Speaking at an Arctic Circle Assembly conference last month, the first minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, once again remarked that northern Scotland is closer to the Arctic Circle than to London. The audience laughed, as it did two years ago when she made the same point; but Sturgeon is not joking. Scotland is rebranding itself and is determined to make full use of its increasingly trendy geographic position. The Nordic countries have inspired Scottish nationalist leaders for decades, who have pointed to them as a model for social and environmental policies; or, since Brexit, for the country’s future relationship with the European Union. Former first minister Alex Salmond argued that an independent Scotland would join the northern European “arc of prosperity”.
Sturgeon’s government has in recent years been taking steps to emphasise the importance of the Arctic. Her administration has numerous powers devolved from London – none formally in foreign policy, although, just like devolved regions or autonomous countries elsewhere in Europe, Scotland has been developing its external relations. As part of this effort, in 2019 it published a detailed, systematic, and concrete Arctic policy framework, which set out Scotland’s intention to work closely with Arctic countries, positioning itself as a partner in the innovative, sustainable development of the region. Apart from its overarching “international framework,” Scotland has only a handful of country-specific “engagement strategies” guiding its external relations. The Arctic policy framework stands out as the only regional one.
This framework has a strong focus on research and innovation, sustainable economic development, and clean energy, and explains how it could strengthen the Scottish economy. Crucial arguments against independence revolve around the impact on the country’s economy and any hit to public finances. If Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party (SNP) can convince Scots that they will not just survive but thrive, and that they have an alternative to London, they stand a strong chance of winning another referendum.
So, future economic benefits from closer northern cooperation could boost Scotland’s bid for independence. But also important are closer cultural and people-to-people relations with Arctic states – two of them members of the EU. Scotland is socialising itself among Arctic states – which is important for an aspiring independent state. If ahead of the plebiscite on independence held in 2014 there was little sympathy in the EU for the nationalist cause, Brexit has certainly eased things since. Should EU membership not be immediately available for an independent Scotland, it will have its Arctic friends to do business with and fall back on.
Sturgeon has tried to use COP26 as a platform to make more friends among progressive nations that take climate change seriously. The conference itself might prove a failure, but the first minister has used the summit in Glasgow to advocate for more responsibility on climate , showcasing Scotland as a leader in renewable energy, decarbonisation, and climate justice – even if Scotland has not truly met its targets (and her government has been accused of sitting on the fence over a proposed new oil field off Shetland). She even met the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, for a discussion that she herself described as “uncomfortable” – and insisted that this was a good thing, as COP26 should feel “bloody uncomfortable” for leaders, as much remains to be done. In contrast, a similar meeting has not featured on Boris Johnson’s agenda.
That being said, the British government’s choice of Glasgow as host city was a deliberate move, as part of an effort to strengthen pro-union sentiment in Scotland. The country famously voted to remain in the EU, yet had to submit to the overall result, and support for independence has strengthened following that referendum. If there is another independence vote, it is unlikely to take place in the next few years. But if it does happen, the pro-independence side may be able to muster enough support given Sturgeon’s and the SNP’s continued strong poll ratings, as well as unpopular and unending Brexit battles with Brussels.
However, independence is not Scots’ top priority, and if the Holyrood government does not focus on health and the economic recovery, it risks punishment at the ballot box. That the public think the devolved administration has responded relatively well to the pandemic will not necessarily be rewarded by weary voters, as recently seen in the general election in Canada. However, the SNP is playing the long game. The Acts of Union uniting England and Scotland were passed in 1707; the country can certainly wait a decade or two more. The SNP will move slowly and deliberatively with its nascent foreign policy as much as on other issues.
Scottish external policy, like all SNP policy, is razor-focused on one thing alone: achieving independence. In the meantime, the UK’s foreign policy lacks drive and direction. ‘Global Britain’ remains the overarching slogan, but few mistake this for a real vision. The Scottish government has been gifted a clear opportunity to draw a distinction between the government in London on foreign and Europe policy, presenting itself as ready to assume the responsibilities of full statehood.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.