent the full interests of Scotland’s overseas vision has gradually dawned on hundreds of politicians and diplomats across Europe.
In conversations with the connected and political around the continent, a familiar pattern began to show itself to me. First was bewilderment, a sentiment held by most during the two years of referendum campaigning, its result and then Brexit. But after the Brexit result there was an eruption of a whole new range of attitudes. For some nations, institutionally used to the idea of Britain, the idea of a Scottish state was still bizarre and exotic at the best of times and worrying at the worse. Europe as much as the rest of the world has been shaped by the memory, even fading, of British power and victory. Moreover the British state being the masters of bluff are exceptionally good at self and outward delusion; to make others feel the presence of power without actually possessing the amount it boasts.
The Europe we see before us is a product of two world wars and the history that predates them. For so many nations the UK was a solid fact, insolent and frustrating but a fact nonetheless. Now this new creation, this political and diplomatic Scotland threatens to overturn not just the accumulated realities of Scotland and the UK – but an entire continent. To ask others to know Scotland as a geopolitical force is no less a greater task than to demand a re-imagining by Scots themselves of who they are.
This year in the UK marks 310 years of the Union of the English and Scottish parliaments—arguably the birth of the modern British state as well as of the British Empire—and 210 years since the abolition of the Slave Trade Act, which preceded the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire by 26 years. Even though this might not be immediately evident, the two events are indeed related, if we believe with the majority of historians that the main trigger for the Union was the desire of both nations to conjoin forces rather than compete with each other in the imperial enterprise.
“…the British state is no longer a structure capable of culturally, politically and economically representing the interests of Scotland. This realisation that the UK can not and does not officially or ideological represent the full interests of Scotland’s overseas vision has gradually dawned on hundreds of politicians and diplomats across Europe.”
The relevance of the Act of Union to the upcoming Brexit negotiations and Scotland’s reemergence as a nation with an independent sense of political will was rooted in the the invisibility of the Scottish nation as a political and economic agent within the Union and within the British Empire. The notorious conflation between ‘English’ and ‘British’, subsuming Scottishness and relegating it to a provincial entity, was no doubt one of the factors that allowed Scots to underplay their role in the imperial enterprise and also to remove more quickly and more radically than their southern neighbours their own active involvement in slave trade and slave exploitation by the time such involvement had become an embarrassing memory.
In her work “Between Two Empires: Ahmet Agaoglu and the New Turkey”, A. Holly Shissler talks of how Ottoman agents would go about the Russian empire and the borders of the British territories in India spreading “anti-English” propaganda. The emphasis was always on the Englishness by which others recognised the British state. This had a two fold effect in first rendering the Scots invisible and unable to express any alternate idea of themselves to the world in geopolitics. Secondly it meant that Scots could perpetually pretend they had no role in the crimes of the British empire. Fast forward to the present where we have witnessed an accumulated of political will resulting in the rebirth of Scottishness as an active political idea and set of actions on the geopolitical stage.
The reason this fact of existence matters is that the next few years will witness the UK Government attempting to negotiate a clean divorce from the EU while simultaneously trying to hold the sections of the British state together. In this task it will be met by an EU bonded firmer together by the shock and aggression of Brexit finally free of the delays and complaints of a stubborn British nationalism. The EU Parliament and Commission will be headed by fervent believers in the european project and ideal and ready to drive a hard bargain with the UK whether a rump or containing Scotland. So the issue of Scotland’s place in the negotiations and its recognised existence is all the more important.
Scotland’s politicians – namely from the SNP – make much of the fact that the UK Government has since the vote to leave the EU treated EU nationals as if they so many bargaining chips in a cheap grimy Las Vega poker game. Yet Scotland finds itself in a prime position of grand chip seen by countries such as France, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark and the institutions of the EU parliament and Commission as a possible soft spot in which to wound and humble the British. In this there are advantages of being given a constant backdoor escape from a hard right Brexit towards a new flourishing and newly confident EU.
