By David Kelly
On November 7th 1923, Lord Birkenhead delivered the Rectorial Address at Glasgow University. In it he argued powerfully against “Idealism in International Politics”.
The world, he said, “continues to offer glittering prizes to those who have stout hearts and sharp swords”; to those who refuse to succumb to the allure of romanticism.
Nearly 89 years later, this speech contains pertinent lessons for the forthcoming independence referendum – but not in the way you might think.
In 21st century Britain, Birkenhead’s scepticism has won the day. Cynicism pervades every nook and cranny of the British political system. Public trust in politicians is, as we all know, at an all time low. And it isn’t hard to see why.
Cash for honours; the MPs’ expenses scandal; Andy Coulson, the News of the World and phone-hacking; the Peter Cruddas cash-for-influence affair – this litany of shameful Westminster episodes is one of the best reasons for jettisoning the out-of-touch clique that has precipitated them.
However, this cynicism is so endemic and deeply-rooted in our socio-political discourse that it has become axiomatic to complain that nothing will ever change. Many people have yet to be inspired by the thought of Scottish independence because, for them, it seems like another arcane mini-soap opera concocted by the Holyrood chatterati.
Many insist, therefore, that to successfully sell the concept of independence to the masses, continuity must be stressed (hence assurances about the maintenance of the monarchy and Sterling) while simultaneously centring the debate on more localised issues relevant to the minutiae of people’s daily lives.
However, to relentlessly pursue this narrow strategy – in many respects sound policy for gradually building a broad coalition of support – is to miss an open goal. The independence referendum of 2014 has gifted our generation a golden opportunity to defy the pessimism of Lord Birkenhead and abandon the blood-stained “pragmatism” that still blights British foreign policy.
It is right that the SNP seeks to achieve consensus on independence. The foundations of the Scottish Parliament were built upon national consensus. But the suggestion that we face a choice between winning through caution and losing through ambition is a false one. We can be both radical and successful; we can be both an independent and international nation.
There is no future in the Britain we know today – nor the ancient relics of our violent imperialist past which still litter the periphery of Whitehall rhetoric. We on the pro-independence side have an inspiring vision of Scotland’s future. The promise of a radically different, progressive and ethical Scottish foreign policy could inspire whole communities across Scotland to vote yes in 2014.
When political parties fall into policy lethargy with an apathy towards new or bold ideas, they only provoke the electorate to unconstructive lethargy and unambitious apathy (see Scottish Labour). The main reason why popular disillusionment with business-as-usual British politics is so strong – as strikingly proven by George Galloway’s victory in Bradford West recently – is because much of the mainstream parties are frozen by caution and a lack of imagination.
It is disingenuous to claim that to advocate a radical idea is automatically electoral suicide. Most voters are non-aligned and relatively centrist, but that does not mean that they are averse to new thinking – they’re crying out for it!
Scottish independence itself is a radical and ambitious idea; a logical and natural state for any nation but, nevertheless, ambitious compared to the banal policy dross currently being served up by Cameron, Clegg and Miliband, aided and abetted by their northern stooges Davidson, Rennie and Lamont. The SNP are the only alternative to this terrible trio. No other party can match them for the strength of their compelling, optimistic and ambitious vision of Scotland’s future.
However, there remains a tendency, still residual in some aspects of the way the party thinks, to be overly cautious and to act as though it is still 2007 when the need to exude a careful competence was overwhelming.
The SNP now have a parliamentary majority. This historic mandate hands the party a remarkable opportunity to achieve its greatest political dream. We cannot throw all caution to the wind, but we must realise that Scottish politics has changed and, if we are brave enough to press home our current advantage, we can change it fundamentally forever.
The people want to be inspired, so let’s inspire them. We must seek to inspire them by appealing to their sense of national identity within an international context. We must appeal to Scots’ innate sense of social justice within a global, as well as national, framework.
Disenchantment with Westminster’s failed foreign policies – from Afghanistan to Iraq, from the Blair-Gaddafi “Deal in the Desert” to Cameron’s Europhobic isolationism – has contributed to a wider public distrust of politics. By presenting a persuasive vision of a distinctively moral Scottish foreign policy to the people, we can go some way to winning back that lost trust – and the referendum.
A greater emphasis upon SNP plans for an independent Scotland’s foreign policy would also provide a useful focal point for countering spurious Unionist allegations that Scottish Nationalism is insular or isolationist.
