Scotland International: A Letter from Istanbul

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, January 25th 2014

Europe from its edges, corners and fuzzy borderlands looks and feels rather different than it does from elsewhere.

Here in Istanbul, the largest city in Turkey, Scotland’s debate and the UK’s never-ending turmoil with regard to its relationship with Europe, seems far removed.

Yet what is striking is that there are commonalities between these examples as I contemplate life looking at the shores of the Bosphorus – that historic meeting and clashing point of cultures, and the crossroads between Europe and Asia.

Scotland’s deliberations are about some fundamentals which would resonate in the bazaars of Istanbul: namely, geo-political possibilities. Or to put it less grandiosely, about how we want to position ourselves in the world, and who we want to ally ourselves with, aspire to be and identify with.

That is the driver of the frequent Nordic and Scandinavian references, the desire to look east and north, as well as our historic south, and the too many obsessions particularly in the British political classes of being westward focused towards the USA. Instead, there is an aspiration for a geographic 360-degree Scotland.

Nations have done this through history. They literally move; not physically of course, but in how they think and collectively imagine themselves.

Take the example of Turkey. It was previously the centre of the Byzantine then Ottoman Empire; its capital Istanbul was known first as Byzantium and then Constantinople. It was the dominant Muslim and Middle East power, while controlling large parts of the Mediterranean. In the 19th century, it slowly suffered set backs and retreats, eventually aligning with Germany in World War One and being defeated.

Out of the chaos and humiliation of 1918 came modern Turkey, Ataturk and seeing itself as a modern European nation. In more recent times, it first emphasised its European credentials, and after being cold-shouldered by the EU, has over the last few years began to see itself as an assertive Middle East regional power.

Take another corner of Europe, and Finland, a nation with lots of common characteristics with Scotland. In the 20th century, it shifted from being part of imperial Russia, having before that been in a union with Sweden, to independence, and in the four decades following 1945 operating with cognisance of Soviet sensibilities. Following the Soviet collapse in 1991, Finland repositioned itself as more prominently Nordic and European.

Scotland has at least four powerful, defining circles of co-operation and identity which define who we are and how we see the world. First, there is the British dimension, which relates to how the UK situates itself globally in relation to the world and European Union. The UK on the latter is clearly itself on the move. A key factor is how England understands itself, and whether its elites wish to spend time building alliances and understanding with the other peoples of this union. Historically they have been rather good at this, but in recent decades, it has been seriously neglected.

Second, there is Europe. Does Scotland wish to see itself as a European nation, part of the mainstream and the on-going European project? Or is it more confident seeing these relationships through the prism of Westminster and Whitehall, and their increasingly fractious, semi-detached European relationship? As the European dimension becomes more contentious in the UK and Eurosceptism sweeps the Tories, this will become more and more a major faultline in British politics, which could well be given a flip by Ukip’s European election performance in May.

Third, there is the American-Atlanticist dimension which can be seen in the defence, security, and wider cultural attachments. There are huge issues of shared responsibilities such as Trident and NATO, along with more controversially, the expansion of the mass database state, and NSA-GCHQ programme of surveillance and sharing information.

Since the legacy of Afghanistan and Iraq, how the UK has uncritically positioned itself in the world not just militarily, but in security and intelligence, along with trade and commerce negotiations, has become more prominent and controversial. Is Scotland content to see the world as synonymous with Washington’s elites?

Finally, there is the northern European and Nordic dimension. Historically, this has been the least developed of Scotland’s circles, but has emerged in the last few years from the shadows as the independence debate has emerged. The Nordic profile has also risen as the Irish ‘Celtic Tiger’ blew up: a case of Scotland turning to its friends in the north, after our nearby neighbours crashed their economy.

Scotland is clearly moving and will remain whatever happens in September in all four areas. This isn’t about absolutes, but movement and fluidity. The future direction of travel looks clear.

We will become less British, but remain defined by many of its characteristics, and not a ‘foreign’ or in conventional terms ‘separate’ country. We will remain shaped by the legacy and traditions of Anglo-American interests, but this will become less defining and central.

What will matter more is Scotland’s place in the world as a modern, democratic, European nation, seeking alliances and co-operation at the heart of the European project, something far removed from Westminster’s Eurosceptic obsessions. And finally, Scotland will emphasis more the possibilities of northern and Nordic developments, while not placing itself exclusively in this sphere.

Some will see all of this as not connected to the bread and butter issues which drive voter concerns, but underneath the above dynamics are some critical factors. This is about the kind of society, economy and indeed, people we are, and connected to this, a revulsion at the excesses of Anglo-American capitalism, the City, and the insular, self-rewarding behaviour of the elites who define London and South East and their dominant version of Britain.

Scotland is moving, shifting like Turkey and Finland before, from their niche position at a corner of Europe, taking advantage from geography and history to celebrate and utilise the uniqueness and multiple layers which have so richly contributed to who we are.

This repositioning of Scotland, this collective claim of right, is moving in the diametrically opposite direction from that of the UK state. The question which may or may not be decided on September is whether this is heading for a formal divorce, or some new, more open kind of marriage, a sort of continental cohabitation?

But moving we are, and we should make sure we do it consciously and with bold imagination. Scotland is after years re-emerging on the international stage, with all the opportunities that this entails.