Jonathon Shafi argues that the diplomatic realities created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine mean the SNP leadership are even more unlikely to pursue independence.
Editorial note: This is an abridged version of an article that can be found on Jonathon Shafi’s substack Independence Captured. Though attention is naturally focused on the horrors in Ukraine and the threat of escalation, the war does have many consequences for domestic politics as well.
Firstly, and for the sake of completeness, I am not in favour of making comparisons between Ukraine and Scotland as some have done. Personally, I think it is a crass and inaccurate parallel to draw. Moreover it is not, in my view, a comparison that the mass of Scottish society can relate to either.
Now to the point. If independence was off the cards as a practical reality before, it is even more so now as the entirety of the Western security order galvanises around the question of the Russian invasion.
That doesn’t mean there are not, and never will be, splits and divergences within Nato, the European Union and the transatlantic partnership in which the Britain plays a significant role. We live in unpredictable and volatile times. But that apparatus is now steeled for the historical moment, politically and militarily.
The EU is becoming a military power in its own right as the countries of the European core vastly increase military spending. The European Commission will purchase and send arms to Ukraine. Within this context, some argue that Britain is on the sidelines and is a diminished power as a result of Brexit. That might garner a few thousand likes on Twitter, but it is not really a serious appraisal of things.
Britain has the financial power of the City, a key lynchpin in the global economy. It is a nuclear power too, and despite the calibre of personnel at present, its role as a vassal state to American national interests remains an important one. Of course, there are pressures. We might expect the UK to fall into more – not less – alignment with the EU. At least, the economic and rhetorical bust ups we have seen in recent years, will be avoided as far as possible as war erupts on the European continent.
Last week, and before Putin’s invasion, I wrote an extensive newsletter about the unlikelihood of a referendum in 2023. This included the following statement:
Nicola Sturgeon has said that “time is on her side” when it comes to independence. Maybe an argument can be made on this basis. But that goes for the UK government too. Events like pandemics, or wars, or economic crises do not necessarily militate against the UK institutions and towards independence.
I think we are seeing some of this come to pass. The war in Ukraine has on the one hand strengthened the basis for the unitary state given its role in the Western order, and on the other hand it will have put independence firmly on ice for the SNP leadership.
There has been an attempt by some in the SNP and elsewhere to establish a number of political differentiations between the Scottish and British response. The attitude towards refugees is one key area, alongside exposing the evident links between the Russian oligarchy, the Tory party and wider British establishment.
This has come alongside continued and energetic attempts to ingratiate the Scottish Government with NATO, the EU and the broader foreign policy establishment. The First Minister hasn’t been short of praise for well known liberal ideologue Anne Applebaum, for example. Perhaps Sturgeon has indeed captured the respect of some in that milieu.
But we are talking now not about soundbites, lectures, or diplomatic pleasantries. No – this is about hard power and about the infrastructure of Western security at a time of war in Europe. In this world, the notion of breaking up the UK any time soon is a non-starter. Not for the UK government, not for NATO, not for the European Commission, not for the United States and indeed, not for the Scottish Government.
We don’t know how long this war will last. But it is possible there will be a long military entanglement and further escalations. Either way, the events of the last week have changed the nature of politics across the global system.
Again – if the SNP were cautious about taking on the British state before, they will be many times more apprehensive now. Last week I speculated that the SNP may introduce referendum legislation in the run up to the May council elections, mainly as an electoral stunt. Barring a significant – some would say miraculous – turnaround in the situation, I think the odds of that have vastly reduced.
Can you imagine the response to an official call for an independence referendum at a time like this?
NATO, Faslane and independence
The SNP has been on a journey when it comes to foreign policy. In many ways, it has departed from the more radical traditions of the national movement, much of which had roots in the peace movement itself. The 2012 policy change on NATO now feels like a very long time ago. Since the referendum, the SNP have not just sought to cleave around the corporate establishment, but the foreign policy establishment too. I wrote about this back in 2019.
You can agree or disagree with whether or not this is a good thing. But what you can’t do is deny that basic fact. This week the SNP defence spokesperson even lamented the cuts to UK military spending – not exactly red meat for Scottish nationalists.
It does make sense though, as the SNP want to be seen as a more responsible, more reliable partner, to the security state than the fumbling populist in Number 10. Writing in the Foreign Policy journal, the SNP Defence team outline their vision for Scottish foreign policy:
“Unlike Ireland, Scotland will seek to be a reliable NATO partner; it’s in too vital a strategic position not to be.”
“An independent Scotland will be a reliable and constructive partner, a staunch ally, and a fierce friend. The cornerstone of its defence policy will be NATO membership.”
The SNP leadership have adopted a firmly Atlanticist world view, especially over the last decade, and that will be a perspective held now more than ever. This is a departure from previous approaches to foreign policy within Scottish nationalism which sought to challenge US and British imperialism, albeit in different circumstances.
All of these issues take on a super-charged importance now. The strategic value of Faslane, for example, has shot up the agenda as conflict between nuclear powers comes onto the scene.
In recent years we have seen the SNP attempt to show that they are in line with every Western foreign policy orthodoxy. That has special meaning at a time like this. Now, as the Russian invasion enters into its second week, forms of inaction are also required to show how disciplined a partner Scotland can be. So, following this logic, it would be irresponsible to raise the question of Trident removal at a time like this, just as it would be injurious to propose that Scotland should leave the UK while war in Europe is a reality.
If raising these questions in a serious way would be ill-advised, it is now downright heretical to raise criticisms of Nato. That has big implications for commonly held views within the independence movement, including on totemic issues like Trident. Because there is no way that Nato will passively accept the disarming of Trident and specifically the Faslane base at which they are stored at a time like this. Transferring these weapons to another location is not only costly, but it takes time. Perhaps most importantly, this process would reveal an intolerable display of strategic disunity within Nato itself.
Compliance not confrontation
The SNP leadership will not countenance any kind of stand-off with Nato, the British state, the United States or Europe on these questions. That was obvious before Putin invaded Ukraine. But now it is not just a matter of writing fetching articles in the Foreign Policy magazine to assuage the status quo. To be a good ally in this new period comes down to absolute compliance with the existing structures of the Western security apparatus.
Trident is a key part of that. So is the British state. Far more important, it should be said, than whether or not Boris Johnson is admired in the polite company of the European Commission. More important than retweeting the Western leadership or appearing – as the First Minister undoubtedly does – as a consummate stateswoman during a major crisis. Perhaps an MEP or two will make some sympathetic comments in relation to Scottish independence, nursing the Brexit hangover. But again – that means very little.
This is, to repeat, about hard power and the architecture of a world order that has changed immeasurably, after the first week of this bloody, illegal and devastating war. As I have said before, these are all complex issues and there are no easy answers. But we should at least be clear – and honest – about the real parameters of the debate.
As of just days ago, those parameters have changed – and drastically so.