7 October 2021

We are stronger together on the world stage

By William Hague

With the lengthy cycle of lockdowns confining millions across the globe to their homes for weeks and months at a time, many will look back on 2020-21 as a Groundhog Year, each of us reliving almost indistinguishable days over and over again.

And yet the last year or so has also been a time of extraordinary global change. Notwithstanding the election of Joe Biden, a fierce defender of the international rules-based order, these changes have largely been for the worse. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the strains under which our international rules-based system is creaking, with the global response to the pandemic far less co-ordinated than to the global financial crisis of 2008.

Given that Western democracy is being challenged in a way it has not been since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is more important than ever that Global Britain plays her role in defending democracy and liberal values on the world stage. And yet a surge of nationalism in Scotland puts the future of the United Kingdom and our country’s ability to be a force for good in the world at risk.

Despite the SNP losing its ‘once in a lifetime’ vote just seven years ago, the party again went into this year’s Holyrood elections seeking a mandate to subject Scotland to another bitter and divisive referendum. Although the Scottish people denied the SNP a majority and this mandate, Nicola Sturgeon ploughs ahead regardless. While quick to condemn Donald Trump’s refusal to respect the result of the 2020 US election, the First Minister and her party have never sought to honour the verdict of the 2014 vote. Each and every day, the SNP seeks to distract from its ‘poor record by blaming the UK Government for all of Scotland’s ills while calling for another vote. In Holyrood, it is always Groundhog Day.

While I was serving as Foreign Secretary, our allies repeatedly raised their concerns with me about the Scottish referendum and the impact that separation would have on our ability to do good on the world stage. Whether regarding the impact on our powerful voice on the world stage, our strength in the United Nations, or our ability to defend democracy, our friends and allies always made the same point: together, the UK’s family of nations can do so much more good globally than we ever could apart.

Our voice on the world stage

Despite the post-war decline in the importance of Europe and the growth of Asia, a trend accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the UK remains one of the very few countries on the world stage that can move the dial on global issues. Anyone who doubts the big punches that our small islands can still throw should count the number of countries who supported us in expelling Russian diplomats after their chemical weapons attack at Salisbury, or the number of our friends and allies who backed our efforts to support the people of Hong Kong in the face of Chinese repression.

The English language, our links with the United States and the Commonwealth, and our powerful economy, give us a great deal of clout internationally. Our country is consistently ranked as one of the most influential countries across the world. For example, the Soft Power 30 index compiled by Portland Communications has placed the UK as the second most influential country in the world for four years in a row. Whether it is speaking up on human rights abuses, calling for greater action on climate change or helping to broker peace in conflict zones, what Britain says still matters.

As a member of our family of nations, Scotland benefits from the UK’s strong international influence. It is British soft power that helped bring the Commonwealth Games to Glasgow in 2014 – and with it £740 million for the Scottish economy. Likewise, this same soft power will bring COP26 to Glasgow in November and put Scotland at the centre of the most important climate change conference since the Paris Agreement.

While Scotland enjoys a formidable reputation around the world, it is far from certain that an independent Scotland, with a dramatically smaller diplomatic service and Foreign Office, would be able to achieve such effective diplomatic wins for the Scottish people. Indeed, in 2013, the Foreign Affairs Committee warned that ‘Scottish voters should be under no illusion about the significant resources that would be required to fulfil the Scottish Government’s aim of replicating the quality of the business and consular support currently provided by the FCO’.

Our strength in the United Nations

But just as Scotland’s soft power is enhanced through the UK, so too is the UK’s soft power boosted by Scotland. The whole UK benefits from Scotland’s links with the millions of people across the world descended from Scots, from the US to Australia, who pride themselves on their Scottish heritage. Moreover, Scottish independence would be perceived across the world as a sign of the UK’s decline. The loss of territory and population, and the impact on our economy, would be met with delight by autocratic regimes who would relish the diminished power of our country to do good globally.

Of course, an independent Scotland would set about joining the UN, through which it could seek to support peace, security and human rights in its own right. But an independent Scotland could never become a permanent member of the UN Security Council; the country would have to compete in elections in order to temporarily serve on that august body. Given that Ireland has been a member of the UN Security Council for just six years since the UN began, in contrast to the UK’s 76 years, Scotland’s ability to do good internationally through the UN would be much diminished by independence.

