Independence: Scotland as a Viable Nation State

April 11, 1996

As long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any condition be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honors that we are fighting, but for freedom - for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.
Declaration of Arbroath, 1320

This quote dates from an age when the Scots were more or less independent, and is cited often in the modern era by nationalists. The papers preceding this one have addressed the Scottish political system, the parties, nationalism, devolution, and the European context. What follows is a conclusion to the series, which will deal with independence for Scotland.

Independence has been shown to be an impractical option for Scotland, not in the sense that it is impossible to conceive, or that it could not work, but in that it seems extremely unlikely to be an achievable goal at this time. Nonetheless, its unfeasibility as a political goal is linked to its feasibility as a reality, a subject which has been much disputed.

The monarchy is usually seen as a "symbol of Britishness," and tends to be used to "promote the British state." However, it is "also a symbol of the Commonwealth," which is a grouping of former British colonies now independent of Britain, but still wishing to maintain its monarchy as their own. The monarchy thus can represent self-determination, rather than mere Britishness. (Scott, P 62)

People have been convinced that "Britain or the UK is part of the natural order of things." What is required is some "intellectual courage to think beyond that." (Scott, P 56) One must approach this debate and ascertain the viability of Scotland as an independent nation. This essay will deal with the various dynamics of an independent Scotland: foreign relations and international law; economics; the environment; defense; and a comparative context.

Foreign Relations and International Law

Although "secession itself is not considered illegal per se," the international community generally does not look kindly on it. (Moynihan 151) An international realm dominated by status-quo powers, especially ones who have a vested interest in Scottish affairs, would severely limit Scotland's capacity to secede. Despite the decolonizations, and recent secessions such as Eritrea from Ethiopia,

the rules of the game were established to favor existing states; secessionist movements are still required first to establish their own existence or at least a recognized state of belligerency before they can apply for international legal rights." (Moynihan 151-2)

One can identify four basic attributes for what Alexis Heraclides deems a qualified right to secessionist self-determination. First of all, a "pattern of systematic discrimination or exploitation against a sizable, self-defined minority." (Heraclides 411) The discrimination is obvious to many, that the Scots are poorly treated and looked down upon by England. However, this is not a universal belief, nor is there full agreement on the definition of a Scot. Second, the presence of a "distinct, self-defined community or society," living together in a region, "which overwhelmingly supports secession." (411) Again there is a dispute over the definition of a Scot. Also, the support for independence is not wholesale, although there is an overwhelming number of people who wish for devolution. Third of all, a good chance of "conflict resolution and peace... as a result of the envisaged self-rule or partition." (411) Independence would put to rest all but the most insane of the 'Tartan Army' terrorists, and would probably lessen cross-border animosity, since so much of it is based on a Scottish inferiority complex. Finally, "the rejection" by the central government of "compromise solutions." (411) This is the most prominent attribute, as the Conservative regime has spent the last seventeen years ignoring Scottish demands for autonomy.

As shown in the previous essay, Scotland would remain a part of the EU, as would a truncated UK. Neither would have to "apply anew for separate membership" as some have implied. (Foulkes 64) Treaties remain an obligation and right for successor states. One might ask if Scotland could break treaties the UK had entered into already, and the answer is slightly hazy. It would have to live up to most of the UK's treaty obligations or face severe international displeasure at the least. In any case, small countries generally feel more constrained than larger ones to give greater weight to "supporting the principle of the rule of law." (Maxwell 22)

There would be a fear among many governments of a domino effect occurring if they recognized an independent Scotland. France worries about the Breton region, Germany about Bavaria, etc. Scotland would run the risk of becoming a pariah state, if that was the wish of the major European powers, or the US. Chances are that the US, although it might "no doubt prefer the safety of the UK status quo" to an unsure Scottish independence, there are few "crucial interests" of the US which could conceivably be "endangered by Scottish independence." (Maxwell 10)


The debate over Scotland's economy in the 1960's focused on Scotland's inherent dependence on English subsidy. Although independence was possible economically, it was not worth the cost

because it would not solve the fundamental problem of the Scottish economy. Scotland was too weak, too poor and too vulnerable for it to opt for independence and maintain, let alone increase, its relative living standards. (Kennedy 49)

Economists such as Gavin McCrone had decided that although there was "no question of" Scotland "being unable to afford" independence, the important question was whether or not Scotland would economically gain or lose from separation from the UK., to which they answered that she would undoubtedly lose. (McCrone 52) Such assessments were made before the impact on the scene of North Sea oil, however, and have since been deemed severely flawed.

