After the UK’s general election on 12 December, Scotland is pulling the stops out to get to independence. It will not be immediate, but also no longer a far distant dream writes Brian Milne.
There was a referendum in Bougainville, a chain of Pacific islands that voted for independence from Papua New Guinea (PNG) when the governments of both the Autonomous Region of Bougainville and PNG held a two week long referendum period, beginning on 23 November until it closed on 7 December 2019, as the final step in the Bougainville Peace Agreement. The referendum question was two choices; greater autonomy as part of PNG or full independence. Over 98% of valid ballots were for independence. Now independence has to be agreed by the government of PNG, however should it refuse the matter will go to the UN. Article 2, part 2 of the Charter of the United Nations expresses the ‘respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples’, thus can apply sustained pressure on any nation that disregards a legitimate wish for self-determination by part of its territory. This sets the scene for a similar story in Scotland.
The Scottish National Party (SNP) has always campaigned for independence from the UK. This was tried with an unsuccessful referendum in 2014 when 55.3% voted in favour of remaining in the union. However, the 2016 referendum on membership of the EU saw 62%, a convincing majority, vote to stay in the EU against the 53.83% of English votes to leave that contributed massively to the 51.89% of the all UK decision to leave. On 12 December 2019, winning 48 of the 59 Westminster Scots seats is a clear expression of the wish for self-determination.
If the UK government refuses to allow a referendum and the matter needs to go to the Supreme Court, it will have to take account of the UN charter. If that court was to decide a referendum is a requirement of international law, but the incumbent government still refuses, Scotland could take the matter to the UN through supporting, sympathetic countries which may by then include Bougainville. It is not a matter relating to ‘the maintenance of international peace and security’ as per Article 24 of the UN charter; therefore it would not need to go to the Security Council. The UK has a veto there. It would go directly to the General Assembly, where a resolution requiring a referendum would be highly likely to pass by a convincingly sizeable majority. If that was a binding resolution, the UK would be compelled to comply or suffer a great deal of international censure and come under enormous pressure from potential trading partners to change their mind, thus allow the vote. One should expect to see the next Scottish independence referendum within the life of the present government.
Primed and ready to go
If that goes the way the SNP wishes it to go, then Scotland would join the community of nations quite soon after Bougainville. Scotland has a long since established presence in Brussels, most of it for 20 years in Scotland House (Taigh na h-Alba Bhruiseal) at Rond-Point Schuman, close to Le Berlaymont, headquarters of the European Commission. The Scottish government is retaining its network across the EU, particularly in Dublin, Berlin and Paris, to provide them with the most effective platform for maintaining their commitment to playing an active role in Europe and supporting a collaborative approach to working with the EU and other international stakeholders. The partners of Scotland House Brussels are the Scottish Government, Scotland Europa and Scottish Enterprise/Scottish Development International. Scotland has experienced, well established teams covering diplomatic engagement including future membership negotiations that have been informally going on for some time and will now continue, economic development and cultural promotion. Scotland is ready for independence diplomatically which, despite some economic difficulties that are inevitable, would see them enter the EU without a fast track membership process of privileges but prepared and also as one of the most innovative and progressive small nation members. One of the things most notable is that as yet Nicola Sturgeon has to meet directly with the prime minister, she met with his predecessor several times, but the person she has held most meetings with is Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach. Of course, one should never make assumptions on the basis of such meetings, yet it is should be borne in mind that Ireland is an almost natural close ally with its slightly smaller population and reasonably comparable economy.
In that respect, all arguments against Scotland’s readiness for independence and regained EU membership that may be campaigned against by pro-unionists would not have the same vulnerabilities as the Better Together campaign ruthlessly exploited in 2014. It is a case of almost certain ‘once bitten, twice shy’ type of vigilance against contrived facts as anti independence propaganda that will not work a second time. It will be a very interesting process to follow, part of the inevitable decline of the UK that those nostalgic for the former position of their country as a world power and heart of a vast empire will never see again.