Comment: Global attention on independence debate

The world's focus is falling on Scotland once more. Picture: Hamish Campbell
The world's focus is falling on Scotland once more. Picture: Hamish Campbell
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From Bosnia to Boston to Belfast, attention is turning to the independence debate, and our politicians deserve to do the nation justice, says Peter Geoghegan

From the outside, it can sometimes feel that everyone is looking at Scotland – and next year’s referendum vote. Over the past 18 months I’ve heard opinions on Scottish independence expressed all around the world, from revolutionaries in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to drinkers in Belfast bars.

“We are all very interested in Scottish independence,” a heavily tattooed community worker told me last year in Zvecan, a small mining town in North Kosovo.

“If Scotland left Britain, it would be a big deal here.” My interlocutor proceeded to quote – with accuracy within the margin of error – the latest IPOS MORI poll. Outside, a mural of Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general on trial at The Hague for war crimes, was peeling in the late summer sun.

The future of Serb-controlled Zvecan looks a bit more certain in the wake of last week’s agreement between Serbia and its erstwhile province – Zvecan is to form part of an autonomous “Association of Serb Municipalities” within Kosovo’s borders. But, the interest in next year’s referendum will surely remain.

Last year, Milorad Dodik, president of the Bosnian Serb entity Republika Srpska, announced that he intended to follow Scotland’s lead and hold a referendum on independence in 2014. Dodik is unlikely to carry out his threat – not least because of internal opposition and a change of government in Belgrade – but if Bosnian Serbs did vote to leave Bosnia and Herzegovina the result would likely be a far more emphatic “yes” than even the most fervent Scottish Nationalist could envisage here.

Fissiparous post-war Balkan states are not the only ones paying close attention to next September’s vote. Even the hegemon is keeping a watching brief. In an oft-circulated editorial last October, the Washington Post wondered aloud whether independence for Scotland matters for the United States. The answer, according to the Post’s op-ed writers, “is an unfortunate yes”.

“The more fragmented Europe becomes, the less it will be able to use its collective strength on the global stage, both in military and diplomatic terms … A weaker Europe means a less stable world, and less leverage for the democracies,” it continued.

Last month, New York Times editorial staff were a little more circumspect, stopping short of decrying Scottish independence as a bad option for Chuck Hagel, US defence secretary, but warning voters here to heed “the financial woes of small, independent European states like Cyprus and Iceland” and “think twice about going it alone”.

While the Grey Lady might not be quite as venerable as it once was, that it has deigned to take an active line on Scottish independence is illustrative of the global import of our referendum. Love it or loathe it, the United Kingdom is one of the world’s best known political constructs. And its dismantlement – even the threat of its dismantlement – is global news.

You wouldn’t know it by the interminable “he said, she saids” that have dominated debate in Holyrood, but the independence referendum is creating ripples far beyond our shores.

Everyone from Armenians in the contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh to the Argentinian government are casting close eyes over developments in Edinburgh and beyond. Although, it would appear that the Norwegians are blissfully unaware of their status as Yes campaign pin-ups).

Catalunya is watching closer than most. Even if the SNP are not quite the cause célèbre they once were in Barcelona’s cafes – talks between Scottish nationalists and Catalan Prime Minister Arthur Mas’ Convergencia i Unio party are on hold – there are plenty of links between the two independence movements, as the plethora of Catalan flags at last September’s “March and Rally for Scottish Independence” attested.

A couple of weeks previously, a crowd estimated at anywhere between 600,000 and two million marched in Barcelona in support of Catalan independence. Mas has pledged to hold a referendum next year – a vote which opinion polls suggest the nationalist leader and his allies could well win.

However, Spain’s federal government is unlikely to agree to a Catalan version of the “Edinburgh Agreement”: indeed, the Spanish parliament in Madrid is threatening legal action to block any referendum in Catalunya, adducing the constitution’s basis in “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation”.

Then there is the most commonly cited precedent for next year’s vote, Quebec. Here, too, Scotland’s referendum is provoking plenty of heat, if not that much light.

The majority-Francophone province held two referendums on secession from Canada – one in 1980 and another, more controversial, vote in 1995 when just 50.58 per cent of voters answered “no” to the long-winded question “Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?”

Support for independence has dampened significantly since then, but some Quebec nationalists have taken solace in the SNP’s progress.

Alex Salmond, perhaps wisely, has been reluctant to act as a champion for sub-state independence movements. Earlier this year, Pauline Marois, nationalist premier of Quebec, received a less than exuberant welcome during her visit to Edinburgh. The two leaders exchanged gifts and smiled for the camera but there was no joint press conference or official communiqué. The Montreal Gazette described the meeting as “tepid”.

Nationalist stirrings in Scotland are causing ripples across the Irish Sea, too. When it comes to the referendum itself, Sinn Fein is following the same strategy as the IRA during the Troubles – no operations on Scottish soil – but the vote could yet reopen the debate about Northern Ireland’s constitutional future. Earlier this month, Gerry Adams renewed calls for a border poll during his party’s conference in county Mayo.

Even though opinion polls suggest that an overwhelming majority of Northern Irish voters would choose to remain in the United Kingdom, Irish republicans believe that a “yes” vote next year could radically alter the status quo.

“If Scotland breaks away from the Union, then the Union is no longer what it was,” Sinn Fein Assembly Member Barry McElduff told the New Statesman’s Jamie Maxwell last year. “All the old certainties are gone. The notion of a union between England, Scotland, Wales and the north of Ireland is disappearing.’

And there are more: nationalists in Flanders and the Basque country; even breakaway movements in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. All are looking at Scotland and our historic vote.

Next year’s referendum is the biggest Scottish news story in living memory, bringing with it the kind of global attention and coverage that no amount of money can buy.

It could be a chance for Scotland to think afresh about itself and its relationship to the world – but are we taking this opportunity?

An increasingly tribal bun fight at Holyrood is alienating many Scots, never mind an international audience. Too often politicians and media duck big questions about self-determination and future visions in favour of bagatelles about the phizogs on Scottish banknotes and the like.

For the next year and a half, the eyes of the world will be on Scotland – the least they, and Scottish voters, deserve is a debate worth watching.