Despite a certain amount of depreciation in people's perceptions, the Scottish economy is in a state of upturn beyond a lot of the rest of the UK. Although many traditional Scottish industries "like shipbuilding, went into terminal decline in the 1970's," Scotland has recovered and restructured remarkably well. "Many of its new industries, electronics, tourism and financial services, have raised employment higher than in many other parts of Britain." (Darnton A7)

Also, one of the factors which made the Union originally attractive to Scotland was unfettered access to the English empire. With the empire gone, Scotland is free to trade with the whole world, not to mention the EU. Also, the loss of empire proves to be another reason for independence, since no one wants to be the crew on a sinking ship.

International financial markets would most likely give an independent Scotland a high credit rating due to its strong resource base. (Maxwell 11) As well, long-term investors would prove increasingly attracted to the development of these resources. (12)

Thus, Scottish oil is of prime importance in independence. It is only by "exercising sovereignty" over oil "that Scotland could hope to protect its national interests." (Carty xv) Luckily, under international law, the oil would "almost certainly... become the property of a... sovereign Scottish state." (Simpson 60)

PM Harold Wilson "claimed the oil off Scotland was worth 200 billion pounds at 1974 prices, and estimates of the taxation revenue from the oil varied up to 3 billion pounds a year" as of 1976. (Kennedy 50) It was estimated during the devolution debate that tax revenues from the oil would amount "in the early 1980's" to approximately half of Scotland's GDP, while "the same sum amounts to less than one third of the UK public sector borrowing requirements." (Simpson 61)

On the other hand, Christopher Smallwood claimed in 1976 that the wealth from the oil would necessitate continued Union. He said that the revenues

would strengthen an independent Scottish pound and drive it up against the English pound... by as much as 100 per cent. Such a movement in the exchange rates would deal a death blow to the Scottish manufacturing sector which was already declining and uncompetitive with England. (Kennedy 50)

If this were true, any Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) that Scotland might have inherited from the UK would be either severely compromised, or the mechanisms of the European EMU would negate such fluctuations. Unfortunately, no similar current studies are available, nor is there any current coherency to the vision of EMU.

Seeing that "England is by far Scotland's largest single export market," it would be stupid for it to "cause a serious deterioration... or collapse" of the English economy through the denial to England of the benefits of oil. (Maxwell 9) Most policy-formulators have concluded that the most probable and effective strategy would be to negotiate a way to share the operations, and the benefits, of Scotland's black gold.

Scotland's general room for maneuver economically would be limited by "its comparative powerlessness" but this does not have to imply that it could not act in areas where it perceived its real interests to lie. (Carty xv) All countries are limited by the international economy's movements, making Scotland no exception. Independence would make it perhaps better able to serve its own personal interests, however.

One of the main policies which would prove important to an independent Scotland would be a rollback of the Thatcher-era privatizations of public utilities. The furor over executive salary raises resulting from increasing rates has become epidemic across the UK, and particularly in Scotland. While West Yorkshire was suffering a drought at the hands of its incompetent water utility company, several parts of Scotland spent this winter with minimal supplies of water from the money-pits of their water companies, which were incapable of dealing with the frozen pipelines. Certainly, a separate Scotland would renationalize at least some utilities and industries that it thought too vital to the national good to be allowed to continue in profiteering private hands.

Scotland would probably be just as limited as the UK in controlling the activity of multi-national corporations (MNCs). A newly independent country with a new set of elites could possibly be immune to much of the collaboration with them that is common in Westminster. As for the willingness of them to invest in a breakaway of the UK, MNCs have shown themselves to be "used to adapting their operations to political changes where these appear inevitable." (Maxwell 11)

Alasdair Gray expresses that he would not worry about Scotland being poor. Were it so, he would find that to be an asset rather than a liability, because "an independent country" whose government is as poor as its citizens "has more hope than one governed by a big rich neighbor." (Gray 63) On the contrary, a very poor Scotland would be a serious problem indeed. It was poverty and debt which led to the Union of 1707 with England in the first place, which made it easy for the government and elites to be bribed out of their country. Scotland would definitely need wealth to maintain its sovereignty, and this has been established.

Environment Scotland is a land of great natural wealth: glens, bens (mountains), laws (hills), resources, forests, lochs, rivers, etc. The Scottish Green party campaigns for independence for Scotland due to the need to protect this environment, and makes a serious case in fitsavor. The British government has tended to be anti-green in its policy, and has not paid too much attention to preserving the natural integrity of most places in the UK, let alone Scotland.

Gruinard Island is a famous example of UK environmental policy; more correctly, it represents a lack of a policy. The island, off the west coast of Scotland, was the site during WW2 of massive experimentation with biological weapons. The island has been quarantined ever since, and is littered with the remains of anthrax tests.

