Northern lights: how Scotland is reinventing itself as an Arctic nation

Immobilised by Brexit in the south, Nicola Sturgeon has turned her gaze north. 

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This month, the Arctic came to Edinburgh. More specifically, the Scottish government succeeded in inviting the Arctic Circle Assembly to Scotland's capital for the first time, in a bid to place itself at the centre of the scramble for political influence in the so-called “High North”.

The Arctic region is attracting renewed geopolitical, economic and ecological interest. Climate change was the main stated purpose of the conference. Temperatures in the Arctic region have risen two or three times faster than the global average in recent times. While the world's attention is on the migration crisis arriving from the south, the Arctic thaw will affect the lives of roughly four million people who live across the region.

Such warming has also made areas in the North Polar Region increasingly accessible for economic exploitation and development. However, the economic opportunities come with high risks for the Arctic's ecosystems.

Yet there was another manmade challenge up for conversation – Brexit. With delegates from Norway, Iceland, Canada and the Baltics listening, the Scottish government positioned itself as at the heart of innovation in the growth of shipping lanes. Some imaginative delegates even described the Orkney’s islands as the “Singapore of the North.”

With the UK government in a negotiation deadlock in Brussels and suffering political paralysis in Westminster, Scottish ministers long to carve out a separate foreign policy and strategy for growth. Those in the nationalist community have long held that measuring Scotland’s achievements and reforms by the habits of Westminster can be too limiting in ambition.

Scotland's Nordic idealism does however had a hard practical edge to it. The conversations at the conference focused on how housing, design, public living space, environmental effect and economic growth could combine. The Scottish government has already has a Nordic Baltic Strategy. Through it, Scotland has worked with organisations in Denmark that specialise in the renovation of redundant and derelict buildings for community and cultural uses. Cities like Paisley and Copenhagen have swapped ideas on how to regenerate economically weak and politically disengaged neighbourhoods. 

The importance the Scottish government places on its Nordic connection was emphasised by the presence of Nicola Sturgeon. In her keynote speech, the first minister declared: “Scotland’s involvement with the Arctic Circle is just one strand of our efforts to build closer relationships with our northern neighbours.” On the minds of most delegates, though, was the idea of desperately trying to pull away from Brexit and the political economy of the south.

An official from the German consulate general in Edinburgh said: “This is a very European event. Especially given what is going on [Brexit]. It’s very difficult at the moment but there is sympathy with this conference. Germany has a lot of interests in what happens in the region with oil and gas. A lot of knowhow. To see a government engaged is always positive.”

Could the Scottish National Party use the Arctic Circle to lay the ground for independence? Delegates were more cautious on this question. “Look anything is possible,” said Gunnar Mar Gunnarsson, the executive officer of the International Arctic Science Committee. “We think – or at least a lot of the nations who are seen on the periphery of Europe see – Scotland as having a lot of potential.

"But it is about what ties are more important. Of course, even as part of the UK, you will still be the most relevant nation for Arctic research, oil exploration, mineral deposit analysis. There is a chance.”

One glaring omission from the conference was the issue of security. In contrast to the abundance of Japanese, Singaporean and South Korean visitors, Russian delegates were notably absent. For all the talk of a new perspective, tensions over resource discovery and maritime policing of the Arctic lay untouched. The UK government, which has responsibility for defence and national security, was called out for its relative lack of interest in Arctic affairs.

The two days of the conference were heavy in theory, not least the idea of Scotland once again going in another direction. Scotland’s geographical and socio-economic closeness to the Nordics and Arctics has coincided with a transformation in its politics. However, given the importance of defence and security in the Wild North, there are limits to what Scotland can do as a devolved nation. If the Scottish government wants to reinvent itself as an Arctic nation, its first stop along the sea lanes may have to be the ballot box.