Scottish Independence and the Risk of ‘Unenlightened Secession’

cc Barbara Carr, modified,

As First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has set the date for a second Scottish independence referendum in October 2023, many battles with Westminster are just beginning. The vote will only proceed if it is considered legal by the UK Supreme Court, an outcome which is not guaranteed. Sturgeon is taking a great gamble in forging ahead with a vote that will likely not have London’s approval, basing it on her perception of the breakdown in democratic standards by the now-departing Johnson government and the unique circumstances that have changed Scotland’s perspective on independence and its place in Europe since the Brexit vote. For Sturgeon, the renewal of democracy in Scotland is paramount, and as her second paper outlining the case for independence explains, that can only be achieved through independence. The paradox is that for Westminster, Sturgeon’s push looks fundamentally anti-democratic and authoritarian, the whims of a nationalist-minded state that shows little regard for the laws of the union that it is still a member of.

As the Conservative Party elects its new leader, leading candidates have expressed their desire for Scotland to wait another decade before holding a second referendum. Labour leader Keir Starmer is also opposed to granting Scotland a referendum, and has ruled out forming any government with the Scottish National Party (SNP). Labour’s policy disagreement with the SNP is a ‘fundamental’ one according to Starmer, further isolating Holyrood from both of Britain’s main political parties between now and well past May 2024 when the next general election is held. The SNP’s voice is a lonely one, with Scottish Labour taking an even more forceful route than Starmer in calling the division that Sturgeon seeks to sow as akin to something that Vladimir Putin would relish.

Should Scotland decide to become an independent nation or at least forge ahead with the second vote in a decade, its foreign relations will also have to be considered. This is just one element of the heated debate that is commencing at Holyrood, a side effect of Brexit and a casualty of a divided union. For Scotland, and its critical overseas allies like the US, this independence will depend on the full participation of London, whose ‘presence or absence’ of participation ‘is the prerogative of the UK state,’ presenting a clash between the characteristics required for modern statehood and the democratic arguments for independence as outlined by Sturgeon. Scotland has many friends and partners in Europe and further afield, plus many thousands of ‘affinity Scots’ with links to Scottish universities or with Scottish heritage, as outlined by former SNP MP and current Professor Stephen Gethins in his book Nation to Nation. This is an invaluable resource for Scotland, ensuring all manners of exchange continue.

The United States has been a partner of Scotland since the days of its founding fathers when academic links were forged between Scotland’s ancient universities and the US’ Ivy League institutions. Washington will continue to play a key role should Scotland become an independent nation. Crucially, the US would like to see Scotland depart the UK through a fully democratic process that has the consent of Westminster to form new bilateral relations from a position of mutual strength. The US would likely support an independent Scotland’s place in the EU and NATO, but as the UK would remain a strong US ally, any restrictions on trade or at the border with England would need to be minimal and not subject to political interference. Should Sturgeon proceed with a more antagonistic approach to independence, Scotland should also be prepared for Washington to stand with London if it deems its backing of an unconstitutional referendum to be too risky and harmful to US-UK relations. Scotland will become an independent nation as a very junior partner entitled to full relations with other states but still playing second fiddle to the state from which it has departed. Just as President Obama famously said that the UK would be at the ‘back of the queue’ for new trade deals with Washington if it voted to leave the EU, Scotland could find itself in a similar position.

While the US would prefer to maintain relations with a united UK, Scottish-US relations would provide some benefits presently lacking between the bilateral relations of London and Washington. Scotland would be a small European power along the lines of Denmark or Norway, and a second English-speaking gateway for Washington into the EU should membership occur. In addition, Scotland would likely play a leading role in efforts to tackle climate change and position itself as an Arctic nation, joining forces with other European states with eyes towards an incredibly strategic area for global competition between the US, Russia, and China. An independent Scotland would not have the baggage of its imperial relations but be focused on its immediate European neighbourhood and security challenges for the 21st century, some shared by the UK and some able to be more fully realised because of its secession.

An independent Scotland would present many opportunities for Washington, yet only if its secession is managed with a degree of mutual trust and respect for Scotland’s long history in the United Kingdom. Furthermore, Scotland’s independence remains far from assured, and a change in leadership in Washington, combined with evolving global threats and challenges, may place US-Scottish relations at a lower level of priority. Scotland may wish to be independent, but does the rest of the world wish to deal with an independent Scotland? In a time of deep political turmoil and division, the recasting of relations between states can seem like a tall order. However, the present moment calls for the recasting of relations within existing states, with respect shown toward the rule of law, national and devolved parliaments, and democratic norms.

Scottish independence, or the formation of any new state that seeks to craft a new identity, should be a momentous occasion. The current risk for Scotland is that its independence is not a source of pride but a casualty of a chaotic and divisive split from a great and storied union. A new nation born of acrimony is not one that can harmoniously co-exist with its neighbours and instil confidence in the world. Scotland’s principal gift to the world, and particularly to the founders of the United States, is one of enlightenment and reason. In seeking to extricate itself from the United Kingdom, Scotland risks falling prey to the very unenlightened impulses that it has long accused successive governments in London of possessing.

As the UK formally left the EU in January 2020, MEP Alyn Smith famously called for Brussels to ‘leave the light on’ for Scotland so it could find its way home. Scotland’s home is unquestionably in Europe. It is up to the next generation of Conservative, Labour, and SNP leaders to reconcile Scotland’s harmonious desire for Europe with an amenable solution that doesn’t antagonise the rest of the UK. Only then will Scotland’s profound history of enlightenment be capable of inspiring other nations once again.


The views expressed in this article belong to the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of

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