Journalist | Writer | Analyst
13 September 2014
‘God forbid!’ was Sushma Swaraj’s reaction when asked how India saw the possible independence of Scotland and the break-up of the United Kingdom. A second later, the External Affairs Minister dialed back on the shock and horror. “It is for Scotland to decide. I have nothing to say,” she added.
Voters will decide on September 18 whether Scotland becomes independent or remains a part of the UK. Ms. Swaraj’s eventual answer to the question was, of course, the right one for an Indian functionary to give. However, her instinctive response captured the sense of foreboding Indians feel every time there is talk of secession. India has still not reconciled itself to an independent Kosovo, and though it has not criticized the separation of Crimea from Ukraine and its eventual merger with Russia, New Delhi is uncomfortable with the growing assertion of ethno-nationalism.
While India’s aversion to secessionism has much to commend itself, there are seven reasons why India, and the rest of the world, should stop worrying about Scottish independence.
First, unlike the ethnic nationalism that propelled the violent break-up of the former Yugoslavia, the movement for Scottish dependence embraces the modern view that everyone in Scotland is a Scot regardless of ethnicity, religion, language (or accent).
Second, the fact that the Scots enjoyed considerable cultural autonomy after the 1707 Act of Union but still favour political independence reminds us that nations are defined not just by identity — ethnic or geographic — but by the kind of society they create. Scottish independence was not a serious trend for centuries; but 35 years of Thatcherism, New Labour and now David Cameron’s renewed anti-social offensive has undermined Scottish values and alarmed the Scots about the direction their economy and society is going in. Scotland is, in effect, seceding not from Britain but from the clutches of the City of London, which inter alia wants medicine privatised. If the Scots succeed in their quest for a more humane, inclusive economic model, this may encourage the rest of the UK and Europe to think afresh about how they are allowing their own lives to be controlled by banks and financiers.
Third, at a time when the UKIP’s reactionary politics is making inroads in England and Wales, and the possibility of the UK voting to exit the European Union is a real danger, independence is the best way to preserve the relationship Scotland’s 5 million citizens have with the EU. European officials have said the country will not get its own membership easily. But if Scotland votes yes, the EU must choose whether to be a Europe that respects the will of the people or a top-down project in which states, bureaucrats and bankers are the arbiters. UK politicians have used the EU card to scare Scottish voters and warned that countries like Spain, which have secessionist regions of their own, will veto Scotland’s entry. But as the Spanish foreign minister has repeatedly said, how Madrid and the rest of the EU reacts to an independent Scotland depends entirely on how Westminster itself behaves. And Westminster must be driven by both law and realpolitik. Scotland’s secession will not only be lawful but if it does break away, the rest of the UK would have an incentive to have excellent relations with it.
Fourth, the peaceful manner in which the process of separation has proceeded is a lesson to the world in how democratic countries tackle challenges like secessionism. If Scotland eventually chooses not to separate, this will be because of the arguments deployed by the unionists and their additional concessions towards full devolution, not because of tanks and guns. This in itself would be a positive lesson in a world where the use of force is seen as more important than dialogue as a means of dealing with secessionist threats.
Fifth, an independent Scotland committed to the abolition of nuclear weapons means Britain must shift its anachronistic Trident missiles and submarines from Faslane and Coulport in Scotland to England – a difficult and costly proposition. Else, it will have to bite the bullet and do what it should have done years ago — give up its nuclear weapons. If the UK chooses the latter, the world will be a safer place.
Sixth, the separation of Scotland, especially if it eventually leads to a denuclearized UK, will provide a new impetus to the debate over the composition of the UN Security Council where Britain and France both have permanent seats. Proposals like a rotating permanent European seat may gain traction, thereby creating space for emerging world powers like India, Brazil and South Africa.
Seventh, the ‘triple lock’ proposed by Scottish independence advocates requires any use of force by Scotland to be consistent with the UN Charter, and to be approved by the Scottish government and Scottish parliament. This will help put an end to the abuse of executive power that saw Britain drag Scotland into its illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Whether the ‘Yes’ side wins or not, the movement for Scottish self-determination has entered a decisive phase. All told, the discourse that the Scots nation-building project has produced is a welcome antidote to both the ethnic chauvinism of separatists and the neoliberal fundamentalism of those who see nations as markets and not people. And that’s a good thing for the world.
(The writer is Senior Fellow Center for Public Affairs & Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University, New Delhi)