Colin Munro CMG was UK Permanent Representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (2003-07), Deputy High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina (2001) and Ambassador to Croatia (1997-2000). He was Deputy Head of Mission at the British Embassy to the GDR in East Berlin from 1987-90. He is now based in Vienna, consulting on European political and security issues, and on Brexit, as Chairman of UK Citizens in Austria. Colin was born and educated in Scotland.
Brexit has made achieving independence more difficult, but has increased support for it. The complacent English may not wake up until it is too late.
Johnson’s Brexit solution is the antithesis of flexible and imaginative. It has increased support for independence, but made achieving it, and rejoining the EU, much more difficult than if both countries had been EU member states. As in the case of Northern Ireland, there would have to be a border. There would, at least initially, be a high economic price to pay for independence. That price might be reduced – also for NI - if the UK agreed to remain in alignment with EU rules on food safety. However, sovereign freedom to diverge from these EU rules is perceived – correctly - in Whitehall as a sine qua non for a free trade agreement (FTA) with the US, allowing the import of cheap chlorinated chicken etc. But Biden and Congress have another FTA condition: absolute adherence to the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement (1998). There is simply no prospect of an FTA with the US in the period ahead. Meanwhile, the UK is trading effectively with the US under WTO rules favoured by the Conservative Party. But not as effectively as EU member states, Germany and France, which both have substantial surpluses.
In December 2020 Sir Keir Starmer, advised by Gordon Brown, launched a constitutional commission to deliver “real and lasting political and economic devolution” across the country. Brown has returned to the charge since the election, proposing a new devolution settlement. These proposals are making little or no impact. Labour came third on 6 May, just behind the Conservatives. Nor is there any evidence that the Conservative government is prepared for the sort of ambitious constitutional engineering that would be required to have any chance of generating support in Scotland for enhanced devolution.
The prospect, for the period ahead is:
• Cooperation on COVID recovery,
• Attempts to woo Scottish voters with largesse, demonstrating the economic power of the union,
• IndyRef2 legislation in the Scottish parliament.
The UK’s post Brexit economic decline will be one part of the backdrop. Another will be the Northern Irish imbroglio. Yet another will be increasing sympathy for Scotland in the EU, exasperated by Johnson’s failure to observe the principle of pacta sunt servanda. Both sides will be watching the opinion polls.
In 2014, there was relatively little discussion of the implications of Scottish independence for the UK’s position as a nuclear power and one of five Permanent members of the UN Security Council. The SNP’s position is that Scotland should remain in NATO, but not as a nuclear power. Thus, one of the most difficult, perhaps the most difficult question, would be the future location of the UK’s submarine based strategic nuclear deterrent, which is based in Scotland. The government in London is extremely reluctant to engage in public discussion of this issue, afraid of wrecking the UK’s defence posture and increasing the likelihood of independence. But options are being considered, including basing the (rest) UK’s Trident ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) in France or the US! Claims that Scotland would be kept out of NATO as a nuclear alliance are absurd. What about Denmark, or Norway? The former British Ambassador to NATO, Dame Mariot Leslie, supports Scottish independence, as did the late Alyson Bailes, my friend and contemporary in the FCO, an acknowledged expert on the security of small states, and former Director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Before her untimely death five years ago, she had been advising the Scottish government on the defence and security policies that they should pursue on independence, which she supported strongly. (Alyson Bailes also wrote the “Evolutionary History of the EU’s Security Strategy,” adopted in 2003.)
The Conservative Party, and indeed the UK as a whole, have more to lose than the SNP. Even if the SNP/Greens should lose a second referendum in the next few years, that would not be the end of the Scottish aspiration for independence. But for a Conservative and Unionist Prime Minister to lose the union – Scotland is 32% of its land area - would be a disaster.
Lord Carrington once said that the strength of NATO, led by the US, was that its members had consented to sing in harmony. Members of the Warsaw Pact were forced by the Soviet Union to sing in unison. Lord Carrington’s aphorism applies in equal measure to the modus operandi of the European Union. From 1998 until Brexit, it had also applied to relations between Great Britain and NI and between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The UK will not stand in the way of Irish unification if that is the will of the majority in NI and the Irish Republic. Brexit has upset the compromises inherent in the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, and fuelled support for independence in Scotland. But, a 50/50 split is far short of the consent that should be required for such a momentous step. The SNP would be well advised to refrain from holding IndyRef2 until the polls show a really substantial majority in favour. It is not Johnson’s style, to build consensus for an exit from Brexit in its present form and a genuine reformation of the British state, including abolition of the sovereign supremacy of the Westminster Parliament. The complacent English may not wake up until it is too late.
There are many references nowadays to the union of the parliaments in 1707, and a few to the union of the crowns in 1603 when the son of Mary Queen of Scots, beheaded by Elizabeth Queen of England, already James VI of Scotland, became James I of Great Britain, and decamped to London. The union of the crowns took place after the Reformation in both countries. In 1543, when Henry VIII was pursuing his reformation – essentially a power struggle with the Pope – in England, he also declared war on still Roman Catholic Scotland in an attempt to force through a marriage between his infant son, Edward, and Mary, thus breaking Scotland’s alliance with France. This Anglo Scottish war was violent even by the standards of the time. Large parts of southern Scotland were devastated. Henry’s attack ignited civil war in Scotland. Eventually, with massive French assistance, the English were forced to withdraw. The idea of Mary marrying Henry’s son was most unpopular in Scotland. Hence Sir Walter Scott’s description of these events nearly three hundred years later as the “Rough Wooing.” We may rest assured that Johnson is more Falstaff – a fat vain boastful knight – than Henry. There will be no rough wooing. It was Johnson’s predecessor who was tempted to use Henry VIII’s powers.
Read Part 1 here: AP Insight 121 - 2021 (ambassadorllp.com)
This article was first published by the Austro British Society on 17 May 2021