Scotland’s Referendum: To Great Michael or Calum’s Road?

August 26, 2014

In just a few weeks, the land of William Wallace, David Hume, Robert Burns, and Adam Smith will hold a referendum to answer a simple question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” For the first time since 1707, Scotland could be on its way to being a sovereign nation, replete with its own military.

The global map has changed radically since the start of World War I a century ago. Most of these changes have involved the breaking up of old countries and empires and the emergence of new states. The post-war balkanization of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires was followed by the post-World War II independence movements among former British and French colonies, and the post-Cold War break-up of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. In the past two decades additional countries have emerged, such as Eritrea and South Sudan, while others very nearly achieved sovereignty, but failed; such was the case with the Quebec separatist referendums in 1980 and 1995. There are, of course, exceptions, such as China’s assimilation of Hong Kong and Macau (albeit directly from their former British and Portuguese affiliations, respectively) and Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Europe is seen as a bastion of global stability, but separatist movements are not uncommon on the continent, as evidenced by the Catalan and Venetian independence movements in Spain and Italy. But the strongest separatist movement is in Scotland, if you measure strength by its ability to achieve its goal. Four million Scots will be eligible to vote, including those aged 16 and above. Scots living outside of Scotland — for example, those living and working in England or Wales — are excluded from voting.

The “Yes, Scotland” movement in favor of independence is being largely organized by the Scottish National Party, the Scottish Socialist Party, and the Scottish Green Party. The “Better Together” campaign advocating continued union is led by the Labor Party, Conservative Party and Liberal Democrats. In a recent poll, 38% supported independence and 47% opposed it, with the remainder undecided. This is consistent with other polls that show an uphill battle for the “Yes” supporters, but, as in all elections, the only poll that matters is on election day and the side with the better “Get out the Vote” effort will win the day. Every election day has a surprise result and that is why this referendum could matter. In addition, the gap has narrowed in the past year.

Geographically, Scotland accounts for one-third of the land in the United Kingdom; Northern Scotland is closer to Iceland than it is southern England. And just off its coast lies the heart of the economic driver of independence: oil and gas fields mostly in the North Sea and off the Shetland Islands to the north of Scotland and only 200 miles to the west of Bergen, Norway. Scottish nationalists expect to be the recipients of the oil and gas fields in their anticipated region and fuel their economic growth. But there are two problems with that expectation.

The first issue is the oil and gas revenue projections themselves, a key battleground between the separatists and unionists. If revenue projections are high, an independent Scotland can be economically viable. Independence advocates are claiming that the U.K. government is low-balling out-year projections in order to dampen Scottish expectations. The United Kingdom, meanwhile, suggests that the Scottish independence advocates are being overly optimistic. I spoke with one 20-year veteran of the North Sea oil and gas industry who told me that the reality is that the oil and gas are in deep water, making it expensive to extract. With the high cost of overhead and U.K. government taxes, every barrel extracted might mean only a few dollars of profit. In addition, the industry consensus appears to be that the North Sea has about 30-to-40 years of production remaining.

The second issue is the reliability of oil and gas itself as an economic driver in light of environmental policies of independence advocates pursuing “clean energy.” Accidents don’t only happen in the Gulf of Mexico, such as with Deepwater Horizon, which killed 11 men and spilled approximately five million barrels of oil. The Piper Alpha explosion off the coast of Aberdeen, Scotland, was the deadliest oil-rig explosion in history, killing 167 workers.

The referendum also has national security implications for Scotland, the United Kingdom, NATO, and the United States. The pro-separatist views on foreign policy and national security can be found in the white paper “Scotland’s Future.” The Scottish National Party’s pursuit of an “ethical foreign policy” suggests in reality a much smaller and isolated military force rather than one that can project influence. (For the purposes of this article, the focus will be on the maritime component.) The white paper provides the following guidance for international relations and defense:

…focus on a strong conventional defence footprint in and around Scotland in the removal of nuclear weapons, delivering a £500 million defence and security dividend in 2016/17…Our bywords will be co-operation, development and trade. Our clear priorities will be commerce and partnership, not conflict. Scotland will be a champion for international justice and peace.

How Scotland would be that champion for international justice and peace is unclear without a leverage of adequate military forces as a last resort.

As an island nation, Scotland would, like England, be naturally inclined to support a navy. In fact, it had one until the Act of Union in 1707. For centuries the Royal Scots Navy operated against Vikings, Norway, Ireland, and England. Robert the Bruce employed naval assets to blockade the English at Perth and Sterling, as well as invade the Isle of Man and Ireland. It briefly boasted the largest warship in Europe, the carrack Great Michael, launched in 1511.

Today, Scotland might require more than simply a constabulary maritime force if it is to both participate in broader organizational operations and to deter potential aggressors. Increased military activity from Russia is one example of the latter. In 2011, the Russian aircraft carrier Kuznetsov and two escort ships approached within 30 miles of the British coast for the first time in 20 years. The only ship available was the HMS York, which was 1,000 miles away in Portsmouth. This was repeated in April when the cruiser Kulakov was eventually intercepted by HMS Dragon. In neither case were there warships in Scotland (the chief Royal Navy base for both world wars at Scapa Flow in Orkney closed in 1956.) Earlier this year, two Tupolev Tu-95 Bears were turned away by a Typhoon fighter based at RAF Leuchars in Fife. Leuchars, located near St. Andrews is slated for closure.

