What will Brexit mean for Scotland's place in the world?

Written by Mark McLaughlin on 4 July 2017 in Inside Politics

Brexit is the latest upset in Scotland's long and often turbulent relationship with the wider world

World map - image credit: Pixabay

“There are no tribes beyond us – nothing indeed but waves and rocks,” declared the Caledonian warrior Calgacus in the first documented encounter with the outside world by the people of north Britain.

As the warrior rallied his troops to do battle with the marauding Romans, he railed against the “robbers of the world” who lusted for dominion over Scottish lands.

Two millennia on, as ever with history, much has changed and much has remained the same.

Scotland remains the furthermost outpost of Europe with nothing beyond but a few icy islands and a vast ocean separating the land from its biggest westerly neighbour.

The wall commissioned by another Roman, Hadrian, a few miles south of the current Scottish border, has convinced many Scots that they are a breed apart who must look outward, rather than southward, for their alliances.

The Declaration of Arbroath, regarded as Scotland’s founding document, was an appeal to another foreign ruler – Pope John XXII who resided in France rather than Rome at the time – for help to keep the English off their land.

And the litany of Scottish kings and their often foreign queens that followed Robert the Bruce demonstrate that Scotland was just as adept at the age-old dynastic trick of ‘international alliance by marriage’ as other nations of the day.

It was the Union of the Crowns in 1603 that brought Scotland closer to its nearest neighbour and an ill-fated foreign adventure in Central America – the relatively recently discovered land beyond the rocks and waves – that cemented the British union.

The Darien Scheme to make Scotland a world trading nation by establishing a colony called Caledonia on the Isthmus of Panama is widely seen as one of the nation’s greatest follies, foiled as they were by malaria, financial mismanagement, a hint of Dutch and English sabotage under the orders of King William of Orange and ultimately a Spanish siege.

But the resultant Act of Union in 1707, partly devised as a bailout for bankrupt Scotland, heralded a new relationship for Scotland with the world.

Glasgow soon became the ‘second city of the Empire’ and prospered through the wealth of its tobacco lords in shipping, tobacco, sugar and tea (and also, as some would rather forget, slavery).

Meanwhile, Edinburgh became the ‘Athens of the North’ as Scotland’s new-found wealth was ploughed into neoclassical buildings inspired by ancient Greece, with a philosophical and literary culture to match during the Scottish Enlightenment.

And while the riches of the world flowed into Scotland, many of its people flowed outward to the newly founded colonies in the Americas and Australasia.

While Scotland is not as renowned as Ireland for sending its sons and daughters abroad to go forth and multiply, the number of settlements in the United States named after Scottish places are too numerous to list in these pages. There are well over a dozen called ‘Scotland’ and 19 towns called ‘Glasgow’ in the US.

The fourth biggest city in Australia is Perth, founded in 1829 and named after the birthplace of Sir George Murray whose position then as Secretary of State for the Colonies is another indication of the central role Scots were playing in the burgeoning British Empire at the time.

A snapshot of the diaspora’s reach can be found by a quick glance at the diversity of Burns’ Suppers held around the world on 25 January, including the Caledonian Society of New York, St Andrew’s Societies of Hong Kong, Singapore, Montreal, the Dunedin Burns Club in the New Zealand city founded by Burns’ nephew, as well as the numerous St Andrew’s and Caledonian societies elsewhere in the world.

Scotland played a major – some historians say disproportionate – role in defending the United Kingdom from European belligerents during the two world wars, a memory that lingers to this day and is often cited by unionists in their modern-day defence of the UK against the threat of Scottish nationalism.

It was during this time that the fledgling Scottish nationalist movement began to take shape, but it took a few years before it scored its first major electoral success when Winnie Ewing won the 1967 Hamilton by-election with the now famous declaration: “Stop the world – Scotland wants to get on.”

Many Scots took these words literally in the decades that followed but for reasons of poverty rather than national pride as the decline of Scotland’s traditional heavy industries brought with it unemployment and population decline in the 1970s and 80s. Most of the departing Scots headed south to England but a sizeable proportion went abroad to join the descendants of the Scottish diaspora of the previous century.

Scots took with them a reputation of being skilled and well educated, with its long history of universal public education and impressive roll call of Scottish inventors including James Watt, John Logie Baird, Alexander Graham Bell and Alexander Fleming.

Scotland remains a world leader in education with five universities in the top 200 higher education institutions of the world providing a magnet for international specialists in life sciences, chemical sciences, games technology, engineering, astrophysics and cosmology.

The founding of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 not only ushered in a renewed determination to reverse Scotland’s economic and demographic decline, but also a revitalised sense of national pride and a burgeoning array of national bodies which demonstrated that the civic-minded did not have to travel to London for a political career.

Devolution also gave Scotland the chance to forge its own international development policy, begun in earnest by Labour first minister Jack McConnell in the middle of the last decade with his Malawi Appeal in recognition of the two countries’ historic links stretching back to Dr David Livingstone’s journeys up the Zambezi and Shire Rivers in the mid-19th centuries.

When Alex Salmond took over in 2007 he was determined his brand of nationalism would not be seen as inward-looking but would seek to make Scotland a “progressive beacon” for the world.

He initially embraced European integration and the euro currency, describing sterling as a “millstone” round the neck of Scotland’s economy, until the eurozone crisis hit and Salmond hailed sterling as the most sensible currency for an independent Scotland.

The eyes of the world were on Scotland in 2014 when the country held its referendum on independence as commentators hung on every word of international leaders to test the temperature of the world for independence.

David Cameron famously appealed to the widely popular US President Barack Obama for an endorsement of the Better Together cause, and his appeal for Britain to remain “strong, robust and united” was seen as a blow to the nationalist campaign.