So too would the rest of the UK’s influence at the UN wane in the event of Scottish independence. Reform of the UN Security Council is both necessary to improve the effectiveness of the organisation and long overdue. However, any action that weakens our country will be leapt upon by Russia and China as an excuse for revisiting the UK’s P5 membership, in the event that reform does come. As the United Nations Association – UK has warned, ‘any reduction in the UK’s status…such as would result from Scottish independence, would be likely to increase the already growing demands for reform of the Security Council’.

Our ability to defend democracy

Another international organisation through which our country is an important force for good globally is Nato, the alliance that has done more to uphold peace in Europe since the Second World War than any individual country ever could. The UK is just one of three nuclear nations within Nato, helping to deter nuclear attacks on 30 countries, which together account for around one in seven of the world’s population.

Through the UK’s membership of Nato and the alliance’s principle of collective defence, which deters foreign attacks, Scotland’s peace and security are well safeguarded. While, again, an independent Scotland could of course join Nato in its own right, it is far from certain that a nationalist government would allow the country to do so. The SNP has historically been opposed to Nato membership, only adopting a pro-Nato stance in 2012. Moreover, in their white paper on independence, the nationalists proposed spending less on defence than the required 2% of GDP, casting further uncertainty over their commitment to the organisation.

Regardless as to whether an independent Scotland would be allowed to join Nato, the break-up of the UK would be a godsend to our enemies. As much as the architects of independence seek to distance themselves from Russia – with Alex Salmond trying in vain to do so from his television show on the Kremlin-funded channel RT – there are few results that would delight Vladimir Putin more than Scottish independence. Putin’s Russia thrives on spreading discord between and within Western democracies.

We know from the Russia report released last year that there have been credible claims that Russia interfered in the 2014 referendum. Similarly, the Atlantic Council has produced evidence that Russia has been running a disinformation campaign to discredit the result of the Scottish independence referendum result, including claims that ‘Yes’ ballot papers were added to ‘No’ piles. Russia’s motive is clear: breaking up one of the most successful unions of nations in history would both leave the people of Scotland and the rest of the UK more vulnerable to the malign influence of the Kremlin and weaken Britain’s ability to counter Russia on the world stage.

Leaving aside the SNP’s ambivalent position over Nato and Russia and the risks of independence for the security of Scotland, a vote for independence would also leave the rest of the UK less safe and secure. The economic impact of Scotland’s departure would make it harder for the UK to provide sufficient funding for our Armed Forces, our world-leading intelligence and security services, and the maintenance of our independent nuclear deterrent. As the Defence Committee concluded in 2013, ‘the level of security and defence presently afforded to the people of the United Kingdom is higher than that which could be provided by the Governments of a separate Scotland and the remainder of the UK.

The false promise of EU membership

Ignoring the realities of independence for Scotland’s influence and ability to do good globally, the nationalists have a familiar silver bullet: the European Union. The SNP claims that joining the EU will grant Scotland strong influence in Europe and the ability to do more to address important global issues. The real picture, however, is far less clear.

First, it is far from certain that an independent Scotland would be able to join the EU in the short to medium term. As highlighted consistently since the referendum was granted, joining the EU means joining the euro and abandoning the pound, a proposition less than one in five Scots supports. Moreover, the EU’s Excessive Deficit Procedure rules state that EU countries must not allow their budget deficit to exceed 3% of GDP, less than half of the 7% of GDP seen in Scotland before the Covid-19 crash.

Second, even if an independent Scotland were able to join the EU, it is unlikely that it would have a strong voice within Europe, never mind on the world stage. Influence within the EU – from the number of MEPs to the allocation of votes under the Qualified Majority Voting system – is based on countries’ population sizes. This would leave Scotland with less influence in the EU than countries like Bulgaria, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. The nationalists often peddle the politics of grievance, claiming that Scotland is ignored by Westminster, despite accounting for 8% of the UK’s population. It is difficult to see how Brussels could give Scotland a greater voice, accounting as it would for just 1% of the EU’s population.

Together, we can do more good globally Working together, Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland are a formidable force for good on the world stage. If the people of Scotland want to continue to enjoy strong soft power, hold privileged positions in international forums and play their part in defending democracy, they must reject the siren calls from Sturgeon and her party. A leap into the dark would damage not only Scotland’s ability to do good on the world stage, but also the rest of the UK’s. Similarly, if Britain wants to continue to work to make the world safer, fairer and more prosperous, we must do everything we can to protect the precious bond between Scotland and the rest of the UK.

Both at home and abroad, our family of nations is truly more than the sum of its parts. Together, Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland can continue to be a force for good on the world stage and enjoy the peace, security and prosperity this brings.

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Lord Hague is the former foreign secretary and a former leader of the Conservative Party

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.