Saturday, January 19, 2008

Going Soft On Independence

One of the main arguments deployed against Scottish independence is loss of influence. Scotland would be trading being part of a big country to be a small country, we are told. Influence in the world is all about willingness to use armed forces; having a permanent seat on the UN security council; having Trident - the implication being it's only the big boys that count when it comes to making friends and influencing people.

On the surface, it's a tricky one to argue against. For centuries, it was the countries which were most successful at mustering power on land and on sea which were best able to secure resources and influence over others. However, with the rise of 20th century nationalism, the decline of the British empire and the rise of the USA, we began to see that it was not necessary to threaten or occupy a country in order to gain access to its resources or influence its people.

We learned that free trade could be mutually beneficial; that countries could expand their influence by working together in alliance. We even began to see that the brute military power of countries with the ability to destroy the planet, brought no guarantee of success even when brought to bear against smaller and supposedly 'inferior' forces. Admittedly, some of our recent leaders may not have learned very much from this, but the lesson was there for those prepared to see it.

Today, the world, as ever, is in flux. As US power wanes, we are heading for a multipolar world. Declining US influence means declining UK influence, at the same time as we see the rise of China and India. It's hard, for me at least, to avoid the conclusion that engaging effectively and winning influence in the world's emerging countries, is going to require a humility and openness for which even a century of steady British decline has failed to prepare our Westminster elites.

Whatever Lyndon B Johnson may have had to say about influence, hearts and minds are seldom won over these days by hard power alone. This is where 'soft power' comes in – the ability to influence others through culture, values and ideology rather than threat, violence or other forms of coercion. Yet for a state which was once described as having lost an empire but had not yet found a role, paradoxically, the UK has actually been remarkably effective post-1945 at building up its soft power around the world.

Respect for British institutions waxes and wanes. However, the institutions which work most effectively overseas are often not the traditional outlets of diplomacy, but those such as the BBC World Service and the British Council. While refusals to accept the limitations of hard power - such as the Iraq misadventure - alongside Labour's blatant attacks on the independence of the BBC, have helped undermine British standing in the world, the reputation of those institutions endures as a result of being built up over many years and the lives they have touched over that time.

Independence would mean Scotland leaving these institutions behind, at least in their present form. This gives us a tough act to follow in many respects, but that doesn't mean it can't be done. In fact, in many ways, Scotland is already well placed to build up a soft power which reaches the parts that no British institution can.

Firstly, independence would force a fundamental reappraisal for everyone on the British archipelago of who they are and who they want to be, but that is also a process which would demand great honesty. For better or for worse, Scots have had a huge and disproportionate impact on the way our modern world has been shaped. We can't, after all, re-write our history – we're as much a part of the history of the British Empire and recent ill-advised military adventures as our larger neighbours to the south.

Scotland is firmly part of the English speaking world. Nearly 9 out of 10 schoolchildren in the EU learn English, with at least 2 billion people around the world having either full or at least some understanding of the language. Our universities help teach the world, both by bringing students to live in Scotland and through distance learning. People around the globe are as curious about us as we are about them, which gives us a huge potential audience for our cultural output.

We also have the Edinburgh Festival, which has for decades been much, much bigger than the city or even the country which spawned it and gives us a cultural profile which any independent country would envy. Whether its to do with television, film, theatre, music, books or politics, for one glorious month, the world comes to us. As if this embarrassment of riches weren't enough, our three weeks in the sun means that whatever we happen to be thinking, planning, doing economically, socially or culturally in Scotland, is at the same time brought to the attention of the rest of the world.

Blessed may be the peacemakers, but they can through their actions achieve more influence than the warmongers. Previous SNP manifestos have committed the party to the establishment of a Scottish peacekeeping college, as well as a European Peace & Reconciliation Centre. The opportunity to enhance the global diplomatic capital which already exists is there if we wish to take it. None of this can physically stop a tank rolling across a border of course, but by opening minds, building links, by helping people to understand that they each have a stake in the future of each other, such approaches can be far more effective in building peace, security and prosperity than any number of nuclear warheads or Security Council resolutions.

With independence, we won't be starting from year zero. We will have a set of institutions, ideas, outlooks, values and histories which our forbears have built up, and which we ourselves will continue to build upon. Taking the narrative of a small, prosperous, socially-just, peaceful, culturally rich nation which is respectful of difference, democracy and international law, and which has resolved its political status peacefully, could provide no more compelling example to the rest of the world.

With our history, experiences of empire building and retrenchment, centuries-long exposure to industrialisation and 'globalisation', history of immigration and emigration, outlook, culture, philosophical, religious and epistemological traditions, we have a truly unique voice and perspective we can bring to bear. Set alongside our intimate understanding of the Anglosphere, who in reality could argue that Scotland wouldn't be a soft power superpower if she chose to become so?

Laugh if you like. These days, you don't need to be a military giant or even have pretensions of being a military giant to have influence. When it comes to power and influence it's no longer about the size of the dog in the fight - it's the size of the fight in the dog that counts.


Richard Havers said...

Richard, great post. Well argued and with most of it I agree. The tricky part as in all things post independence is affording it and finding the talent to run things. But, I absolutely agree that if the 'I' word happens then this is the way forward.

The thing is why are ou lot not doing something more about visitScotland which is allied to this strategy. It festers, it languishes, it achieves very little other than paying some people vast salaries and lining other's pockets. Tourism and the tourist business in Scotland needs a makeover. If you're going your route then make a start with visitScotland.

Richard Thomson said...

Thanks, Richard.

I have a friend who used to work for 'visitscotland', who didn't have a great deal that was good to say about the organisation while they were in post. Mind you, given the present squeals of indignation surrounding the fate of Sport Scotland and the Scottish Institute of Sport, I could understand it if people were hesitant about tackling too many quangos at once...