At the time, a prominent US businessman with Scottish roots was having his own turbulent arguments with the Scottish Government. Donald Trump’s investments in Scotland were initially welcomed by Salmond,but relations soon soured when Trump began interfering in Scotland’s environmental policy by opposing a flagship wind development.

His election to US President has presented something of a quandary for Nicola Sturgeon following her firm endorsement of his opponent, Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US election campaign. However, Sturgeon has already said she won’t oppose a trip to Scotland if Trump ever gets round to his UK state visit.

Trump also opposes Scottish independence – although the unpopular leader will probably be asked to keep his opinions to himself by unionists if another independence campaign happens any time soon.

The Brexit vote in June 2016 has driven the latest wedge between Scotland and England, and handed the SNP another opportunity to present Scotland as a ‘progressive’ outward-looking nation in contrast to ‘Little England’ protectionism.

Scotland voted by 62 per cent to remain in the EU but was outvoted by England, triggering another constitutional crisis, but the SNP’s humbling in the snap general election on 8 June has disrupted Nicola Sturgeon’s plans to demand a second independence referendum by spring 2019.

Sturgeon “reset” her independence campaign on June 27, following a period of reflection on the election result and the mood music during the short campaign which revealed little appetite for another vote any time soon – even amongst some supporters of independence.

She has pledged to redouble her efforts to promote Scotland’s Place In Europe, her “compromise” paper which would keep Scotland in the single market if the UK leaves. Ministers have recognised their plan would require some creative thinking by the UK and the EU to pull off, but with Theresa May insisting she has no appetite for a “half in, half out” solution and no place at the negotiating table for Nicola Sturgeon, continuing to shake the paper at recalcitrant UK ministers is likely to have the same effect as giving CPR to a corpse.

But Sturgeon will give it a go, until autumn 2018 at least when she will return following a bit more deliberation to reveal her latest independence strategy. By that time, the dead horse of Scotland’s Place in Europe will have been well and truly flogged, the UK will be deep in Brexit uncertainty, it will have been at least 15 months since the last election (unless the Tories’ precarious deal with the DUP breaks down and forces yet another snap general election) and maybe, just maybe, Scots will have grown nostalgic for the thrill of putting Xs in boxes.

Brexit brings ripe opportunities for the SNP to stoke grievance, particularly if the ongoing uncertainty impacts not only on its relationship with international politicians but tourists and export markets as well.

Scottish exports, particularly those to countries outside the EU, have been booming in recent years, rising £5.1bn (21.5 per cent) between 2010 and 2015 to a total of £28.7bn in 2015.

However, a study by the National Institute for Economic Research says UK exports from the services sector could be cut by up to 60 per cent. For Scotland this would be equivalent to a £2.3bn hit. The research also says trade in goods could decline by 35 to 44 per cent. If Scottish goods exports were to fall by a similar amount, the cost would be around an additional £3bn.

Brexit has also brought mixed fortunes for Scotland’s tourism industry. The number of tourists visiting Scotland from Europe dropped by seven per cent in the three months after the Brexit vote, according to the latest official figures.

The majority of international visitors to Scotland still come from Europe, the ONS statistics for June to September revealed, but experts said that fears over terrorism, coupled with sports events overseas, had driven away some travellers in the weeks following Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.

VisitScotland claimed that security fears – such as recent terror attacks in France and Germany – had prompted would-be tourists in Europe to stay closer to home.

However, the negative effect of Brexit on the pound has driven North American tourists to the UK, with the number of visitors from that region growing by 36 per cent in trips and 57 per cent in expenditure compared to the same period in 2015.

Similarly, the number of visitors from eastern European countries – where wages are generally lower, traditionally making a holiday to the UK expensive – rose by nearly half.

While Brexit brings ample opportunity for political point-scoring, the potential resurrection of the independence campaign will bring back lingering questions for the nationalists – not least the question of currency. Nicola Sturgeon has tempered the SNP’s enthusiasm for continuing with the pound, recently describing it as merely “a starting point” for the currency of an independent Scotland, but a starting point to what remains anybody’s guess.

The deep decline in the value of the pound following the Brexit vote is a stark reminder that currencies can fall prey to international forces when a nation’s economic stability is challenged. One can only guess what would have happened to the pound if Scotland had voted for independence but it is likely to have taken a substantial hit in the short term at least, while a future independent currency could be expensive to establish and difficult to roll out to notoriously predatory financial markets keen to hedge their investments on its potential failure.

It also remains unclear what future relationship an independent Scotland will have with the European Union if it maintains its opposition to the euro and the much-derided Common Fisheries Policy, both central requirements of EU membership.

The late lamented Margo MacDonald was always a fan of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) in the days when the SNP were dancing on the head of a pin trying to overcome their European contradictions.

The SNP outcast was often seen as part-prophet, part-heretic of the nationalist cause but her love of EFTA appears to have infected many mainstream nationalists, who see it as a springboard for full EU membership or even a cosy permanent home with its access to the EU single market without some of the onerous membership rules.

However, EFTA does carry a whiff of the dreaded ‘democratic deficit’ that the nationalists despise – allowing access to the single market but no say in how it is governed.

With Britain due to be out of the EU by spring 2019 and a referendum expected to take at least 18 months to cobble together, the new timetable means a second referendum will be a vote to go it alone outside the UK and outside the EU, at least until it can negotiate its way back into Europe.

With Sturgeon reassessing her European and domestic options following the general election upset and parking a second independence referendum – for now ­–  it remains to be seen whether Brexit will be the final tipping point that pushes Scotland towards becoming the world’s 196th sovereign nation. 

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