In recent weeks the media has gone into speculation overdrive suggesting that the SNP are poised to scrap the party’s long-held policy of non-membership of NATO. The SNP hierarchy’s decision on this issue will be instructive, not only to the neutral public, but also – and perhaps even more so – to the party’s supporters.
It will demonstrate whether their commitment to a nuclear-free Scotland and a nuclear-free world is cast-iron or ephemeral. It will prove whether they still believe in a new, coherent ethical foreign policy agenda for Scotland or a confused pick-and-mix of the UK’s old and amoral one.
Current SNP policy is to join the Partnership for Peace alongside our European friends in Sweden, Ireland, Switzerland and Finland. Given that the Partnership for Peace co-operates with and operates alongside both NATO and non-NATO states, it provides all the benefits of NATO membership without the need to implicitly legitimise nuclear weapons or sign up to the belligerent principles of an archaic Cold War relic.
Russia’s invasion of the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008 proves just how toothless NATO is to protect the small former Soviet states neighbouring America’s old enemy against whose aggression the alliance supposedly exists to protect.
Some Unionists might attack us as naive ideologues for our rejection of NATO. In fact, it is those who argue that Scotland should unquestionably join NATO that are the real political dinosaurs. Scotland faces no existential threat.
NATO is an organisation of the past; Scotland must look to the future. It was created to fight the Cold War and only remains in existence today as a pawn of American foreign policy. Scotland can support American foreign policy goals, but only when it matches our own values – not simply the megalomania that often intoxicates the “Leader of the Free World”.
As opinion poll after opinion poll has suggested, the economy will probably be the decisive issue of the referendum. Once people take democracy and human rights for granted prosperity matters most. That is to be expected and there is nothing wrong with it.
Nevertheless, we should not ignore foreign policy issues. Just because it is not yet an issue of the campaign doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be. One of the reasons it isn’t yet penetrated the public consciousness is that Unionist strategists desperately don’t want it to.
They are all too happy to pontificate upon what they (erroneously) assume is their strongest suit (Defence), but they are noticeably averse to addressing the fundamental issue of foreign policy and independence.
Despite their platitudes about titular seats on the UN Security Council or William Hague’s threat of a whisky-embassy war, a sovereign Scotland would actually have more influence in the world – not less; more chances to promote vital trade and cultural links – not fewer.
Post-independence, when Scottish diplomats are conversing with the world’s leaders, the topics of discussion will be of interest and benefit to Scottish citizens, not Foreign and Commonwealth Office mandarins and their City of London chums. Scotland will have vigorous advocates overseas to fight our corner and attract inward investment.
For too long we have existed on the world’s margins, without representation or recognition in crucial diplomatic and industry circles. Independence will provide us with a platform to relentlessly promote Scottish business, culture and tourism to the world.
We must also reassess our role in international affairs. It is not a question of reducing the amount of power or influence we wield internationally; Britain has been a declining power for decades. Scotland would actually have far more influence in the world as an independent nation.
We only have to look at Norway with her Nobel Peace Prize or the Netherlands based International Criminal Court or Belgium’s influence at the heart of the European Union in Brussels to see that so-called ‘small’ nations can wield much international influence. Last year many smaller nations (including Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Albania and Bulgaria) participated in the enforcement of a NATO backed and UN Security Council approved “no-fly zone” over Libya which ultimately led to the removal from power of Colonel Gaddafi and the collapse of his dictatorial regime. We don’t need to join NATO to help topple tyrants.
Currently, when British politicians talk to other countries across the world it sounds like patronising hectoring – an extension of her historic imperialist agenda. Other countries stop listening.
An independent Scotland would be a new, fresh voice adding new and fresh ideas to the global melting pot – minus the chauvinistic baggage of British colonialism and her American puppet master. Britain is the former school bully of international politics, who has failed to realise that having lost the supreme height advantage she once held, she can no longer compel her classmates to bend to her egotistical will.
In recent years the Scottish Government has embarked upon a determined diplomatic programme designed to attract inward investment into key Scottish industries. The latest stage of this was John Swinney’s recent visit to South Korea and Japan. This is not only right and proper, but it is essential in a globalised, inter-connected economy.
However, the more controversial relationship fostered by the Scottish Government has been with China. China’s immense national wealth makes her impossible to ignore. It remains likely that earth’s most populated nation will soon be powering earth’s largest economy.
The problem with China though is that her vast population rarely reaps the rewards of its colossal efforts. There is, of course, a growing middle class, but most of the benefits of China’s meteoric economic rise, built upon the backs of ordinary Chinese workers, have been hoovered up by a select group of venture capitalists in league with the Communist Party which retains its implacable grip on power.
