There was a point, not so long ago, when a highlight of Scottish politics was the occasional relaunch of SNP defence policy. Before devolution, and before the party had been gifted the laurels and resources of government, there was an enjoyable amateurishness to its proposed protection of the realm. A common joke was that in an independent Scotland the RAF would be replaced by kilted kamikaze on hang gliders.
Flash Gordon was hardly a convincing template for military strategy, but it was as much as a series of unelected, well-meaning, gentlemen-soldier defence spokesmen could do. Thankfully, those days have gone.
As the debate over the economic challenges of independence has raged, and as Nicola Sturgeon’s shaky handling of domestic policy and her party’s civil war has dominated the headlines, Stewart McDonald and Alyn Smith have been beavering away largely unnoticed in the background. SNP MPs with, respectively, responsibility for defence and foreign affairs, they have quietly evolved nationalist thought in these areas in an impressively sophisticated direction.
With the prospect of independence before us, one could argue this is not before time. Scotland would have to wrestle with a series of immediate and complex challenges, ranging from Nato membership – of which SNP activists retain an innate suspicion – to nuclear weapons – ditto – to its relationship with the EU. There are models to analyse, alliances to consider, and policies to be built that can withstand the probing of the Unionist parties and the credibility test among voters.
The publication this week of the UK government’s Integrated Review is therefore something of an opportunity. The SNP’s submission to the review was a chance to undermine the assumptions behind Boris Johnson’s vision of “Global Britain”, to describe the values that underpin the party’s alternative worldview, and to set out its foreign policy priorities for both a devolved Scotland and an independent one. As Smith said: “We cannot critique the UK government for failing Scotland if we do not set out what we would do instead.”
There can be no missing the differences. The swashbuckling nature of the Johnson administration is not to SNP tastes – the UK should instead be “carving out a place for itself on the world stage through an active commitment to multilateral institutions and international law”. While the review makes much of “British leadership in the world”, its presidency of the G7, its tilt to the Indo-Pacific, its military heft, its future as a global player and its role in advancing economic liberalism and managing tensions between the great powers, the Nationalists offer a more modest – they would say more realistic – proposal for a post-Brexit, post-Empire and (they hope) post-UK future. “I think it is fair to say we are 20 years ahead (of the UK parties) in our thinking,” boasts Smith, a statement that would have been met with some hilarity 20 years ago.
The party urges a pivot of its own – towards the High North and Arctic regions, “the UK’s own backyard”, which it says has been neglected for decades “in favour of attempting to project power and influence globally”. Where the UK government speaks of the US, China and India, the SNP states that Britain and Scotland “are North Atlantic nations” and repeatedly mentions Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland. “What we have put forward wouldn’t look out of place in the defence posture of an independent, northern European country committed to the rule of law and regional security,” says McDonald. This, of course, is the real point.
The politics of all this is fascinating, and goes to the heart of Scottish identity and the choices we may soon face: what kind of people are we? Throughout history Scots have filled an outsize place in the Armed Forces, often behaving with conspicuous bravery in far-flung corners. The Scottish regiments – there is now a single Royal Regiment of Scotland – are storied institutions and occupy a special place in many hearts both at home and abroad. Scots ran large chunks of the Empire, and the Glasgow tobacco and sugar barons became vastly wealthy through global trade, exploitation and slavery. The diaspora has done well for itself and can be found in senior roles in unexpected places across the planet.
This, in a sense, is what Britishness has meant to generations of Scots. We were not subjects but owners, willing participants and active conspirators. But as that global and economic eminence has faded, so too has the identity that came with it. To be replaced by… what exactly?
Scotland’s two governments are engaged in a battle to answer this question, and the role of foreign policy and defence is at its heart. Do Scots still want to sit at the top table of the United Nations, to play a lead role in Nato, to be a member of the G7 and G20, to be part of the “Five Eyes” security network, to be in the frontline of often unpopular wars, to continue as a nuclear power which maintains real if diminished global influence? Is the appetite for such responsibility, for – let’s be honest – the struggle for ongoing front-row relevance, for the moral weight and ethical conflicts that come with all this, still there? Are we ready for the psychological impact of walking away?
It’s undoubtedly the case that departure from the EU has changed minds. Some Scots view Brexit as an English betrayal of Britain – a foolish statement of self-interest and misguided exceptionalism. They see it as a rejection of continental solidarity and of realism about the economic and security importance of basic geography; as a misunderstanding of the essential nature of power blocs in the modern world, and as a glaring display of diverging values within the UK. With that foundational stone of their modern British identity gone, they are ready to quit the house altogether.
This debate is every bit as central to Scotland’s future as arguments about debt and currency, and the SNP is tackling it seriously and smartly. British or European? Top table or periphery? Social democracy on the Clyde or Singapore on the Thames? Getting busy in our own little corner or staying true to our global past? These are all legitimate options.
As former SNP MP Stephen Gethins puts it in an excellent new book, Nation to Nation – Scotland’s Place in the World, “we are now at another turning point in our history and our relationship with international partners. Now is the time to figure out what the next stage of Scotland’s story is.” Only Scots can write it.