I am a firm unionist. If it wasn’t for the economic inviability of an independent Scotland, signified by complete confusion about its currency and the threat of a max business editor from Edinburgh, Alex Salmond’s annoying bluster is enough to put anyone off. But as a student of international relations, I am also conscious of the international relevance of the up-coming referendum, and its effects are almost all negative.
Redrawing borders has always been contentious, to say the least. The 1990s war in the Balkans after the dissolution of Yugoslavia is merely a recent, violent case in point. While it is impressive and laudable that Scottish independence will be won in votes not bullets, it is folly to ignore the history of independence movements – especially ones still burning today.
In Catalonia, which has been trying unsuccessfully to break away from Spain for centuries, campaigners are using the Scottish referendum to demand their own independence vote; indeed, on Thursday hundreds of thousands of people marched on the streets of Barcelona to do just that. At a time when Spain’s economy is barely growing, an eruption of Catalan independence protests will only create more problems. And whereas people in the rest of the UK are mostly apathetic to Scottish independence, the Spanish have a fierce emotional attachment to Catalonia and would not simply sit back and let it go. By creating the false sense that Scottish independence will be a walk in the park, Salmond may be fomenting potentially serious trouble on Europe’s southern flank.
Even more worrying is the effects of a Scottish yes vote on Northern Irish politics. We should remember that the peace process only came together in the late 1990s, and there are many in Northern Ireland who still want independence. The Unionists will worry that an independent Scotland will serve as a rallying cry for these people, and possibly see the referendum itself as a threat to their beloved United Kingdom. Indeed, only this week a group of Orangemen – Northern Ireland’s once militant Unionist group – marched in Scotland in support of the no campaign.
The situation in Northern Ireland is a delicate balance – one which could be easily upset. Although it would be extreme and ridiculous to predict a return to the Troubles, the referendum is a risk. If Scotland votes yes, Northern Ireland will certainly be among many regions of the UK demanding more devolution of power from Westminster. Some will vehemently oppose this, and tensions may rise.
No one has explicitly acknowledged these links, perhaps because no one wants to highlight them. But ignoring the international element of the Scottish question has left the debate poorer and insular. Even questions about Scotland’s place in the EU have been brushed aside, despite them being crucial to the new country’s place in the world. Yes, the economy is important, but a country is not just a set of GDP figures, and the decisions it makes can be felt well beyond any new borders.