If Scotland decides to dissolve the Act of Union and become an independent nation, who inherits the UK’s permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council?
I don’t watch TV much, especially now that I live in Russia. Even so, HBO’s Game of Thrones is such a cultural phenomenon that I feel I know it quite well, simply through reading reviews such as this (which is a great piece of writing, btw). It’s made me think about the struggle for power as a bloody and merciless process. Just such a process is underway right now, in Scotland.
A throne is a chair, that’s all. A chair designed to be imposing, mind you; a chair to tell you that only one person can sit on it, and that person isn’t you. The chair represents power.
A similar logic underpins the gift of the Bardic Chair to the outstanding poet at the annual National Eisteddfod of Wales: it recalls the days when the best poets were assured of a seat at the tables of Princes whenever they chose to visit. Even today, we talk about “having a seat at the table” as an indication that we’re a player, we’re someone who counts.
Thinking about chairs, to my mind, explains a lot about the war of words over the Scottish referendum. There’s been something weird going on since the campaigning for the Scottish referendum got under way. There’s been an edge of anger and fear in the approach taken by the Unionist campaign that’s led to them being dubbed “Bitter Together” in mockery of their “Better Together” campaign slogan. It began early, when the pro-Unionists in Westminster published a report written by Professors James Crawford and Alan Boyle. As noted at the time by the Guardian:
The UK government said: “This means that if Scotland became independent, only the ‘remainder of the UK’ would automatically continue to exercise the same rights, obligations and powers under international law as the UK currently does, and would not have to re-negotiate existing treaties or re-apply for membership of international organisations.”
Now, that’s pretty clear. It also caused a huge debate, because if an independent Scotland shared none of the obligations of the ‘remainder of the UK’ then it owes none of the UK national debt, because debt, by definition, is an obligation. Now, the pro-Unionist media has since tried to obfuscate this, explaining that somehow independent Scotland won’t get any residual treaty benefits, but it would still have to take on a proportional amount of debt. Clearly, that’s nonsensical, and the clear language of the original statement makes far more sense.
It’s hard to imagine that this would have escaped the attention of the seasoned politicians in Westminster, so why would they have let it pass? Because, in my view, that statement wasn’t talking about EU membership, as most of the commentary has assumed; I believe it’s aimed at Scotland’s membership of the United Nations.
Then there’s the whole issue of whether an independent Scotland could use, or would have any oversight of, the pound Sterling. Westminster says no. Full stop. Pro-independence campaigners point out – fairly, in my view – that Sterling is an asset of the whole of the current UK, and would need to be managed post-breakup in a way that reflected the contribution of the Scots.
The Unionist position has been widely regarded as being heavy-handed at the very least, and intimidatory at worst. If nothing else, the pro-Union campaign has been widely described as focusing on the negative aspects of independence, without offering a positive vision of their own.
Most recently, former UK Defence Secretary, and now head of NATO, George Robinson has been making dark threats that Scottish independence would be “cataclysmic”, and a boon for the world’s “forces of darkness”. How or why, he didn’t really say; I suppose we were meant to take his word for it, because he’s important.
It just doesn’t make sense, at least on the face of it. Why take such a negative approach? That’s to say: it makes no sense unless there’s something that the Unionists want, more than they want Scotland; that they’re running such a confused and angry campaign because something is under threat they they value more than almost anything else – and yet they can’t talk about it or publicly acknowledge it.
Understand that this is a Game of Thrones, though, and everything makes sense. I’m not talking about the throne of the Windsors, which is secure whatever happens in Scotland. I mean the “seat at the table”; the seat that makes one a player, a member of the big time. That seat is in New York, at the headquarters of the United Nations.
Permanent membership of the UN Security Council brings with it veto power, and a controlling influence over what the United Nations actually votes for and does. Membership is an anachronism, though, with permanent membership dependent on being one of the winners of the Second World War. This is what the politicians in London are desperate to keep more than anything else: their seat at the most powerful table in the world. While “the United Kingdom” has a seat at the world’s most influential player, it’s a big player, “punching above its weight” in the world, as we’re so often reminded.
