The Northwest Passage

Hey... HEY! I've nae problems with your seccession dreams, but at least pick a different logo, like a two-headed bear or something.

HeyHEY! Look, I empathise with your secession dreams, but could you at least pick a different logo, like a star or a bear? Give it two heads, or something.

In Congress, July 4, 1776.
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America, When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
– The United States Declaration of Independence

Back in 2014, Scottish Independence was something that only really mattered to Scots, Britons, and Europeans. On the international stage, the mood was generally “well, ok, I guess, whatever.” Most leaders did not speak out, though those that did were against independence.

Just over two years later, the story’s very different, isn’t it?

After the vote, the international reaction was one of relief. Back then, being part of the UK seemed to be “the most favourable option for everyone; for themselves, for all of Britain and for the rest of Europe,” which “avoided serious economic, social, institutional and political consequences.” Because the Scots were not permitted to speak to the EU themselves – it must be done through the member state, which is of course the UK – the Scottish Independence movement was equated falsely with authoritarian, right wing, even openly fascist Eurosceptic movements. Even if some did think that Scottish Independence wasn’t the same as the Dansk Folkeparti or Front National, they clearly felt that it would set cataclysmic events in motion:

The European Commission welcomes the fact that during the debate over the past years, the Scottish government and the Scottish people have repeatedly reaffirmed their European commitment.
– Jose Manuel Barroso

Belgian EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht, whose native Flanders region is in thrall to a growing nationalist movement, said a Scottish split would have been “cataclysmic” for Europe, triggering a domino effect across the continent.
“If it had happened in Scotland, I think it would have been a political landslide on the scale of the break-up of the Soviet Union,” said De Gucht, a liberal who does not support demands from some of his fellow Flemings for their own state.
“A Europe driven by self-determination of peoples … is ungovernable because you’d have dozens of entities but areas of policy for which you need unanimity or a very large majority,
– EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht

Even before Scottish polls closed, French President Francois Hollande expressed his fear of a possible “deconstruction” of Europe after decades of closer integration.
“That is what is happening at the moment, this conjunction of centrifugal forces that is losing sight of the European objective,” he told a news conference on Thursday, citing a danger of the break-up of the EU and individual member states because they were no longer seen as protecting citizens.
– French President Francoi Hollande

The value of diversity and the riches of our territories, not fragmentation, is the answer which the Scottish people, rightly proud of their history and traditions, has given to all of us.
The European Union will certainly benefit from a renewed commitment by the United Kingdom to reinforcing our joint action to provide concrete answers to the justified desire of our citizens for economic development and a capacity to face our many international challenges.
– Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi

I take it as yet another proof that the world has not gone entirely mad.
If Britain had fallen apart, it could have led to a wave of nationalism that would have destabilised a number of other European countries.
– Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka

Two things have happened which chill those warm words into icicles. We, the people of Scotland voted 62% to Remain part of the European Project: it was England (& Wales), the seat of the UK – the sovereign state which who you were so very relieved we stayed part of – which now risks the “cataclysm” you so feared. The second, of course, is the election of a US President who is not much of an ally to the European Project at all.

Just arrived in Scotland. Place is going wild over the vote. They took their country back, just like we will take America back. No games!
– Donald Trump epically misjudges the prevailing mood in Scotland


People want to take their country back and they want to have independence in a sense, and you see it in Europe, all over Europe. They want to take their borders back, they want to take their monetary back… I think you’re going to have this more and more.
– Donald Trump, 24th June 2016

The people have spoken. I think the EU is going to break up. I think the EU might break up before anybody thinks in terms of Scotland. I really think that without the immigration issue [the EU] wouldn’t have had a chance of breaking up… the people are fed up, whether it’s here or in other countries. You watch: other countries will follow.
– Donald Trump, 27th June 2016

There’s no point in me talking about what the new President means for the people of United States of America themselves. As I said, I’m not a US citizen, and don’t have a vote, so I don’t think anything I could offer would be particularly meaningful. But I can talk about what the election might mean for Scotland, and Scottish Independence.

Let’s start with the bad news: the new President of the United States is opposed to Scottish independence. Of course, the same could be said of the previous President, and indeed the other major nominee:

There is a referendum process in place and it is up to the people of Scotland. The United Kingdom has been an extraordinary partner to us. From the outside at least, it looks like things have worked pretty well. And we obviously have a deep interest in making sure that one of the closest allies we will ever have remains a strong, robust, united and effective partner. But ultimately these are decisions that are to be made by the folks there.
– Barack Obama, 6th June 2014

I would hate to have (the UK) lose Scotland. I hope that it doesn’t happen but I don’t have a vote in Scotland. But I would hope it doesn’t happen… I would think it would be a loss for both sides but, again, I don’t have a vote
Hilary Clinton, 13th June 2014

However, there’s a crucial difference. Clinton (and Obama) backed the UK remaining in the EU:

The UK is at its best when it’s helping to lead a strong European Union. It leverages UK power to be part of the EU. I don’t think the EU moderates British influence in the world, it magnifies it.
America wants Britain’s influence to grow, including within Europe.
Let me be clear: ultimately this is something the British voters have to decide for themselves.
As part of our special relationship, part of being friends is to be honest and to let you know what I think, and speaking honestly, the outcome of that decision is a matter of deep interest to the US, because it affects our prosperity as well.
– Barack Obama, 22nd April 2016

Hillary Clinton believes that transatlantic cooperation is essential, and that cooperation is strongest when Europe is united. She has always valued a strong United Kingdom in a strong EU. And she values a strong British voice in the EU.
– Statement from Hillary Clinton, 23rd April 2016

Trump, on the other hand, not only opposed Scottish Independence and backed the UK leaving the EU, he said this about a second independence referendum after the EUref:

… Turmoil and bedlam for so long… It was a very bad period for Scotland, it was very divisive.
I would say that the winning team should be extremely upset if that is even thought about. I had heard it would be 50 years before it could happen again. I thought staying together would be a better thing but it’s not up to me and I didn’t want to make my thoughts clear on the matter because I felt it wasn’t up to me, but the people made the right decision.
– Donald Trump, 30th July 2015

I don’t know how they can do that – go through all that again. I’ve never heard of a thing like that. It’s crazy.
You would’ve thought that Cameron, or whoever was planning it, would’ve said ‘We’ll do this now, but if we win you can’t do it for another 50 years.
I didn’t want to get involved in it, but people asked me and I think Scotland is better being unified as opposed to being independent,.
I felt it gives it more strength, so it certainly seemed to me, but it’s not my issue.
– Donald Trump, 1st September 2015

While he gave assurances that the special relationship with the US would continue with England, Scotland and Northern Ireland independently, he urged caution against breaking up the UK. “One thing I have to say about Scotland is they have to be careful. The oil price is down and those [Scottish revenue] numbers are a lot different when the oil prices are down.”
He added that the thought of going through another disruptive independence referendum so soon “is very sad”.
– Donald Trump, 27th June 2016

Clinton was against Scottish independence, but for the UK remaining in the EU; Trump was against Scottish independence and the UK remaining in the EU. While Scotland is all but being welcomed with open arms by EU leaders, politicians, and media, and the UK given the short shrift, the next POTUS was all too happy to celebrate the UK’s “independence”:

The people of the United Kingdom have exercised the sacred right of all free peoples. They have declared their independence from the European Union and have voted to reassert control over their own politics, borders and economy.
– Donald Trump statement following the UK’s European Union Membership Referendum

The UK “declaring independence,” reasserting “control over their own politics, borders and economy” (even when the UK was already independent) is good, wonderful, sacred even. Yet Scotland doing those very things is “crazy,” “ridiculous,” “turmoil,” and “bedlam.” Why? Why is independence good for the UK, but not for Scotland?

Here’s why.



That dotted line is the GIUK Gap, or Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom Gap. It’s a naval chokepoint in the North Atlantic: the sea gateway between the Atlantic and Northern Europe. Lindsay Bruce wrote a brilliant (if terrifying) article on it, which just so happened to be published exactly one year ago today:

If you happen to live in any northern European country, then to get to the Atlantic you have a choice of three routes; between Iceland and Greenland, between Iceland and the UK, or through the English Channel.

The Channel is one of the busiest commercial sea lanes in the world, and is so narrow that anything larger than a rowing boat would be spotted and reported to Whitehall within minutes. That leaves the two other routes, commonly and collectively referred to as the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK for short) Gap – a naval choke point of enormous strategic importance.

During the Cold War, this was one of the most heavily patrolled areas of sea anywhere in the world. Soviet nuclear subs had to cross it to reach the Atlantic in order to put their missiles within range of targets in the United States, and conversely, any allied naval force had to pass it in order to position themselves to attack either the Soviet Northern Fleet, or its Baltic Fleet.

Given the apocalyptic tones the recent election has taken in terms of global security, Scotland has all of a sudden become extremely important in geopolitics. When the UK was part of the EU, Scotland’s sea territory – which takes a substantial portion of the GIUK Gap – was part of the EU’s collective maritime zone. In the event that the UK as it is now leaves the EU, that big chunk of water will be outside the EU. Iceland, Norway, and the Faroe Islands all have their own EEZs: what will happen to the UK’s in the event it leaves the EU? Will it join the EFTA, or just be out on its lonesome, with practically no defences & no way of monitoring its waters, rendering it vulnerable to other, bigger – competing – nations?


Poor Ireland: even if Scotland does become independent, unless we get our 6,000 square miles back, we won’t even have sea continuity with the EU, let alone land.

So, what’s the good news? The good news is that Scottish Independence is suddenly far, far more geopolitically important than perhaps at any time this century. Scotland has two choices ahead of us. First, we can stick with the UK: this means leaving the EU, and doing whatever the UK Parliament tells us – which is usually whatever the US President tells them. Or we can remain part of the EU as an independent country, retaining continuity with the rest of Europe as the UK continues down a path we never wanted to follow, but too many of us were afraid to break from, in the knowledge that the EU need all the feelgood stories they can get.

Scotland could end up a pawn in the Great Game between the US and Russia, a new cold war which was always most at risk of heating up by accident than design. But we don’t need to be – for in a way, we’ve asserted our intention to Remain part of the EU no less than five times in the past three years. First, Scotland elected 5 explicitly pro-EU MEPs with 62% of votes going to pro-EU parties, and only 10.5% to the explicitly anti-EU party. Then, 55% voted to remain in the UK when the UK was part of the EU – a situation which was repeatedly stated to be at risk only by voting for independence. After that, we voted for pro-EU parties in the UK and Scottish elections, 83.1% and 77.5% respectively, where the anti-EU party struggled to reach even 2% in both. And finally, we voted 62% to Remain part of the EU, even after all the misdirection and semantics.

It’s often said – usually by the winners of the last two referendums – that it isn’t respectful of democracy to keep re-running referendums “until you get the right result.” Well, what does it say when Scots have voted repeatedly for pro-EU parties and what was perceived to be the pro-European choice in referendums, and it’s still not enough? What would it say if the EU saw this, and just meekly let 5 million EU citizens be dragged out of the EU even after voting comprehensively for the “unity” they so prize? How many more of these paradigm-shifting events are we going to take before we finally get organised against the tide?

The new President of the United States is no friend to Scottish Independence.

Let’s not let a wee thing like that stop us.


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