TOPIC GUIDE: STV/Debating Matters The Referendum Schools Debate: Small Nations

"Scotland has more in common with other small nations than with its neighbour England"

PUBLISHED: 26 Sep 2013

AUTHOR: Justine Brian

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One of the key questions in the coming independence referendum is how an independent Scotland would make its way in the world as a new nation, and whether its interests are best served as a part of the well-known entity which is the United Kingdom or as a small, independent nation. Might it have more in common with other smaller nations around the world, from near neighbours such as Denmark to more distant ones such as Singapore, both of which have similar population sizes and developed economies? A newly independent Scotland would no longer have a permanent seat at the UN Security Council or the G8 like the United Kingdom. But would that be an issue for the country? Could Scottish trade compete internationally if it were no longer part of the world’s sixth largest economy, or might it perhaps prosper economically without being dominated by its English neighbour to the south? Some supporters of a ‘Yes’ vote in the 2014 referendum argue that Scotland would be better off making new strategic alliances with countries who would share an independent Scotland’s interests and outlook, perhaps an informal ‘family’ of smaller nations including Scotland’s Nordic neighbours, rather than having to accept foreign policy decisions taken in London. Critics argue that the search for a new ‘family’ of small nations ignores what Scotland shares with its immediate geographical neighbour to the south – “history, language, landscape and culture” - and millennia old cross-border social and family ties [Ref: Prospect]. Foreign Secretary William Hague has argued that Scotland stands to lose its place on the world stage in trade, diplomacy and global influence if it chooses independence next year [Ref: Telegraph], whilst others counter that it’s time to assert a new vision for Scotland as a small nation among many others with values and aspirations that are not the same as its English cousin [Ref: Newsnet Scotland].

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

Scotland’s place internationally
Former Chancellor Kenneth Clarke, addressing an Institute of Director’s conference in Aberdeen in September, said that the United Kingdom was: “…one of the very most leading countries inside the largest economic bloc in the world: the EU. We are one of five countries with a permanent seat on the Security Council of the UN. We are members of the G8 and G20. These are unprecedented opportunities to fight for the best interests of our citizens. With one throw of the dice, Scottish independence would deprive Scotland of the benefits of this collective clout” [Ref: Scotsman]. The question of what an independent Scotland would look like on the world stage separated from the larger UK is a hotly contested one. An independent Scotland would not have a seat at the UN Security Council as part of the wider UK, for example, and questions over its membership and role in the Commonwealth have also been raised. A small nation such as Scotland would struggle to influence the European Council, on which the UK is one of the main players, having a similar voting power to Germany, France and Italy. Scotland, with a small population of just 5.3 million people, would lose the collective strength of the UK and its vote weighting would be comparable to countries such as Lithuania and Slovakia [Ref: Wikipedia]. On the other hand, those in favour of an independent Scotland argue that it would be able to set its own foreign and diplomatic priorities for the first time. For example, Alex Salmond recently said that it was “inconceivable” that an independent Scotland would have taken part in the invasion of Iraq [Ref: Herald Scotland]. Others propose that, with regards to collective defence, Scotland could aim to be a member of the Partnership for Peace, along with other Nordic countries such as Sweden and Finland, as well as Ireland, who cooperate on defence matters with NATO but aren’t a formal part of that body [Ref: NATO].  In the EU, Scotland’s loss of wider influence via the UK could be balanced by being able to bargain more effectively on issues which affect Scotland, as is the case where the SNP have accused the UK government of neglecting Scottish fisherman when making deals with the EU [Ref: SNP]. An independent Scotland could also enhance its diplomatic power by forming alliances with other smaller nations, such as exist with the Nordic Council, where Iceland, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark share common diplomatic and trade agreements [Ref: The Nordic Council]. Small nations, often without obvious strategic interests in conflicts or disputes between larger nations, can play a more neutral diplomatic role and wield cultural diplomacy more effectively. Examples include the historic ‘Edinburgh Conversations’ which, some argue, helped played a crucial role in helping to thaw Cold War tensions between the world’s superpowers [Ref: Scotsman]. And others argue that projects such as the European Union, which sought to unite many nation-states in shared economic and social policies, are failing, and that it’s now time to consider looking beyond the nation-state into smaller “habitat-nations” [Ref: openDemocracy].

