3 April 2022
How the Ukraine War Will Reshape Scottish Politics
Anthony Salamone on the profound and lasting implications of the Russo-Ukrainian War for Scotland’s independence debate
Over a month since Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, European peace and security as we previously knew them are over. It is impossible to predict the definitive course of the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War, beyond a certainty that, in the absence of an alternative, it will persist in some form. We can already be sure, however, that this war will serve as an historical marker – a definitional point in the shaping of European and global affairs for years and decades to come. The principal public focus in the EU, the US, the UK and elsewhere has been on support for Ukraine, and that focus is just. At the same time, with the knowledge of its significance, it is right and indeed necessary to consider the implications of this war for our own countries. Just as Germany is reimagining its spending on defence and Finland is considering whether to join NATO, so too must Scotland reflect on the meaning of the war for its politics – and its undeniable centrepiece, the independence debate.
In an article published in this magazine two days before the Ukraine war tragically began, I argued that this European security crisis had the potential to be comparable to Brexit in its impact on the independence debate. At this point, it is clear to me that the war will indeed reshape that defining debate of Scottish politics at least as much as the UK’s withdrawal from the EU did – if not more. In that regard, it is essential to dispel the prevailing notion that the only noticeable consequence of the Ukraine war for Scottish politics is a delay to the timetable for a possible independence referendum. In fact, the war and its legacy will profoundly alter the terms of the independence debate. One might even say that they constitute a “material change of circumstances”, to borrow a phrase. It is doubtful that either side of the constitutional argument is yet ready to acknowledge or accept the external redefinition of their debate. Nevertheless, it will soon become untenable to contend that the Ukraine war simply reinforces existing arguments for independence or the UK union. The reality is that Scotland’s independence debate will be refashioned in five core respects as a consequence of the war.
1. The new security reality brings indefinite uncertainty
As a result of the Ukraine war, the emerging paradigm for European security is one of markedly elevated unpredictability, caution and fear. This new security reality brings indefinite uncertainty. That scenario is an inverse of the relative peace and security which existed in Europe during the extended 2012–2014 independence referendum campaign. It is also deleterious to the present independence debate, which relies to a significant extent on a wider environment of predictability and stability. With respect to the war and their cause, the general preoccupation for proponents of independence is decorum – the avoidance of appearing tactless or indulgent by advocating a referendum or statehood while the war is acute and public attention is focused on it. The implication is that, after a sufficiently respectable pause, the pre-existing constitutional debate can resume. The truth is, however, that the prewar debate no longer exists. Europe has been irreversibly changed, and greater uncertainty and instability in a multitude of respects are likely to become the new normal.
In that environment, the absence of the stability previously available will make it more challenging to establish and deliver either an independence referendum or, in the event of a pro-independence majority in a prospective referendum, a process leading to statehood for Scotland. This new difficulty will certainly not aid, and may well compound, the ongoing dispute between the Scottish and UK Governments over holding a new referendum. It is also separate from the fact that, without the close cooperation of the two governments, Scotland lacks a viable pathway to effective independence. Such uncertainty could impact the independence debate in a variety of ways. In a more probable scenario, disruption to food or energy supplies could preoccupy government attention in place of planning a referendum or negotiating independence. In a less likely scenario, NATO could, despite its clear aim to the contrary, become involved in a conflict with Russia, in which case all independence-related processes would surely be suspended or abandoned. The degree of predictability which underpinned the 2014 independence referendum may well not exist for a future referendum.
2. Increased security concerns favour continuity over change
Many would contend that the primary duty of the state is to ensure the safety and security of its people. With the public mood defined by anxiety and concern over war in Europe and its impacts on our common future, security in the round is now a prevalent theme. Increased security concerns among the public favour continuity over change on matters of discretionary constitutional debate. That context diminishes the standard appeal of the proposition of change – in this case, Scottish independence. Accordingly, its proponents will now have to confront a core truth: Scotland does not need independence to ensure its defence and security. While they may argue that Scotland requires independence to join the EU, for instance, such an argument would be unconvincing in respect of security. Indeed, their challenge is to demonstrate that Scotland’s security would not be weakened, either temporarily or permanently, by independence – now in an era in which the consequences of such weaknesses are straightforward to imagine. In doing so, they should ignore the predictable indignation of those in their ranks who would never accept that any event diminishes the wisdom of independence, for the simple fact that a significant portion of the Scottish public thinks otherwise.
Regardless of any side’s preferences, we have entered a period in which the circumstances generally favour advocates of Scotland remaining part of the United Kingdom over advocates of Scotland becoming an independent state. This dynamic is a reversal of the Brexit era, which mostly privileged the independence side over the UK union side. However, that is neither to say that the outcome of a future referendum would be predestined, nor that the circumstances might not change again in the years ahead. Yet, the pro-independence side would undermine itself if it dismissed its newfound disadvantage. In turn, the pro-UK side would be unwise to overestimate its new position. Security is on the agenda, but the response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has equally demonstrated the UK’s diminished role in the world after Brexit. The primary axis for the response has been between the United States and the European Union, with the United Kingdom playing a supporting part on the side. In that sense, the UK is fulfilling a role more like Canada or Norway than France or Germany.
