Welcome to 2014 – the year of Scotland’s Big Decision


  By Lesley Riddoch

Okay – the referendum’s just a few days closer than it was last week.  But that single digit change in the year will create a semblance of focus and momentum once Holyrood, Westminster, Better Together and the Yes Campaigns crank their publicity machines into action after the Festive Break.

  By Lesley Riddoch

Okay – the referendum’s just a few days closer than it was last week.  But that single digit change in the year will create a semblance of focus and momentum once Holyrood, Westminster, Better Together and the Yes Campaigns crank their publicity machines into action after the Festive Break.

So while there’s a lull in hostilities and a whiff of Burns Night in the air, let’s see Scottish independence as significant ithers see it and consider the apparent lack of enthusiasm amongst our small, independent neighbours.

Of course, fellow aspiring nations like the Basques, Catalans and Quebecois did try to cosy up to the Scottish Government in 2013 only to be rebuffed.  Alex Salmond apparently doesn’t want the fortunes of Scottish independence to get tangled up in other campaigns – the Yuletide flutter over EU membership doubts amongst the Catalan leadership was a case in point.

And opponents have been vocal.  Leading Spanish politicians in Brussels snubbed Scotland’s chances of automatic EU membership.  But their objectivity is questionable – Spain is clearly struggling to contain several independence movements of its own.

The Welsh rejected Alex Salmond’s preferred policy of currency union with rUK but their First Minister also suggested Scottish departure would leave a non-viable rUK (with England constituting 92% of the population.)  Our devolved Celtic cousins clearly have their own axes to grind.

Only Icelandic President Olafur Grimsson publicly welcomed a possible Yes vote arguing that small independent countries in northern Europe have fared pretty well.  In an interview for BBC Newsnight he said independence “could be the road towards prosperity and a good society.  If you take a long-term view of about 100 years or so, the history of northern Europe is that countries have become independent one after the other.”

But then the Icelanders have recent form with Westminster – being put on the terrorism register by Gordon Brown still rankles – and a long standing policy of welcoming all new states.  They were first to recognise Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

Apart from that there’s been a stunning silence especially from Scotland’s nearest and dearest – the “New World” nations to which Scots emigrated and the Nordic nations which many Scots see as useful models for a new Scotland.

Canadian Colby Cosh writing in Macleans magazine said the independence campaign has been “oddly overlooked in this most culturally Scottish fragment of the old empire” but didn’t explain why.

Nate Silver did.  The American award-winning statistician shot to fame by getting the right result in all 50 states during the 2012 Presidential elections.  But last summer he caused a storm here by predicting the Yes campaign had “virtually no chance” of victory in 2014.  Whatever you think of his conclusion it explains the general international silence.

Watching London-based polls and briefed by English international relations “experts”, the corridors of power across the world ring with one view and it slavishly echoes the thinking of southern think-tanks, London policy advisers, Chatham House and the British great and good.  So it should come as no surprise to realise the received wisdom is that Scottish independence referendum is a non-event, forced on a reluctant nation by a party which surprised everyone with the scale of victory in 2011 and forced into a premature ballot on a key constitutional policy that needed longer to motivate Scottish voters.

Who knows – that received wisdom could yet be proved right.  The point is that world leaders do not jeopardise existing relations with Britain – a dominant force in world politics – to champion the cause of an apparently half-hearted wannabee.

Some may argue the lack of international support doesn’t matter.  Indeed silence from erstwhile critics like America may be golden.  The Americans were furious over the release of Lockerbie bomber Al Megrahi and only slightly mollified by the SNP’s controversial policy change committing an independent Scotland to join NATO.

Indeed after American military sources made it clear they would oppose Scotland’s entry to NATO without the assurance they could continue to use Faslane, the White Paper suggested NATO vessels could visit Scottish ports without having to confirm or deny nuclear weapons were on board.  This unpalatable volte face – to keep America neutral on Scottish independence – was made slightly sweeter with the observation that “Scotland will adopt a similar approach as Denmark and Norway in this respect.”

And this leads to the most wounding silence of the lot – that of our Nordic neighbours.

There was an expectation Norway would view Scotland’s battle for self-determination as a re-run of its own.  The Norwegians finally broke free from Stepmother Sweden in 1905 after almost a century as a highly devolved, tax-raising nation and a final stunning referendum result — 368,208 for independence 184 against.

Finland is another nation of five million people — ruled first by the Swedes then the Russians as a Grand Duchy until the October Revolution of 1917.  Might not the gallous Finns – who took on the Red Army twice over lost Finnish territory – express some sympathy for the emergent Scots?

Everyone needs friends, the small Nordic nations have become a template for a new Scotland and Scots would like to think the emergence of a thriving, renewable-energy generating, like-sized, like-minded neighbour could be rather useful to them.