The Scottish economy
“In many ways, Scotland is the southern, fertile end of the Nordic empire” argues broadcaster and journalist Leslie Riddoch [Ref: BBC News]. Riddoch, co-founder of think tank Nordic Horizons [Ref: Nordic Horizions], argues, along with other proponents of closer ties with Scotland’s Nordic neighbours, that the Scots have much to learn about being a small independent nation from other small nations with similar population sizes and resource rich economies. Some commentators argue that the UK’s economic clout and global influence is also overstated [Ref: New Statesman]. As power shifts away from the west towards Asia and the BRIC countries, the UK’s past authority and ability to push for the best trade deals is increasingly diminished. But others counter that: “When other small nations are choosing to sacrifice independence for economic security inside the eurozone, what makes Scotland so sure it can travel in the opposite direction?” [Ref: Observer]. Some argue the choice for Scotland is to stay within the UK and experience continued austerity and social division, or go it alone and aim to begin to reflect a more socially democratic outlook [Ref: Herald Scotland]. For many supporters of an independent Scotland, it would be an opportunity for the country to take a new approach to taxation, labour relations and welfare, separate from the ideas of a currently dominant Westminster. The idea of a ‘common weal’ is advocated, drawing lessons and inspiration from Nordic countries and promoting “a high-wage, high-value economy, powered by an active and thoroughgoing democracy” [Ref: Guardian]. But critics say that this ‘common weal’ approach to reimagining Scotland may be asking the right questions but is often wishful thinking rather than a real plan or vision for the future [Ref: BBC News].

Seeking a new ‘family’?
“Let’s borrow from inspiring examples from our neighbours: the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund gives a percentage of its funds to address international conflicts; we could do the same with an Oil Fund for the Mind at home and abroad. The Finns…saw their government launch ‘Mission for Finland 2030’, an imaginative exercise on the future, which they handed over to others. And the Icelanders have just crowd-sourced their new constitution, showing that you don’t need to continually invoke the memory of the Scottish Constitutional Convention to realise a participatory democracy” argues commentator Gerry Hassan [Ref: Newsnet Scotland]. But does forcing Scotland to choose an “exclusive and separate identity” in an independence referendum, as Cumbrian MP Rory Stewart argues, diminish and tear apart the already existing family of nations that makes up the UK? Does looking elsewhere for new connections mean that the shared: “History, language, landscape and culture are strangely absent in the debate about the Union” [Ref: Prospect]. There is also the broader question, relating to the people of the UK as a whole, that a UK without Scotland would be a diminished nation itself, less powerful on the world stage. Some argue there’s nothing wrong with political unions, which is what the United Kingdom currently is:  “We know from our history that political unions, properly managed, do not destroy the identities of small nations, and indeed allow them to prosper” [Ref: University of Edinburgh Institute of Governance]. So is Scotland better off as a small nation, freed from the historical ties to the United Kingdom and free to form new alliances? Or is the UK an umbrella under which all its member nations can work together and prosper?


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


A New Scottish Democracy: A Small Nation with Big Ideas

Gerry Hassan Newsnet Scotland 5 January 2013

Look north, Scotland

Lesley Riddoch Guardian 5 December 2011

Scottish independence will reinforce our social union

Angus Robertson Guardian 10 October 2011


Why Scotland should stay a partner in the United Kingdom

Alistair Darling Guardian 27 June 2012

Loyalty of the Borderlands

Rory Stewart Prospect 22 February 2012

Is Scotland a Nordic country?

Alex Massie Spectator 12 December 2011


Scotland splits on the economic benefits of freedom

Phillip Iman Observer 22 September 2013

Small nations: crisis and confrontation in the 20th century

Dr. Ismee Tames and Dr. Madelon de Keizer NIOD 2008

Scotland Small? Making sense of Nations in the 21st Century

David McCrone University of Edinburgh Institute of Governance 18 October 2002


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Scotland can provide secure forum for global disputes

Dr John Sturrock Scotsman 18 September 2013

Why Scotland works best inside the union

Alistair Darling Channel 4 News 17 September 2013

Time to think big on independence

Alex Massie Scotsman 12 July 2013

Scottish independence and the new Enlightenment

Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp Business for Scotland 20 March 2013

Salmond’s arc of prosperity melted

Alf Young Scotsman 9 February 2013

Scottish Independence: It’ll cost you

Economist 14 April 2012

Scotland and Norway: a special relationship?

Andrew Boyle Guardian 4 October 2011

Scotland Decides: Foreign Affairs

Michael Settle Herald Scotland


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.


Why Scotland works best inside the union

Alistair Darling Channel 4 News 17 September 2013

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