Declaration: Apart from those long postings overseas with the FCO, I have spent all my life in southern England. But my DNA contains dollops of Yorkshire, Scottish and Irish. I am 100 per cent British. So if I am allowed to vote on the subject, I will opt for the United Kingdom continuing.
Attentive readers of Diplomat will recall my piece in 2010 on Diplomatic Limboland: “Run a Google search for ‘end of the nation state’ and 62 million links appear, compared with a piffling 42 million links for ‘rise of the nation state’ … Yet since 1990 no fewer than 33 new countries have emerged and joined the UN. Others are in the queue…” So will Scotland break away from the UK and become a new state, recognised around the world as such?
The process of taking a view on this has been impeccably if not surreally decorous. The elected leadership in Scotland has proposed a referendum on the subject. The UK government in Westminster has politely agreed.
One key feature of the referendum is that only various categories of people ‘resident in Scotland’ can vote in it. This is endorsed by the Council of Europe’s authoritative Venice Commission. It has the great advantage of focusing on the people actually living in the territory concerned. Once you start expanding the categories the process becomes much less manageable and, depending on how you look at it, less ‘fair’. Montenegro won a narrow majority in its independence referendum in 2006 because people born in Montenegro but living in Serbia were unable to take part.
On the other hand, it seems to me a bit rum that Poles and Italians who recently have come to live in Edinburgh get a vote, but those of us who live outside Scotland with gallons of rich Scottish blood surging in our veins (and who for decades have paid taxes benefitting Scotland) can’t have a say.
If there is one thing that the world’s states agree on, it is the need not to change internationally recognised borders by greedy lunges or improper external meddling. There is no one perfect way to break up countries or change international borders. But the attention paid by London and Edinburgh to running Scotland’s independence referendum according to meticulous international standards helps ensure that both the process and the eventual outcome will be unambiguously legitimate.
How have other cases been managed?
In Canada, the Quebec issue has been tackled as in the United Kingdom, by scrupulous attention to constitutional process: the Quebec referendum in 1995 voted against separation, calming the issue for the foreseeable future.
Czechoslovakia broke apart peacefully in 1992, a Velvet Divorce negotiated by leaders of the Czech and Slovak parts of the country. Most mere citizens were against separation. But it happened anyway.
In the dismal case of Crimea, Russia bundled through an independence referendum in Crimea in the face of strenuous objections from the Ukrainian authorities and with open manipulation of the voting process. Established European procedures and standards that Russia itself has accepted were ignored. The fact that a majority of people living in Crimea apparently voted to join Russia is interesting but not decisive. Almost no countries in the world have accepted Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Crimea is the latest messy episode in the slow disintegration of the Russian Empire. From mid-1991 to mid-1993, I was part of the FCO/Whitehall team grappling with the USSR’s collapse. Nothing on this scale had ever happened in peace-time. How to do it?
No-one wanted to open the Pandora’s Box of border adjustments according to ethnic or other criteria. All key capitals agreed on one overwhelmingly urgent policy requirement: to maintain grown-up control of the Soviet nuclear weapons arsenals in Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus. Western governments and Moscow came to a pragmatic but far-reaching conclusion: the administrative borders of the 15 former USSR republics would become the international borders of 15 new states. Plus the Soviet nuclear arsenal stayed under Moscow’s control, with negotiated arrangements to transfer all nuclear weapons assets to Russia.
This policy worked out pretty well across the sprawling Soviet space, helped by the fact (usually forgotten) that Russia itself led the way in proclaiming independence in mid-1991 as part of Yeltsin’s struggle with Gorbachev. The basis for the dissolution of the USSR was agreed by all sides. The main exception was Chechnya, the only Soviet territory without full republic status that proclaimed itself independent. Russia subsequently crushed Chechnya’s independence ambitions with terrible loss of life, a ghastly contrast with Russia’s pious claims now for Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Other unhappy anomalies remain unresolved: Transdnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
By contrast, in communist Yugoslavia the ethnic/religious tensions were much more acute. The international community dithered, but decided to stick with Yugoslavia’s internal borders. Belgrade thought that it could achieve a better deal for Serbs by using force to create new realities on the ground. Hence the chaos of the 1990s.
If Scotland does leave the UK it will need to decide what defence forces it needs – and the price it seeks for allowing ‘UK’ military forces to stay on its territory. Scottish regiments and some UK military assets based in Scotland might be taken over (and paid for) by the new Scottish government, but London will keep control of all strategic nuclear assets. Intelligence-sharing rules will also be needed.
Defence is relatively simple. Money is complicated. When the Soviet Union broke up, we Whitehall officials argued about the USSR’s international debt. It was not fair to put the whole Soviet debt burden on Russia. On the other hand, the hassle involved in trying to share it out among the 15 republics would be horrible, plus Russia seemed more likely actually to pay back the debt. Eventually, Russia did take on the whole debt, and in August 2006 finally paid it all off – an impressive achievement. This made it much easier for the other new countries to launch themselves on international financial markets and set up their own new currencies.
In Yugoslavia it was different. Belgrade not unreasonably demanded that if the other republics want independence they should take their fair share of the Yugoslav debt burden. Eventually a complicated apportionment was worked out.
This is a controversial aspect of Scotland’s independence bid. London will insist on Scotland shouldering a fair share of the UK’s heavy debt burden. Will Scotland launch its own currency (not easy), or try to cut a deal to continue using the Pound? Or (horror!) bid to climb on to the slippery deck of the eurozone Titanic?
Another key question is the international identity of an independent Scotland. When the Soviet Union collapsed, it was obvious that Russia as by far the biggest former Soviet Republic would keep the USSR’s place on the UN Security Council and full veto rights. Under a quirky arrangement going back to the earliest days of the United Nations, Belarus and Ukraine already enjoyed full membership rights. After independence, all the other former Soviet republics applied for membership in their own right.
Again, Yugoslavia was different. As all the other republics proclaimed independence, Belgrade insisted that it ‘continued’ Yugoslavia’s UN membership. Indeed, Serbia backed by Russia, China, India and many other countries has stopped Kosovo being fully recognised as an independent state: Kosovo won’t join the United Nations until Belgrade agrees.
The international community will have no reason not to recognise Scotland’s independence if London does too. The FCO has many Scotland-linked diplomats who would have to decide whether to stay in London loyal to a diminished United Kingdom or head north to set up the new Scottish diplomatic service.
The most difficult practical issue will be European Union membership. Will Scotland somehow stay on in the Union, or be expected to negotiate as a brand new member? What will Scotland have to pay to – and get from – the EU Budget? Can Scotland join without committing to joining the eurozone? Will (say) Spain stand against Scotland joining the Union for fear of encouraging its own separatist tendencies? In practice, (and after lots of bad-tempered meetings), an independent Scotland will end up joining the EU and NATO and other European/international organisations.
Conclusion? Negotiated international divorces to create new states do happen. They are far better than violent alternatives. But they are hard work, time-consuming and costly. Do we in the UK want to invest so much effort in dividing ourselves, ending up with reduced collective international impact in most key respects