China’s Faustian pact with capitalism has not led to an embrace of democracy. Human rights continue to be violated. The rule of law is non-existent. The question is what, if anything, could or should Scotland do about it?
The conventional wisdom is that a nation the size of Scotland could never dream of affecting the policies of a global super-power like China. I am not suggesting that we could. However, we could act as a rallying point for the promotion of human rights in China. We could use our diplomatic clout to encourage and cajole other likeminded countries to join us in condemnation of the Chinese government’s behaviour, thereby increasing the weight of our demands.
If we believe in the power of individuals to make a difference – in the potential of one falling rock to create an avalanche – then we must invest in the power of individual nation states to change the established international order.
So far, the Sino-Scottish relations advanced by the First Minister have remained relatively minor; the promotion and protection of Scottish whisky and salmon and the procurement of Tian Tian and Yang Guang (cue once-original quip about David “one of a kind” Mundell). The question is: is this relationship moral? Can it ever be justified, as part of a supposedly ethical foreign policy, to establish links or maintain dialogue with despotic countries?
I believe there is a clear difference between the blind romanticism which Lord Birkenhead attacked in 1923 – as the fog of war was beginning to re-appear upon the horizon of Europe – and the desire to apply resolute yet realistic ideals to international politics in today’s world.
Diplomatic compromise is always necessary. If a government wants to prevent international isolation – both economically and politically – it cannot afford to refuse to co-operate or trade with all governments with which they may disagree. Trading with and talking to dictators is not necessarily an absolute evil. However, at no point must this combination of talk and trade be transferred into support, overt or covert, small or large, for the apparatus of tyranny.
It is more than possible to talk and trade with authoritarian regimes without enabling them to further entrench themselves in power or artificially inflate their legitimacy. Engaging in a diplomatic dialogue and transparent, ethical trade with China, for example, does nothing to legitimise the control of the Communist Party or support their repression of the Chinese people. It merely acknowledges a geo-political reality however undesirable: they rule China.
This is worlds away from the murderous atrocities meted out to the Mau Mau in Kenya under the thumb of the British Empire. It is worlds away from Thatcher’s inexplicable support for Pinochet and unpardonable opposition to sanctions against South African apartheid.
It is worlds away from New Labour’s “dodgy dossier” or recent allegations that Jack Straw sanctioned British collusion in torture and rendition to Gaddafi’s Libya. It is worlds away from the UK Government sanctioned sale of arms used for state brutality in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya during last year’s Arab Spring or the invitation to Bahraini royalty to attend this year’s Olympic and Diamond Jubilee celebrations.
However, the following reality perhaps requires some reflection. The Scottish Government appears to have been given the opportunity for trade with China after Norway refused to give in to Beijing’s demand that the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize not be awarded to Chinese dissident and democracy campaigner Liu Xiaobo. The Chinese authorities consequently cancelled trade deals with Norway and signed up to a Scottish replacement instead.
Does Norway regret having refused to give in to diplomatic intimidation? Does Norway regret having unambiguously displayed solidarity with the plight of ordinary Chinese people yearning for the democratic rights we take for granted? Has Norway suffered drastic economic consequences from the end of the Chinese trade deal? Has Norway been unable to find another democratic buyer for its exports?
The answer to all of these questions is an unequivocal no. Is this a lesson for Scotland?
If we are to trade with China, to meet their leaders or entertain their diplomats, we must exercise extreme caution and reasonable suspicion. All of our dealings must be transparent and ethical. We must constantly press for reform on human rights and ensure that they, and the public, know in no uncertain terms that we deplore repression. We must ensure that all our actions meet the highest ethical standards. Everything we do must be morally acceptable.
“The man who has acted in obedience to the law of his conscience,” Thomas Muir once said, “has simply discharged his duty.”
Regardless of what foreign policy Scotland pursues post-independence, a marked improvement will have occurred on our current situation. Scots will finally have complete autonomy over all our foreign policy choices; our leaders will finally be accountable to us, the people of Scotland, and nobody else.
In the run up to the referendum, we must take this message of an ethical Scottish foreign policy to every doorstep in Scotland. It’s a message of optimism and social justice; of equality and partnership. It’s a vision of a future where Scotland is an equal and active member of the international family of nations.
It’s a message that could secure a yes vote in 2014, because the world continues to offer glittering prizes to those with the courage to translate convictions into actions.