Why are world leaders intervening in the Scottish independence debate?

Published: 10 September 2014
Author: Brad MacKay

Over the past few months a number of world leaders have felt compelled to comment on the independence debate in Scotland and the UK. The Australian and Canadian prime ministers, Tony Abbott and Stephen Harper (both countries themselves have large Scottish populations), the Chinese premiere Li Keqiang, the Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj, the former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt and the US President Barack Obama to name a few. So what might be prompting such interventions?

As part of my work into the implications of the independence debate for business decision-making in Scotland, I have also had a number of diplomats from countries around the world inquire about some of the findings from the research. A question that I always ask them in return is, how is the debate being viewed by your government? In each instance diplomats have made clear that their government’s view is that it is an issue which is for the citizens of Scotland to decide. But then the responses that follow fall into three categories.

First, many countries have large multicultural populations. Countries with such diversity are concerned that a vote by Scottish citizens for independence sends a message that differences between peoples can’t be accommodated within wider unions. This, they worry, means that independence might become the option of choice for resolving such differences in other countries – the possibility of a chain-reaction of sorts. Such a consequence, they suggest, could encourage 'balkanisation' and fragmentation in other countries and regions, some of whom have their own domestic movements to contend with. This has the potential to make otherwise stable parts of the world much more messy and volatile. The debate about the future of the UK and Scotland, then, is seen to have much wider implications for different reasons than simply what happens domestically on September 18th and beyond in the UK.

Second, while many countries don’t necessarily agree all the time with UK foreign policies, the UK is widely seen to be a stable force for good in the world. Many countries also see the UK as an important ally for addressing many of the world’s pressing issues, whether it is conflict in the Ukraine and the Middle East, or a range of other global challenges. There is a view in some capitals that a vote for independence would also result in the UK becoming distracted and inward-looking, perhaps for years, at a time when the world needs it to be outward looking as the international community tries to deal with various international challenges. A vote by Scots for independence, the argument follows, would dampen the UKs influence in the world at a time when many countries are looking to it to be a leader, or at least a strong ally, and the international influence of an independent Scotland, while no doubt for good, would be very modest.   

Third, particularly for European countries who are dedicating considerable resources to sorting out difficult problems within Europe itself following the Euro-crises, and also instability on the doorstep of Europe, such as with an increasingly aggressive Russia, renegotiating the terms of Scotland and the UK’s membership in the EU is also seen as an unwelcome prospect. It would inevitably require countries to redirect resources towards a potentially protracted period of negotiation. Of course, the same view might also be expressed for a UK in-out referendum on its membership of the EU.

While regions with their own aspirations will be watching developments in Scotland very closely, and might even be encouraging, I have yet to encounter a diplomatic representative who expresses a view that a ‘yes’ vote in the Scottish referendum on September 18th would be seen as a positive development from their capital. If following a ‘no’ vote, on the other hand, Scottish aspirations within the UK were accommodated through, for example, honouring pledges for further devolution, this would be seen as a much more constructive message to the international community, and a demonstration of a mature democracy at work at its best. So while diplomats whom I have spoken to are very clear that a ‘yes’ vote within a democratic process would be respected by their countries, their views suggest that it is very unlikely it will be applauded.