The story would have ended there, were it not for what was dubbed 'Operation Dark Harvest' by its instigators, the 'Scottish Civilian Army.' The SCA had taken soil samples and placed them at key biological research facilities around the UK in 1981. The soil was identified as containing the Anthrax, but the SCA revealed later that the soil was not in fact from Gruinard, but from the nearby mainland. They showed the public that the threat not only existed, but was spreading. Professor Steven Rose of the Bertrand Russell Committee Against Chemical Weapons said that it was indeed an "extraordinarily effective way of drawing attention to the hazards of chemical and biological weapons." (Scott, A 110) By 1986, the decontamination of Gruinard had finally begun (after a significant waiting period to make sure no one suspected the government of giving in to terrorism).

The government has also been involved in innumerable attempts to secretly bury toxic and nuclear waste throughout Scotland. Activist Willie McRae was involved in campaigning against such activities when he was killed in 1985. An independent Scotland would be in a position to curtail such activities, and to put stricter controls on both dumping and the general usage of nuclear power. They would also be capable of restricting the American military's activities of similar nature.

One of the problems to be faced by an independent Scotland would be controlling its population. In order to avoid a neo-Malthusian situation in Scotland, particularly to avoid encroaching on land and resources which Scots may wish to preserve, there are several steps which could be taken. Scotland could encourage more family planning and birth control facilities through state funding. It could also further regulate immigration, "by employing a system of work permits." (Purves 91) This second approach would prove difficult or impossible within the EU, where restrictions on labor movement are strictly limited.

Two specific Scottish institutions would need to be created: a Ministry of the Environment, and an Environmental Protection Agency. The Environmental Ministry "would have to possess widespread coordinating and advisory roles in addition to a specific area of responsibility." "In contrast to the Westminster model," it would need to work against industrial interests when they conflicted with the public interest. (Purves 91) As well, an EPA "with teeth" would be essential in "protecting the quality of life of the people." (92)


An independent Scotland would require its own military. This would be formed from the Scottish regiments, plus perhaps some bargaining for a portion of the Royal Navy, since so much of it is positioned in and operated around Scotland. There is also the capacity for more recruiting domestically: enlistment might be boosted by a stronger sense of nationalism, as well as soldiers no longer having to worry about being stationed in Northern Ireland. There are also potentially eager recruits from among the so-called 'Tartan Army:' paramilitary groups such as the Arm Nan Gaidheal, and many simple terrorists. Though criminal, many might have the capacity to loyally serve a Scottish government.

Scotland does not get a particularly fair share of UK defense procurement, nor is the military an entrenched part of the job market. "An independent Scotland in the single European market would be able to compete on more equal terms." (Scott, P 62) It would also be able to use defense as a way to boost employment, if it so wished.

Scotland would have to forego any biological and chemical weapons, most likely. Fears of another 'Operation Dark Harvest' would surely spark preemptive action from England, making it imperative that such activities be eliminated, and the decontamination of Gruinard be completed.

The new country would seemingly face three main options for defense strategy: remaining part of NATO, armed neutrality, or home defense.

First of all, Scotland is a major air base for the US military, site for NATO nuclear forces, and site for most of the UK's listening and early warning radar installations. Remaining in NATO is perhaps the simplest and easiest of options, as doing otherwise could engender serious opposition to independence from the UK's NATO allies.

Nuclear weapons would almost certainly be removed from Scottish soil, that having been a basic demand of the SNP and the Green party for a long time. This, according to advocates of a nuclear non-proliferation norm, would make Scotland more secure, rather than less. However, it would still remain within the NATO nuclear umbrella.

Armed neutrality is the most unlikely option. This is based on the model of Sweden, which is "non-aligned in peacetime to secure the option of neutrality in war." For Scotland to acquire such a capability would require "politically unacceptable levels of defense spending," that being the most important factor ruling it out. (Mackay 206)

The option of home defense is modeled on Ireland, which is neither part of NATO nor maintains a sizable armed force. Its defense capability is small, but considered enough to curtail any initial attack, until aid could be rendered by other states. This would presumably come from NATO, despite Ireland's non-membership, as it is in essence a free-rider in the NATO security web.

The 1320 Club, which had organized itself into a provisional government during the peak of the 1970's devolution craze, spawned an attempt to create an provisional army as well. The cells which were created and eventually mostly busted by the police and Special Branch were designed to be able to conduct a guerrilla defense of Scotland against an expected invasion, should independence be seized. This makes sense considering the rough and forbidding terrain of the highlands and islands. Guerrilla warfare has always been Scotland's most successful manner of warfare, as shown by William Wallace, as well as the Jacobites, and it makes a certain sense for Scotland now, were it to forsake NATO membership.

