Independence essay: George Robertson on the Union

This is the latest in a weekly series of essays in which influential figures explore ideas related to the Scottish independence referendum.

Sir Chris Hoy with Sarah Storey, far left and Victoria Pendleton at the victory parade for Team GB in 2012. Picture: Getty Images
Sir Chris Hoy with Sarah Storey, far left and Victoria Pendleton at the victory parade for Team GB in 2012. Picture: Getty Images
Sir Chris Hoy with Sarah Storey, far left and Victoria Pendleton at the victory parade for Team GB in 2012. Picture: Getty Images

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is one of the greatest alliances the world has ever seen. It would be a Scottish and indeed global tragedy for it to break up.

When the polls open on 18 September, we in Scotland will face the lifetime choice between voting for a vague, uncertain vision – or remaining in a remarkable country where our distinctive Scottish identity remains secure and our interests are guaranteed by the united strength of our United Kingdom.

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This is not about nostalgia: it is about the United Kingdom today. By any standards, this is a significant country, punching far above its weight politically, economically, militarily, culturally and in sport.

As a part of the UK, Scotland’s interests and values are also magnified.

A vote for independence would be a vote for Scotland to throw all that away. For what? We simply do not know, and cannot know.

For most of the big issues like currency, pensions, asset division, EU membership, interest rates, banking regulation and guarantees, Scotland’s fate will be determined in tough negotiations only after a Yes vote. Secession from a 300-year-old Union will not be easy, quick or cost free.

But the outcome of these negotiations, for good or ill, will bind us hand and foot for generations to come.

Consider what we do know now. The United Kingdom is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, with the right to veto its resolutions. The only other countries in the world with that power are China, France, Russia and the United States. There are countries queuing up to demand the same power: Brazil, Germany and India, to name just three.

Whatever happens on 18 September, the United Kingdom will keep that coveted international clout. The question for us in Scotland is whether we want to remain in this powerful alliance, and see our interests protected or take a step in the dark.

The United Kingdom is a member of Nato and the European Union. In Nato, it is second only to the United States in military ability and political influence. In the EU, it has more voting weight than any country except Germany and France. If Scotland were to declare independence, with a population of 5.3 million, it would have less voting weight than Slovakia. It would account for only 1 per cent of the EU’s population.

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We have spent months debating whether Scotland would be a member of the EU or Nato. Voting “No thanks” puts that question to bed. We will be in.

Despite the economic crisis, the United Kingdom is still the world’s sixth-largest economy, bigger than Brazil or Canada. The pound is one of the strongest and most durable currencies in the world.

Because of that, we are a founding member of the world’s most exclusive political clubs – the G7, the G8 and the G20. Dozens of other countries covet that privilege; the United Kingdom already has it. That is a privilege that a vote for independence would throw away.

Being at those top tables isn’t just for show: it gives us a real voice in decisions that make a real difference across the world.

In the global financial crisis of 2008, it was the United Kingdom, led by a Scot as prime minister, who galvanised the G20 into the collective action which saved the world’s financial system. In the Scottish banking melt-down of the same year the lead role was taken by another Scot, as Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer.

In the United Kingdom, and because we are in the United Kingdom, Scotland has real economic success. All recent statistics show that outside of only London and the South East Scotland is the most economically important part of the UK. Our financial services industry, our defence and related industries, and many others involving thousands of valuable jobs thrive because they are in the UK’s single market unhampered by borders and differential tax and regulatory regimes.

This is more than a question of power or the pound: it is also a question of pride. Who was not proud to watch Team GB at the London Olympics, where we came third in the medal count, beating sporting superpowers such as Russia? Great athletes like Sir Chris Hoy and Andy Murray were the pride of the country, cheered on by spectators from the Minch to the English Channel; so were athletes like Jessica Ennis and Sir Ben Ainslie.

This was Team Great Britain, bigger than England, Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland alone, and it was a great team – it was our team.

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We can be proud of the British Army, the Royal Navy, and the Royal Air Force. Units like the SAS, the Royal Marines and the Red Arrows are drawn from the four corners of the United Kingdom, and they are the best in the world at what they do. From Waterloo to El Alamein and from Goose Green to Helmand, soldiers from Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales have gone into action together, fought together and – regrettably – died together.

In the greatest military endeavour ever known – D-Day, when the armies of the free world starting rolling back Nazism in Europe – it was a Scottish piper who led Britain’s troops off Sword beach.

In all the United Kingdom’s successes in politics, economics, culture, sport and war, the Scots have played a full role, and have risen to the very top of the world. Scots have won Olympic gold with Team GB and rugby glory with the British and Irish Lions.

Thanks to their membership of the United Kingdom, Scots have led the British government and Nato; they have headed the Confederation of British Industry, the BBC, the Bank of England and the British Army, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force.

The Victoria Cross, our highest award for bravery, has been awarded to men of the Scottish regiments, alongside their English, Irish and Welsh comrades. The courage and sacrifice of men like this from all over the island has kept the United Kingdom free for more than 300 years.

Great Britain is a winning team, and it is a great team. We can be proud of it for what it is today – not just for what it has achieved in the past. If we care about its future, we should say no thank you to the Scottish Nationalists’ vague and uncosted notion of independence, and yes to the greatest social, cultural and economic union the world has ever seen. Our United Kingdom.

• Lord Robertson of Port Ellen was secretary general of nato, UK secretary of state for defence and shadow secretary of state for Scotland