“Scotland’s politicians make much of the fact that the UK Government has since the vote to leave the EU treated EU nationals as if they so many bargaining chips in a cheap grimy Las Vega poker game. Yet Scotland finds itself in a prime position of grand chip seen by countries such as France, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark and the institutions of the EU parliament and Commission as a possible soft spot in which to wound and humble the British. In this there are advantages of being given a constant backdoor escape from a hard right Brexit towards a new flourishing and newly confident EU.”
Yet additionally this leaves Scotland in the enviable condition of not truly knowing who its true friends are. Nobody wants to be the dagger in which to wound a mutual foe. The dagger is always discarded after the crime.
Scotland should be careful not to rely on romantic notions of the “auld alliance” or the enmity of the EU 27 to a rump UK Government’s stance. This may predispose the EU’s institutions and negotiators to the case of the Scottish Government but hard diplomatic effort is required. Now legally speaking the Scottish Government can not act “outside its competence”, that is infringe on actions which are reserved. This isn’t to say that there are not connections being made between the Scottish Government and European capitals. As a Scottish Government official said “all avenues of cooperation will be used” which is as much to say that those new trade missions in Berlin and Dublin will not to begging or short staffed any time soon.
These are the lessons of real hard diplomacy now. Scotland will be at an advantage to place itself as a new ready made Denmark. Small, sharp and trouble free. This will suit a nation such as Germany which clearly of all nations will be the most influential on how the EU institutions conduct themselves during the investigations. As a Dutch ambassador staff member told me, “Nothing that comes from Brussels has quite the same “Je ne sais quoi”as that which comes from Berlin.” Apart from the delightful irony and cheekiness of his statement it does reveal that Scotland like the UK is not dealing with a single Europe.
The negotiators such as Barnier and Guy Verhofstadt may talk of vaulting ambitions and a new plan for Europe after the UK departs. Yet the German political class despite what the off MEP may say institutionally and culturally favour stability. It does not matter in what form this steadiness comes as long as it is maintained as a priority. Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Government will have two tasks to sell independence within the EU as course of stability, perhaps not a hard sell, along with Scotland joining the EU27 as a win win for all concerned. To the converted and convinced – this should be a given but the tone and pitch of such a wooing must be perfect to German ears.
Commentators pronouncements on how “Europe” will react do not delve into the tensions that exist within the union and how crucial it will be to navigate for all parties. The most vocal elements of support for Scotland’s position in the EU have been from the Benelux countries, France and MEPs from Germany, Poland and Denmark. The usual suspects if we consider the strategic and cultural rivalry between France and England but we have yet to hear much from the key decision makers of the German states – openly.
By decision makers I mean the people around Merkel and Schauble, the Chancellor and finance minister of Germany who, although at the present are below the social democrats in the polls, are not to be dismissed in their view of the EU as something which should be stabilised not filled with new dreams.
England for its part, regardless of an independent Scotland or no, lies truly an island apart – not just in the geographical fact but in mental state. It’s identity so often cloaked in the robe of imperial majesty of the British state has receded to its most childlike and twisted self interpretation. The tragedy of Englishness is it could not escape the legacy of the British empire, defined it while never truly knowing what it was.
As referred to in my earlier writings England finds itself in the unenviable condition of “Agincourt or oblivion.” Deep in that country of my birth lies far greater daemons than navigation of the Brexit talks. The following 30 years of post Brexit England will define whether a fully Powellite England will be born or some popular movement based on redistributive justice and liberty will be born.
“England for its part, regardless of an independent Scotland or no, lies truly an island apart – not just in the geographical fact but in mental state. It’s identity so often cloaked in the robe of imperial majesty of the British state has receded to its most childlike and twisted self interpretation. The tragedy of Englishness is it could not escape the legacy of the British empire, defined it while never truly knowing what it was.”
Scotland has to use the upcoming negotiations to back channel and build connections with nations and parties inside Europe and beyond. The purpose of such a move is not just the end of being in Europe or guaranteeing the european future but in promoting the idea of acting as an independent actor within Scotland.
Whatever happens in the negotiations between the UK Government and the EU or the coming independence referendum, Scotland’s existence as a political entity on the world stage is so embedded it cannot be wished away by a show of future olympic spectacle or memory of share imperial sacrifice. We exist and it is that existence which grants hope for the future. Scotland exists.