It is believed that Scotland would be "at least as capable as any other [UN] member state of comparable size of maintaining the forces needed for a contribution" to peacekeeping and other UN roles in which it might care to take part. (Scott, P 62)

Comparative Context

"The obvious parallel" may lie with Norway, "now more at ease with the idea of Scandinavia" since it has achieved independence. (Scott, P 63) There is also the comparison of a small state surviving against ever encroaching integration. An oil-rich Norway has gone it alone for some time. Although a part of NATO, Norway has declined membership in the EU twice. Despite much of her exports going to EU members, especially now after the remaining EFTA members have joined the EU, Norway stayed out in order to protect certain vital industries such as fishing and agriculture which might be limited, damaged or destroyed by EU central control. Norway remains independent, tied to the EU by friendship, but not obligated to follow any common line.

Another useful Scandinavian example is the Nordic Council. The Council is a mechanism for official cooperation, whose directives, although advisory only, tend to be followed by the member governments. Such a form of cooperation might be useful between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK, so as not to break off ties. It might provide a safe-house for the UK nations' common ground.

Canada provides two useful examples: that of the small state bordering a major power; and the search for autonomy by Quebec. Canada has maintained a peaceful border with the US for a long time, and a close alliance. Some would argue as to how much power Canada can freely exercise, but it has been claimed that Canada's 'quiet diplomacy' can achieve more than any regular country's ranting and raving. In any case, Canada maintains a mostly independent nationhood next door to the world's most powerful nation; Scotland could possibly do the same next to a starkly diminished UK. Quebec secessionism is another example. As opposed to Quebec, and the other Canadian provinces, Scotland has lacked the autonomy to negotiate with the central state; "it has had to threaten secession if it is to achieve anything at all." (Paterson 144)


"The SNP's commitment to a negotiated separation of political powers" can be interpreted as just that: "everything is negotiable except the end result." (Kennedy 54) Independence is what they want, and the details are open to debate. Yet the British state has been unwilling to even discuss more autonomy, let alone secession. This has been driving more and more people to the not so radical position of supporting independence rather than devolution. As has been shown above, such an independent Scotland is not only possible, but it could be strong economically, not to mention that it could maintain a credible defense, remain subject to most treaties and alliances, and have greater control over its economy and environment.

All must center in London... What are we esteemed by the English? Wretched drivellers, incapable of understanding our own affairs; or greedy speculators, unfit to be trusted? On what ground are we considered either as one or the other?
Sir Walther Scott, The Letters of Malachi Malagrowther , 1826

Works Cited

Carty, Tony and Alexander McCall Smith, eds. Power and Manoeverability . Edinburgh: Q Press, 1978.
Darnton, John. "Nationalist Winds Pick Up Again in Scotland." The New York Times . Oct 17, 1995 (A1 and A7)
Foulkes, George. "The Claim." Ed. Owen Dudly Edwards. A Claim of Right for Scotland. Edinburgh: Polygon, 1988.
Gray, Alasdair. Why Scots Should Rule Scotland . Edinburgh: Canongate Press, 1992.
Heraclides, Alexis. "Secession, Self-Determination and Nonintervention: In Quest of a Normative Symbiosis." Journal of International Affairs . vol. 45 #2, Winter 1992. (399-420)
Kennedy, Gavin. "Scotland's Economy." The Radical Approach: Papers on an Independent Scotland . Edinburgh: Lindsay and Co. Ltd., 1976. (47-59)
Mackay, Donald, ed. Scotland 1980: the Economics of Self-Government. Edinburgh: Q Press, 1977
Maxwell, Stephen. "Politics." Eds. Tony Carty and Alexander McCall Smith. Power and Manoeverability . Edinburgh: Q Press, 1978.
McCrone, Gavin. Scotland's Future: the Economics of Nationalism . Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1969.
Moynihan, Daniel Patrick. Pandaemonium: Ethnicity in International Relations . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Paterson, Lindsay. The Autonomy of Modern Scotland . Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1994.
Purves, David. "Environmental Policy in an Independent Scotland." The Radical Approach: Papers on an Independent Scotland . Edinburgh: Lindsay and Co. Ltd., 1976. (88-92)
Scott, Andrew Murray and Iain Macleay. Britain's Secret War: Tartan Terrorism and the Anglo-American State . Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing Company, 1990.
Scott, Paul H. Scotland in Europe: Dialogue With a Sceptical Friend . Edinburgh: Canongate Press, 1992.
Simpson, David. "Scotland, England, and North Sea Oil." The Radical Approach: Papers on an Independent Scotland . Edinburgh: Lindsay and Co. Ltd., 1976. (60-63)

Return to Howard's Scotland Page
Howard's main page