So why the Big Silence?

Firstly, Scotland’s been a region of the UK so long we’re truly invisible abroad (apart from our whisky.)  If Nordic nations had enough time to pay attention to sub nation-state polities, the German Lander would be closer, more powerful and more historically connected than Scotland.

Secondly, Denmark – like Spain — has secession problems of its own – with Greenland and the Faroes.  So whilst its journalists are most interested, its politicians have least interest in promoting the idea of small nation breakaways.

Thirdly, Finland and Sweden have bigger international tasks to the south and east – reintegrating their economies and transport systems with the re-emerging Baltic nations and trying to encourage “Nordic-style” welfare, tax and democratic solutions there.
Fourthly, all Nordic nations have new right-wing governments more politically in-tune with David Cameron than Alex Salmond – though in practice right-wing Nordic politicians still support a big welfare state, equality and a high wage, relatively high tax society.

Fifthly all the Nordic nations – especially Norway – have long had close links with London.  The British were the first nation to validate the Norwegian declaration of independence from Sweden and the Norwegian Royal Family lived there and led the resistance from London during the Second World War.  As the daughter of a northern Scot, it’s wounding to find this royal connection is remembered in Norway whilst the Scottish sailors who risked and often sacrificed their lives to deliver resistance fighters in the Shetland Bus are not.

Meanwhile, on the cultural front, most Nordic TV stations have been importing BBC sitcoms for decades – you’re more likely to get a word perfect rendition of Monty Python’s parrot sketch in Oslo than Glasgow.  And since all the Nordic nations used subtitles, English-accented and produced comedy exports like Fawlty Towers helped create their word perfect English.  Nothing creates stronger bonds than laughter – as John Cleese discovered during his lucrative Nordic “Divorce” tour.

As it is with individual comedians, so it is with the country and culture that produced them so Britain is generally regarded with great affection in the Nordic nations – warts and all.

Strong cultural ties are most naturally built between sovereign nation states with equal status – not between nation states and neighbouring regions.  If it was otherwise, our neighbours would have a plethora of highly devolved and productive German Lander with whom it would be easier to do business.

Scots are convinced we are visible across the globe because of Braveheart, kilts, whisky, golf and our Scottish Parliament.  We are not.  For as long as energy, international affairs and defence are reserved matters, Nordic capitals are inevitably and unconsciously oriented towards London and the English view of things.  Independence supporters should understand this dynamic better than most.  It is – after all – why they want a separate Scottish state.

Finally, Scots are not the only folk with big events in 2014. On May 17th, a month before Scots commemorate the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn in June, the Norwegians will celebrate 200 years of their Constitution – the radical document that shaped the nation almost a hundred years before independence from Sweden.  Descendants of the 112 “Eidsvoll men”– including North Americans who can prove “Eidsvoll” ancestry through an online genealogy site – will be welcomed back to the town where the world’s second oldest functioning constitution was written.

Indeed in April, the Irish will mark a millenium since the Battle of Clontarf when Irish forces decisively expelled the Vikings in 1014 with official events linking Dublin and Reykjavik – small country capitals with similar “wild-boy” reputations.  It helps to have feelings of comradeship with like-minded neighbours.

So some tangible support from Scotland’s nearest neighbours would have been welcome in 2013.  If not support then a tiny bit of interest.  After all, as history will demonstrate to Ireland and Norway this year, the political control of territory may change but the configuration of geography abides.

If Scots vote yes, Norway will have a different sort of next door neighbour – able and keen to strike up North Sea energy deals, join the Nordic Council (even as an observer) and share thinking on kindergarten, welfare and workplace policies (as long as budgets and political will permit).  Scotland – if it elects another SNP government – will be on its way to becoming another non-nuclear NATO member – just like Norway, Iceland and Denmark.

Sandwiched between superpowers, neutral, conciliatory and peacekeeping, enthusiastic importers of British culture and sovereign states relating primarily to other sovereign states over defence, energy and international relations — it should really have come as no surprise that Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland have kept their diplomatic powder dry over Scotland’s independence adventure and will continue to do so during 2014.

But that’s not to say there isn’t personal, unofficial interest at the highest levels.

A Danish friend discussing Scottish independence with diplomatic colleagues got a lukewarm response until they started discussing the prospects for a posting in Edinburgh. “Fabulous city – wonderful location, great place to live, brilliant arts scene etc etc.”

Plus ca change.  Small, modern aspiring nations have always done the heavy lifting alone until the exercise of their own democracy has conferred legitimacy and attracted international recognition.

In 2014 and beyond, Scotland will be no different.


Lesley Riddoch is the author of ‘Blossom – What Scotland needs to flourish’
Blossom can be bought in bookshops, online at www.luath.co.uk/blossom.html or on kindle http://t.co/0A0J52IP1R