In April, during a speech at the Brookings Institute in Washington, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen laid-out his theory of global politics.
“The United Kingdom”, he said, was “an anchor of the Western world” and any attempt to break it up or undermine its territorial integrity would be “cataclysmic” for “existing global balances” (see here).
Worried that his American audience hadn’t quite grasped the subtext of his argument, Lord Robertson cut to the chase: the “forces of darkness”, he explained, with all the intellectual subtlety of a panzer tank, would “simply love” a Yes vote in the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence.
Robertson’s intervention was, of course, tremendously embarrassing for the Better Together campaign – no-one expected Project Fear to get quite so hysterical quite so quickly. And yet, as we discovered this week, Robertsonian logic is alive and well in the referendum debate.
On Monday, The Daily Record published an extract from Gordon Brown’s new book, My Scotland, Our Britain, in which the former prime minister posed the following questions:
“Could this historic nation of just five million people make history again – leading a new wave of secessionist movements that strike at the heart of the advanced industrial world? Could it be the pacemaker for nationalist breakaways in Spain, Belgium and eastern Europe and for a thousand liberation movements in the developing world?”
Then, on Wednesday, Sweden’s foreign minister, Carl Bildt, told The Financial Times that he believed the “Balkanisation of the British Isles” would set-off a series of “unforeseen chain reactions”. “What are the implications for the Irish question?”, Bildt asked. “What happens in Ulster?”
What happens in Ulster? It is, to be fair, a legitimate question. But the answer is less dramatic than Bildt seems to think.
I spend quite a lot of time in Belfast. On my last visit there in May, I spoke to dozens of people from across the political divide about Scottish independence and its “implications” for Northern Ireland. None of them – literally, not one – believed Scotland’s departure from the UK had the potential to reignite the Troubles.
That’s not to say loyalists aren’t opposed to the SNP and upset by the prospect of independence. They are. Nor that republicans wouldn’t be delighted with a Yes vote. They would. But Ireland’s future isn’t being decided in September, Scotland’s is, and the obstacles that currently stand in the way of Irish reunification – the emergence, over the last ten or twenty years, of a northern Catholic middle-class; austerity and economic crisis in the South; the indifference of the Dublin political class to the all-Ireland project – won’t suddenly disappear if Scots vote Yes.
The situation in Catalonia also operates according to its own dynamics, as I discovered last year when I travelled to Barcelona to see how the debate over Catalan independence was developing.
Granted, many Catalan nationalists admire the SNP and hope to emulate the party’s success in securing a legally-binding independence referendum. But the recent growth of Catalan nationalism has nothing to do with Scotland or the break-up of Britain. Support for secession only really took off in 2010, when the Spanish Supreme Court ruled the Catalan Statue of Autonomy – a document asserting Catalonia’s right to determine its own constitutional status – illegal under Spanish law.
Since then, popular demands for Catalan self-government have grown in line with Madrid’s increasingly belligerent approach to the issue of Catalan autonomy, while regional and sub-national fault-lines in Spanish politics have been aggravated by the economic crisis. (As net contributors to the Spanish treasury, the Catalans, in particular, resent the massive spending cuts being imposed by the central government in Madrid.)
So the idea that Scottish independence will trigger some kind of secessionist domino effect across Europe, with all the big multinational states collapsing, one after the other, into lots of separate, smaller political units, is not, in my view, very plausible.
Even if an independent Scotland were to gain quick access to major international institutions, including NATO and the EU, there is no guarantee it would smooth the path for other breakaway nationalisms. Global organisations are likely to treat each new membership application on its merits: as a partner in trade and politics, Scotland will be less problematic for the EU than Kosovo.
But what’s truly depressing about the rhetoric coming from Robertson, Brown and Bildt (and now Barack Obama) is how fundamentally conservative it is. Brown suggests independence could be a “pacemaker … for a thousand liberation movements in the developing world”. In what sense, exactly, would that be a bad thing and why should progressives oppose it?
Labour politicians, however, have form in this regard. As Tom Nairn recalls, when Boris Yeltsin visited the European Parliament in 1991 he was confronted by one Janey Buchan MEP who, coming from a country “plagued by nationalism”, demanded to know why the soon-to-be Russian president hadn’t done more to protect the Soviet system from separatists.
I can think of other, more recent instances in which the Labour Party has failed to live up to basic liberal standards in global affairs. For everyone’s sake, let’s hope the No camp comes to its senses by September.