Re-Thinking The Union (Part 2): Would an Independent Scotland Lose its International Influence? EIBF 2012 Review

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Tony Benn, Dr. Nicola McEwan, Alyn Smith MEP, Severin Carrell (Chair)
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This was the second debate in the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s trilogy of events under the title ‘Re-thinking the Union’ (here is my review of Rethinking the Union Part 1). It was the first, however, to actually begin to address the question posed. Whether one felt it sensibly posed – ‘Would an Independent Scotland lose its International Influence?’ – at least in this instance the speakers stepped up to the plate and spoke out for their particular viewpoint.

First to do so was Alyn Smith, SNP MEP with particular interests in agriculture and energy issues. An engaging and articulate spokesperson for the National Party’s position, Smith moved on from a comment on the evidence of a re-energised Scotland apparent in present artistic work to reframe the question posed as in fact two – firstly, how much international influence does Scotland now have, and secondly, does that matter?

Pointing to existing international agreements made by the Scottish Government, and to the increasing degree of co-operative work in areas such as renewables, Smith argued that the present UK settlement is no longer working, and that Scotland’s best interests are no longer served by a dysfunctional Westminster parliament.

The growth of ‘Euroscpeticism’ into a knee-jerk phobic reaction fed in part by the popular press is an instance of the growing difference and distance between the constituent parts of the United Kingdom.

Smith argued we could do better, and that the world is undeniably full of small nations, many of them smaller than an independent Scotland would be.

Tony Benn acknowledged that he was an observer rather than participant in Scottish affairs, but he noted the profound changes the past ten years have wrought. He stated his support for the voting age for a referendum to be set at 16, suggesting this was now reasonable for other elections as well.

He was pro devolution, he said, but asked whether greater devolution of powers might not solve the present situation. His opposition to Scottish independence appeared to be as much emotional as doctrinal, stating at one point that he would regard a ‘yes’ outcome as the equivalent of divorce in the family.

He also pointed out that an independent Scotland could struggle to gain attention in any global forum and that increasing corporatism would represent a real threat to independent government.

Dr. Nicola McEwan of the Department of Politics at the University of Edinburgh carefully pointed out the many ‘unknown unknowns’ of a post-independence Scotland. However, she also indicated that pragmatism would be likely to prevail if Scotland were to choose independence.

So far as membership of the EU was concerned, Scotland would certainly be able to join as an independent entity, but whether as a ‘successor’ (i.e. a continuing member) or ‘accession’ (i.e., entirely new) state was as yet unclear. No precedent existed for the possibility a ‘yes’ vote in a referendum would throw up. However, it seemed inconceivable that Scotland would not be in a position to be part of the EU, and a member of NATO also.

The ongoing debate within the SNP on membership in NATO and the presence of nuclear weapons in a post-independence Scotland was also discussed, but as Alyn Smith pointed out, as a party conference motion had yet to be discussed and voted on, much of the discussion was necessarily theoretical.

After a couple of false starts, contributions from the floor proved mostly interesting and thought-provoking. All in all, a stimulating seventy-five minutes which one hopes will be maintained in the final debate, which will examine ‘the emotional arguments’.

Event: 21 August 2012