What happens if Scotland leaves the United Kingdom?
Would Scotland have a claim to share that seat at the UNSC? I don’t think anyone has raised this issue at all, but I suspect that it’s something that Westminster is very concerned about, and determined to, er, scotch. Hence the apparent heavy-handedness over insisting that London keeps everything when it comes to international treaties. London – essentially meaning England, although of course Wales and Northern Ireland would still be tagging along – will continue with the full status as the UK; Scotland gets nothing. To say anything otherwise opens up the possibility of Scotland laying claim to UNSC membership. I doubt they would actually want it, but that’s not the point.
Of course, the “Better Together” campaign might make a virtue of this. They could campaign on the international status that the UK in its current form gains from UNSC membership… but they can’t. In fact they can’t even mention it. There are three reasons for this:
- If they campaign on the fact that the current UK is what provides UNSC membership, a ‘Yes’ vote to Scottish independence would expose the rump UK to losing its UN status on the basis that it’s now no longer the state that was a WW2 victor.
- Using UNSC membership as a campaign issue establishes it as a valid debating point. This could seized upon by the states who have long been campaigning for UNSC reform. After all, why should the UK have a seat but not Japan, India, or Brazil? After WW2, they were all small, weak, nations – but now? All of them major democratic economies with very large populations. India is a nuclear power; Japan could be if it so chose. Don’t they have a right to participate as permanent UNSC members?
- Popular opinion in Scotland is to the left of that in England. Raising UNSC membership could equally lead to the Scots understanding that leaving the UK, and not being a “world power” any more, would guarantee no more wars like Iraq or Afghanistan – and thus actually strengthen the argument for independence.
If Scotland did leave, it’s inevitable that the BRIC nations would use it to demand UNSC reform, following the major effort of 2005. There really wouldn’t be a moral argument for asserting that a reduced rump UK should keep its permanent seat whilst major countries such as India or Brazil are denied the same status. Let’s say that those two countries got their way and got membership: with Russia and China, all four of the BRIC nations would have membership, and would inevitably act together in shaping the international environment; the US, UK and France would now be a minority.
Taking the logic a step further, why shouldn’t Europe’s dominant country, Germany, have a seat? This has merit, but the international community would probably not support yet another European member. Far more likely is that the mini-UK would lose its seat, and the French seat be converted into a European Union seat – which would be dominated by Germany.
Imagine, then, a new and reformed Security Council. The permanent seats are those of the US, a German-dominated EU, Japan, Brazil, Russia, India and China. The BRICs would be able to depend on the support of a large number of second-tier nations, including Turkey, South Africa, and Indonesia, for example – in other words, a very substantial proportion of the planet’s population. The rump UK would be an irrelevant voice amongst the minor powers. How do you think global politics and priorities would look, in this environment? I suspect that there would be a major change from today’s world.
This is hugely important. This is why we are truly engaged in a Game of Thrones, in which no quarter will be given. In the UK today, two major visions of the future are now reaching their end game.
One of them, driven by UKIP and supported by significant elements of the Conservative and Labour parties, envisions a UK with its current composition, outside the EU, and retaining its seat at the UNSC table of power. A big player; a country to be reckoned with.
The other sees Scotland leaving the UK. Scotland will be a happy member of the EU. England, with its associated territories, is pitched out of the circles of the mighty, becoming an embittered member of the second tier of nations in a world now thoroughly dominated by the BRIC nations.
Les jeux sont faits, and Scotland gets to make its choice first. The “Better Together” alliance of Westminster parties seethes in frustration as their sense of national greatness faces an existential challenge – but they can’t even talk about it. All they can do is drip venom and try to scare the voters.
Image credit: United Nations General Assembly by PaulVanDerWerf on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.