• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

As Others See Us: The View from Iceland

Is Scotland wee?

Jack McConnell thought so. The former first minister famously marketed "the best small country in the world" until, a thousand winces later, the slogan was unceremoniously dropped.

The SNP also seems to think we are little, just not too little.

Earlier this year a slightly starstruck Nicola Sturgeon, for example, met Sidse Babett Knudsen, the actress who plays the Danish premier in hit drama Borgen. The dep FM loves the show. Why? "I like it because I suppose, in Denmark, we get a glimpse of the kind of country we might be: a small country making a big impact," she said.

But what exactly makes a country wee? An independent Scotland would rank about half way up or down an international league table of nations by both population and territory - although much higher for GDP per capita. Isn't that, eh, middling?

No, say some of Iceland's leading experts in "small states studies", we're minnows.

Writing in this summer's Icelandic Review of Politics and Administration, Alyson Bailes, Baldur Thórhallsson and Rachael Johnstone, set out their case. "Most definitions of a small state would agree that the five Nordic states are small. Scotland would fit well into their range of population and gross domestic product per capita."

Small is a powerful word in this referendum. Pro-UK campaigners use it to mean "weak". Pro-indy supporters use it to mean "nimble".

The Icelanders - with a land area a quarter as big again as Scotland but a population no bigger than Fife's - have a different take: being small means being forced to co-operate with others. Not least for defence.

Hence the title of their paper. "Scotland as an Independent Small State: Where would it seek shelter?"

In theory, this means a small state needs a protecting power, either a big neighbour or an international alliance.

In practice, it means our indyref debate focuses on membership of Nato and the EU and an indy Scotland's relationship on defence, currency and citizenship with a rump Britain.

The Icelanders reckon such shelter, like our current deal with the rest of the UK, comes at a cost; compromises have to be made, sovereignty surrendered.

Referendum skirmishes on Scottish membership of international bodies aside, the Icelanders are not buying get-tough rhetoric from London about Scotland falling outside the EU or the North-Atlantic alliance. The ease with which Iceland was face-tracked for EU membership (now on hold) convinced them of that.

No, the experts expect a "velvet divorce" after any Yes vote. Why? Because it would not be in the rest of the UK's interests to do anything else.

"Scotland would remain physically attached to the rUK, as its strategic hinterland and main buffer against the traditional line of perceived threat from the Northeast. It would also be the rUK's gateway to the Arctic," the authors said.

"It is hard to build realistic scenarios where London would wish or be able to treat Scotland in a zero-sum, purely hostile and vengeful way - at least on strategic points - when facing an actual split either post-2014 or later in history.

"The morning after a 'Yes' vote would witness a new situation where the rUK could only hurt itself by casting Scotland into a limbo of indefinite

non-membership. The US would surely press for minimally disruptive solutions."

Big picture: Scotland, despite its location on Europe's northwestern periphery, is at the strategic heart of the North-Atlantic alliance.

The waters between here and Iceland, and Iceland and Greenland, form a simple defensive gap America and its allies needed to fill during the Cold War. And again now thanks to a resurgent Russia and opening up of warming Arctic waters.

"The United States does not want an independent Scotland and has made that clear," the authors said. "Leaving a strategic black hole North of the rUK and losing access to Scottish facilities - notably for reinforcement purposes - would be a serious setback even for US defence

leaders.

"While protective of the rUK's interests, Washington could be expected to urge London to reduce the risks by building a good defence understanding with its new northern neighbour.

"Edinburgh would come under equally strong US pressure to co-operate and would have good cause to do so. Its territory's ultimate shelter would be US nuclear and conventional might, as for all Europe's North-western nations including Sweden and Finland."

So the shelter for small Scotland would be America and its nukes. Just like now. And who would Scotland be sheltering from? Russia. Just, basically, like now.

The Icelandic report goes on: "Although more thickly populated than most Nordic nations, Scotland would share the strategic challenges of a long indented coastline, communications stretched across wilderness areas, and territorial waters containing important resources to protect (oil, gas, fish).

"Unlike Iceland, Greenland and the Faroes, the pro-independence movement wants Scotland to create national armed forces; but like all

Nordic states it would still be at a deep strategic disadvantage vis-à-vis the main potentially problematic actor in the region, namely Russia."

Scotland, the experts agree, would be "more exposed, geopolitically, than rUK to the wider Arctic zone, which is expected to witness rapid development and turbulence - if not actual conflict - because of climate change".

Those who watch Russia closely warn it has a new breed of nimble, effective armed forces. Nervous neutrals Sweden and Finland - rather like the SNP - have become closer to Nato.

The Russian military last month quietly announced it would remilitarise some of its Arctic islands with new bases. Two years ago its navy demonstratively parked a battle group, including a carrier and, probably nuclear sub, off the Moray coast. Nationalists, led by MP Angus Robertson, quickly flagged up Scotland's vulnerability to northern threats.

The Russians, like the Icelanders, noticed the SNP's interest. Earlier this month Regnum, a Moscow news agency said to have strong security sources, published an analysis of the defence consequences of Scottish independence.

"Nationalist defence expert Angus Robertson recently visited Norway and Denmark to study their defence policy," the agency said in a lengthy but unsigned article. "After that SNP headlines like 'Looking at the Arctic' appeared. It seemed the Scots were trying out for size the role of the Norwegians with their intense competition with Russia for the mineral and energy resources of the Arctic."

The Russian analysis repeated much of the Ministry of Defence's on the difficulties of forming a new military from scratch and - unlike the Icelanders - bought in to the theory that Nato membership would be hard. The sticking point: Trident.

"Scottish independence is so dubious in a strategic sense that right now the United States isn't even studying its consequences for its own military alliance," the Regnum analysis said after citing polls showing the Yes vote struggling. "It isn't even in the heads of Pentagon planners."

Most Scots, it concluded, would not want to give up what former Prime Minister Gordon Brown called "the best insurance policy in the world, being part of Britain".

So is Scotland small? Yes. So, in comparison with Russia, as President Vladimir Putin said recently, is Britain. But the potential strategic consequences of Scottish independence aren't wee at all.

Contextual targeting label: 
Local government

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

188118