Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics. He is also a former U.K. government special adviser.
U.S. President Barack Obama expressed his support on Thursday for a “strong, robust and united” Britain. Indicating his preference for a “no” vote in the Scottish independence referendum in September, he asserted that the “United Kingdom has been an extraordinary partner to us. From the outside at least, it looks like things have worked pretty well.”
Mr. Obama is not the only international leader to express concern about the Scottish referendum. Madeleine Albright, the former U.S. secretary of state, has said that “fragmentation does not help” the United States and the European Union. Meanwhile, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who served as prime minister from 1999 to 2001, has said that “the Balkanization of the British Isles is something we are not looking forward to.”
These remarks highlight the fact that, despite relative decline in the 20th century, the United Kingdom has preserved sizable political, military and economic influence on the world stage. As former Conservative foreign secretary Douglas Hurd once asserted, by and large Britain continues to “punch above its weight” in global affairs and this has helped bolster international security and prosperity.
However, the domestic underpinnings of this success are now threatened by two potential political earthquakes on the horizon. Not only will the United Kingdom break up later this year if Scotland votes for independence, but there is also the possibility of an “in-out” European referendum in 2017 that could see Euroskeptics prevail.
Should Scotland vote for independence, and/or Euroskeptics win the day in any eventual EU plebiscite, it would represent a body blow to the international influence of the remainder of the United Kingdom that could even place the continued union between England, Northern Ireland and Wales in jeopardy.
And the two issues could feed into each other.
This is because Scots, in general, are more favourable toward continued membership of the EU than the English, who account for a majority of Britain’s population. Thus, if Scotland votes for independence, and doesn’t take part in a subsequent EU plebiscite, it becomes more likely that – in a close vote – Britain would leave the EU.
Such an exit would not only be potentially disastrous for the United Kingdom, but also disadvantage the rest of Europe, which widely acknowledges the value of continued British membership. It is also unlikely that many of the benefits Scottish nationalists assert about an independent Scotland would, ultimately, be fully delivered for the Scottish people, including automatic or “fast-track” EU membership.
All EU countries need to agree to the accession of a new state, and the Spanish government has already voiced opposition to automatic Scottish membership given the precedent this might set for Catalonia. Even if the Scots were to accede after an extended period, the terms on which they would do so could be significantly less favourable than those that the United Kingdom originally negotiated.
The aftershocks of these potential political earthquakes for Britain, while not all immediate, would be profound in the long-run. On the European front, for instance, U.K. influence and prosperity are significantly enhanced by EU membership. Highly imperfect as Brussels is, the British economy would suffer if Britain left the European club, and it would be a major geopolitical mistake to boot.
The United Kingdom now accounts for less than 1 per cent of global population, and around 3 per cent of world GDP. As former British foreign secretary David Miliband rightly said, “[O]ur role in Europe magnifies the power of our ideas, and strengthens our international clout in Washington, Beijing, and Moscow.”
For example, in trade negotiations, such as those with the United States now over the proposed U.S.-EU Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the U.K.’s bargaining position is enhanced by being part of the EU. It is the world’s largest trading bloc accounting for some 20 per cent of global GDP, and also approximately 500 million people.
The influence that EU membership confers on Britain also helps drive foreign direct investment (FDI). Indeed, the United Kingdom is now the fourth-largest recipient of FDI in the world.
Japanese-headquartered firms have been particularly vocal in threatening to reconsider their investment if Britain leaves the EU. This is because many of these companies see their U.K. operations as an effective way to access the whole of the European market, not just England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The impact of Scottish independence would also undermine Britain’s influence in multiple ways. For instance, a U.K. Parliamentary Committee rightly warned earlier this year that losing the Scottish tax base, especially at a time of fiscal austerity, could lead to further budgetary cuts to the armed forces; it could even threaten the future of Trident, Britain’s expensive independent nuclear deterrent, which is due for potential renewal in coming years.
Moreover, the U.K.’s overseas aid budget, and extensive network of diplomatic and trade missions would be affected. Together with military cutbacks, this would undermine British hard and soft power which have enabled it to punch above its weight for so long.
Scottish independence would also erode the U.K.’s voice in international forums, from the UN, G7/8, G20, and NATO. Perhaps most prominently, it could be seized upon by some non-permanent members of the UN Security Council, and/or other UN members, to spark a review of British membership in the Security Council.
To be sure, reform of the Security Council is overdue. However, Scottish independence could see this issue being decided upon less favourable terms for the United Kingdom than might otherwise be the case.
Taken overall, Britain will be notably damaged and diminished by Scottish independence and leaving the EU. And the fact that the United Kingdom would no longer punch so strongly on the international stage would also adversely affect its ability to bolster international security and prosperity at a time when both remain fragile.