I was interviewing Sir Christopher Meyer some years back, the man who used to be our Ambassador in Washington. There was a row about how many British troops were being sent into some new conflict zone or other and people on the Left were asking why did we always comply with American requests for troops when were already badly stretched.
I challenged him on how Britain saw itself as some kind of world leader tucked in behind the US and suggested to him that we sometimes instead took the Denmark option of taking part in joint operations with a token force and retaining our right to opt out if we wanted to. He let out a shocked laugh, like Sir Humphrey recognising one of the Minister’s follies, and scoffed … “with due respect to little Denmark, I don’t think they have quite the role of Britain…”
Oh dear me, no. That was well off script, the idea that mighty Britannia would become just one of many equal nations helping out an intervention by giving a commensurate number of troops and support. It was the UK’s job to be the leader, upfront in the cockpit with the big boys. You could see how it was a mindset, one of those self-justifying acts that made everybody in London and our people in Washington feel engaged and important even as another batch of hard-pressed and under-equipped soldiers put boots on the ground. I despair at the endless generosity of the British government in making available our armed forces for international action. There are times when action is sanctioned by the UN and, yes, by NATO that it is a duty and probably the right thing. But you have to say there is a kind of mad desperation in the UK for all things military and getting our boys into yet another foreign ruck. I asked a British officer about our presence in Northern Ireland and he said it was good training. The Troubles had to be dealt with of course but they were also a great way of training service personnel. “There’s nothing like the real thing for preparing troops for action…”
It now appears that Britain’s downward spiral in the world is accelerating as vainglorious politicians pretend the country can police the globe, have world-class weaponry, maintain a nuclear deterrent and cut costs. Have a read at this piece to discover some of the latest American thinking on Weapon-mad Britain – http://www.newstatesman.com/voices/2013/04/america-tells-britain-pick-replace-trident-or-be-real-military-partner – and these are the allies Britain is trying to please!
The terrible irony of course is that Labour is also sold on this demonic idea of British internationalism. Jim Murphy is clear that we must retain Trident and Johann Lamont’s statement to the STUC actually backs its replacement with a new generation of death weapons. This at the very time even the British military establishment is pondering it value, it is questioned in the right wing press – the Telegraph and the Evening Standard – and even the Americans who supply it think it’s time is up.
Britain provides help in all sorts of ways around the world and within what I think is an outdated approach it remains an active player in the realms of aid and support beyond our military interventions. But I fear the British enthusiasm for bigging up and posing as world leaders while also being afraid to take a line not supported by Washington has left us open to doubts about our intentions in some areas and questions about our credibility at home.
How very different this all could be under independence. For a start, we can decide when to send our forces abroad, how many and on what terms. As a new state we can be open to all countries. We emerge with virtually no baggage on the world scene, we have a history of friendly relations and exploration and, despite the Meyer sneers, copied by the No campaign, we are well regarded internationally. What an opportunity to create whole new image for Scotland, building on the work of SCIAF and the Kirk’s World Mission, to take our expertise to developing countries and build stronger bilateral connections. Can small countries make a difference…of course. Remember the Oslo Accords in the 90’s brokered by Norway? Conflict resolution is a respected area of diplomacy…why not a specialised centre in Scotland? We have historical links to the Holy Land and to Bethlehem, could a Scottish initiative help to break deadlock there?
As an independent nation, stripped of London’s influence, we can determine what our international priorities are. And they may be surprising. Scotland made one of the greatest public declarations of compassion a country can make when, in 2009, the Scottish government freed Abdelbasset al-Megrahi. You may disagree that he should ever have been released but I doubt if you can disagree that it was a decision that defied the major powers, notably America, and sent a message of love and forgiveness around the world. It is the single decision of the devolved government which gives me the greatest pride.
We shouldn’t forget either that internationalism has always been part of our character, from explorers, traders, mercenaries, teachers and missionaries to the constant exchange of people and ideas. During the Cold War, a connection was maintained between the UK and Soviet Russia with regular meetings based on Edinburgh University in which leading academics and experts gathered to exchange information. Did any of it make its way back to London and Moscow? What do you think?
Our global footprint as a force for good is one of the most exciting prospects for our new country but we will have to be a new country first. We can’t operate globally without statehood. Even when we’ve tried, the British machine has done its best to stop us. Did they initially welcome Jack McConnell’s Malawi plans, did they welcome a Scottish representative in the British Embassy in Washington, did they make it easy for Scottish officials to travel to Brussels on joint missions?
All international relations are based, funnily enough, on nations. To be a nation or to claim nationhood is the natural progression for any country and from there it forms its international arrangements.
The most memorable parts of my life as a journalist were travelling and meeting people just as fervent about their country as I was but equally keen to share and discuss from the West Bank to China from Russia to the USA. In the same way, Scotland needs to get out there into the world on its own terms and make its own friends, without the colonial militaristic trappings of a fading Britain.
Each country has its own national interests and its nationalism. It is when they reach out to others in the spirit of cooperation that they can change the world through internationalism. That could very soon be Scotland’s role.