16 Sep 2014

The inward-looking rump UK that will follow a yes vote

As we drove through the small towns of eastern Ukraine last week, passing apartment blocks blackened and holed by mortars, meeting families sheltering in Soviet-era nuclear bunkers to avoid artillery strikes, I reflected that separation is usually a violent process.

In my time as a journalist, Europe has seen the “velvet divorce” between the Czech Republic and Slovakia but also the wars that split Yugoslavia and many smaller conflicts across the former Soviet states. Now Ukraine is being torn apart. Moving borders is not a thing to be taken lightly.

Yet the United Kingdom is contemplating a split seemingly without thinking of the impact not on Scotland but on the diminished country that would remain – the rump UK.

In eastern Ukraine, when rebels in T-shirts and combats, khaki bandanas around their heads, Kalashnikovs slung across their shoulders, demanded to see our documents, we would tell them we were Scottish.

It wasn’t entirely true, but it was a sure-fire way of currying favour with the separatists. To them a newly independent Scotland would be a brother country to the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, putative independent states amputated from Ukraine and set up with the backing of Russia.

I’m not sure the Scots would return the compliment – Human Rights Watch has reported on the torture and beatings the separatists mete out to those they see as enemies.


The British and Scottish authorities are proud of the democratic and peaceful nature of the independence referendum. Still, a yes vote would leave the rest of the UK wondering about its status and place in the world.

If Scotland became independent, the UK would lose one third of its territory, 10 per cent of its population, and potentially several points of GDP. More than that, we would lose confidence in ourselves and our importance in the eyes of the world, just as a resurgent Russia and restive Middle East threaten global stability.

The UK retains more power than merited by our modern incarnation as a medium-sized European state because of our history as a colonial power and our nuclear deterrent. We have a UN Security Council seat because we were one of the victors in the second world war. Our armed forces – rightly or wrongly – were second only to the US in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The UK is a player, not a spectator.

If Scotland gains independence, the Scottish regiments – 10 per cent of the British military – would be disbanded or moved.

The SNP wants Scotland to be a nuclear-free state by 2020, so the UK submarine-based nuclear deterrent, Trident, would have to be moved from Faslane, the Scottish port where it’s based, to England or Wales at an estimated cost of £3bn. Defence experts say the Americans might have to look after our nuclear warheads for a while as we got ourselves sorted.

“In my view it’s impossible to construct an alternative base safely in the rest of the UK on that 2020 timetable,” said Malcolm Chalmers of the Royal United Services Institute. “On a much longer timetable it may well be possible, but that depends on planning issues, looking at alternative sites, searching around the south west coast of England looking for somewhere that’s willing to take these submarines and the nuclear weapons storage facilities that go along with them.”

Think about it: Plymouth or Weymouth council debating whether to allow the MoD to store nukes or not. What’s the alternative? Give up being a nuclear power?

 David Cameron has promised a referendum on British membership of the EU. The Scots tend to be more pro-EU than the rest of the UK, so a vote to leave would be more likely. That would reduce our ability not only to influence Europe but the rest of the world. We would be not just an island, but part of an island – physically and psychologically.

Whether Scotland goes or stays, the world will keep turning. With Ukraine, Isis, Iraq, Syria and Gaza, 2014 has been a year of living dangerously. Next year may be even more turbulent.

Yet, if Scotland gains independence, the rump UK will be looking inwards, reorganising our armed forces, trying to work out a new constitutional settlement, our ability to shape that turbulent world diminished, our influence and power increasingly consigned to history.

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