3. Defence and security are now core independence issues
Given the new European security reality, matters of defence and security are now core independence issues in a novel way. While these subjects were always important, they have arguably not featured substantively in political debate over recent years, beyond recycled arguments over the UK’s nuclear weapons. At this point, defence and security hold such indisputable relevance to Scotland’s future that it would be bizarre if they did not acquire prominence in the constitutional debate. The events around the Ukraine war have exposed, however, the regrettable reality that, similar to the situation on EU and foreign policies, Scottish political debate on defence and security policies is largely either dismal or non-existent. While defence is reserved to the UK state, such a poor debate in this domain at Holyrood and beyond is nevertheless not compatible with either a political system which is functional and engaged or the declared aspirations of some for Scotland to be an independent state.
In that regard, the central fantasy which must be dispelled is the suggestion that Scottish politics has a functional debate on NATO. The reality is that Holyrood has a non-debate on NATO. Before the Ukraine war, the word “NATO” had been spoken in the Scottish Parliament by its members a total of four times since the last election, according to the Official Report. The Scottish Government’s publication in response to the UK Government’s Integrated Review, issued before that election, includes an entire section on defence but never mentions NATO once. For discussion on how Scotland participates in NATO today, Scottish perspectives on NATO’s direction and strategy, or why an independent Scotland should (or even should not) be part of NATO, one would need to look beyond the Scottish Parliament or Government. A substantive debate on Scottish defence and security under independence would demand consideration of principles, strategy and the role of NATO, alongside means to achieve public support and cross-party consensus. Those elements do not currently exist in Holyrood politics. Moreover, as I have noted elsewhere, it would be strange to expect, if Scotland did become independent, that Holyrood could transform its mediocre defence debate into a fully-developed one without significant difficulty. The reality of the Ukraine war demands a new approach.
4. The NATO question takes on greater practical meaning
One of the most noteworthy features of Scotland’s constitutional politics is the extent to which the independence movement debates with itself, both in terms of the number of policy fields and the depth of opposing sentiments. The prospect of NATO membership is a particularly polarising issue – even though that polarisation is often not openly acknowledged. At the same time, it is questionable whether the independence movement’s internal debate reflects the actual balance of opinion on NATO. Within that debate, opposition to the Alliance is regularly the most vocal position. Yet, it is probable that a majority of independence supporters believe that an independent Scotland should become a NATO member. It would be reasonable to imagine that the Scottish electorate as a whole also supports NATO membership, regardless of differing opinions on the constitution. In any case, as a consequence of the Ukraine war, the NATO question takes on greater practical meaning than at any point in the modern Scottish independence debate. European security has been upended by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the purpose of NATO hardly needs explanation.
To date, the independence movement’s internal debate on NATO membership has in large measure become an ethical one focused on nuclear weapons. The timetable for the removal of UK nuclear weapons from Scotland and the principle of joining an alliance that includes such weapons are the recurrent themes. However, the parameters of the NATO question have now significantly changed. While ethical concerns will continue to preoccupy some, many others will be far more concerned with how to effectively ensure Scotland’s defence and security in a deteriorated European security environment. Opponents of NATO membership often suggest than an independent Scotland should adopt Ireland’s approach to defence. Their argument habitually neglects the fact that Ireland currently combines military neutrality with substantial underinvestment in its forces. The recent report from the Commission on the Defence Forces concludes that the current capability of the Irish Defences Forces leaves them “unable to conduct a meaningful defence of the State against a sustained act of aggression from a conventional military force” – as a country which ostensibly has no military allies. We deserve an explanation on why Scotland should voluntarily decide to make itself so vulnerable. If it became independent, Scotland would be responsible for its own security, which would necessitate balancing competing factors of values and needs. New times demand new calculations.
5. The global zeitgeist is of retrenchment, not openness
Beyond its own tragedy, the Russo-Ukrainian War is catalysing an acceleration of the transition to a different world compared to the one which we have known for the past several decades. It is a world characterised by a greater emphasis on protection and security. One marked by increased overt interstate competition – demonstrably, including armed aggression and other elements of war. In other words, the global zeitgeist is of retrenchment, not openness. This new period is a significant departure from the years before the 2014 independence referendum which, compared with today, seem a time of serenity – for Europe. Yet, it is also distinct from the Brexit era which, for all its tumult, predominantly affected the UK and Ireland, with the other EU Member States impacted to various lesser degrees. By contrast, the Ukraine war, including what it represents, has universal consequences which will redefine the world. In resetting expectations for peace and security in Europe and beyond, this war will change Scotland and its independence debate at a deeper level than Brexit ever could.
Given the new global era emerging, the prewar tenets for advocates of Scottish independence and advocates of the UK union will require adaptation. In particular, in a time of anxiety and fear, the buoyant optimism regularly projected by both sides of the argument will seem notably out of place. That challenge will affect the pro-independence side more than the pro-UK side. For all its disruption, Brexit never seriously dampened the perpetual positivity on which the independence movement in large measure relies. To be clear, independence remains a legitimate and reasonable prospect, but the new security reality must be confronted with sober honesty. It would not be unreasonable to suggest that Scottish independence in the years ahead could have similarities to becoming a state during the Cold War. Difficult choices would have to be made, such as between energy security and climate objectives. Strategic considerations would matter more, such as the geopolitical implications of adopting or not adopting the euro. Above all, if it became an independent state, Scotland would have to establish its relationships with the EU, NATO and the residual UK with its own defence and security foremost in mind. The world was never as benign, and Scotland would never have been as carefree, as some proponents of independence previously liked to suggest. In this new era, however, the security of Scotland takes on greater meaning and resonates more clearly with the public. A credible independence debate must take full account of the times – not least to ensure that, whatever the outcome of a future referendum, Scotland is prepared for this new world.