In the case of independence, the Scottish National Party expects to receive two Royal Navy frigates, four mine counter-measure vessels, and several smaller boats with a total force of 2,000 regular navy and 200 reserve personnel. It would add another squadron in support of NATO operations. In addition, it would build four new frigates “preferably through joint procurement with the rest of the UK.” Both of the latter issues presuppose that NATO or the remainder of the United Kingdom would seek to engage Scotland. Scottish expectations may be overly optimistic in this regard.

Scottish independence would also be a challenge to what would remain of the United Kingdom. In 2016, the United Kingdom will spend 1.8% of its gross domestic product on defense, already below the 2% floor agreed to by NATO members. Scotland’s five million residents account for 10% of the U.K. population and its departure from the United Kingdom would diminish the overall revenue (Scotland comprises 8.2% of the U.K. tax revenue intake). These issues would have a significant impact on the Royal Navy’s ability to field an already struggling force.

Most vital to the independence issue with regard to the military is the disposition of Faslane. Her Majesty’s Navy Base Clyde at Faslane has, since 1964, been the home of the U.K.’s long-range, nuclear deterrent force with the basing for the U.K.’s Trident submarines. Located northwest of Glasgow on Scotland’s west coast, it offers a remote, deep-water anchorage and fast access to the wide open waters of the North Atlantic. This geographic location offered a particular advantage during the Cold War with the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom Gap to intercept potentially invasive Soviet submarines breaking for the Atlantic. The pro-independence movement has already declared that a sovereign Scotland would be a nuclear-free state and would convert Faslane into a joint facility for its forces. The Royal Navy would have to identify and invest in other areas for its Trident. While ports exist in England and Wales, none offer the advantages and facilities of Faslane, although a recent report from RUSI suggests that Plymouth’s Devonport could serve as a viable alternative with additional investment.

In an op-ed earlier this year, the U.K.’s First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir George Zambellas, wrote of the Royal Navy’s renaissance, of the thousands of Scottish jobs supported during the construction of the new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, and most importantly of the importance of unity, of a shared history, whose separation “would weaken the security of both nations … the sum of two parts would no longer add up to the whole.”

In a few weeks, voters in Scotland will determine for themselves if nationalism is more important than global influence as part of the United Kingdom. But it is far more than that. The focus of @YesScotland is an uncritical approach to its investment on domestic social programs; the lack of online discussion about national defense is conspicuous in its absence.

During one of my trips to Scotland, I was particularly struck by the discrepancy in two construction projects. The first was the massive fortress of Fort George located in the northeast of Scotland in the Highlands. Reminiscent of the North American citadels in Quebec and Halifax, it is much larger. Fort George began its 20 year construction in 1747 in the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden, which ended the Jacobite Rebellion. King George II spent some 200,000 pounds — the alleged equivalent of Scotland’s gross national product at the time to demonstrate the power of the empire over one of its territories, rather than reach out to the land as a partner in the Commonwealth. (A lesson later ignored when America sought its own freedom.)

The second construction project was far less grand in its scope, but just as important in its own story. This one was located on the west coast of Scotland on the island of Raasay, nestled between the Isle of Skye and the Scottish mainland. Here I heard the story of Calum MacLeod, a 20th century crofter from the northern Raasay town of Arnish who, as the population diminished, asked the government for a road in the hope it would reverse the loss. After decades of no response from the government, he set out himself to learn about road construction and with no more than a shovel, wheelbarrow and pick, he built a nearly two-mile-long road over the course of a decade. But by the time he finished, only he and his wife remained in Arnish.

Whether it is a misguided, heavy-handed and costly project like Fort George or the failure to meet basic functions such as a road in Arnish, government — whether in Westminster or a possible future capital of Edinburgh — is no panacea to problem-solving in a nation of differing opinions. Old problems give way to new problems, as they are wont to do. And these new problems can eclipse the old problems in scope. This is a lesson the American colonies soon learned after their own independence from the British Empire. Operating first under an unwieldy Articles of Confederation, and then the long road of evolving federalism, the regions had significant differences leading to civil war. Later, a nation founded by a class of leaders who sought to remain minimalist by necessity on the global stage eventually took on a different role, intervening decisively in two world wars and later stemming the tide of communism. The ability to guarantee the security of its citizens is a primary function of government and that cannot always be accomplished with good will, diplomacy and economic sanctions; it must sometimes be backed up by a national defense structure. What Scottish voters in a few weeks must really decide is not how many more domestic programs would be promised to them, but what they might lose in terms of collective capability to ensure security and, if necessary, project power. They might not anticipate security threats or a need to go to war abroad, but history is — if nothing else — a lesson in dashed expectations. The world might demand more of an independent Scotland, and in the event, a United Kingdom might be a better option.


Claude Berube teaches at the United States Naval Academy and is the author or co-author of four books and more than 50 articles. The views expressed are his and not those of the U.S. Navy or government.


Photo credit: Dimitry B.