Reporting From Reykjavik #3: ‘However Scotland votes, the world will change’

Today was the beginning of new conversations and opportunities limited only by the size of our ambition. Today I felt Scottish and Nordic. I visited Nordic House in Reykjavik. This is the cultural meeting point and melting pot for minds and artists in Iceland. Within this multi-national collective, there was excitement about Scotland’s future and the opportunity of greater cooperation in the event of independence.

It was an academic discussion that drew me here. I met Professor Alyson Bailes from the University of Iceland. Alyson specialises in defence policy and small state research. However, it soon became clear that Scotland’s Nordic relationship is no longer an academic issue. This is real. Scotland’s place in the world matters more today than it ever has before; and it has the potential to matter even more tomorrow. Those I spoke to – Icelandic, Swedish, Finnish – understood this and they understand independence. They see an opportunity to welcome Scotland into the world. Today our discussions were informal and hopeful; yet they may be a precursor to the diplomatic discussions of the near future.

We should be listening. The Nordic nations lead the way. Outside eight independent flags flutter in unison: Iceland, the Aland Islands, Denmark, Finland, Faroes, Greenland, Norway, Sweden. Inside their respective literatures share the shelves of a Nordic library, while their cultures share the walls and spaces through art work and exhibitions. This is a deep and significant social union. It is the reality of modern independent states. It is an image of what Scotland could be.

My discussion with Alyson expanded quickly in scope and company. We were joined by Dr. Bjorn Karlsson, who works for the Nordic Council in Security Affairs and Anders Ljunggren, the Swedish Ambassador to Iceland. We discussed Scottish membership of the Nordic Council. It felt like a fresh conversation. Our table was a community of nations, and as a Scottish citizen I almost – but not quite yet – felt at home within it.

The principle of closer cooperation was taken as an inevitability. “Scotland would be very much at home in the West Nordic group. Scottish membership would be excellent. It has got great potential,” Alyson commented. This idea was recently considered by Lesley Riddoch from Nordic Horizons. The group recognised the historic nature of this debate in Scotland. In 1900 Sweden incorporated Norway, while Iceland was run from Copenhagen. Following independence, the Nordic countries continued to cooperate as equal neighbours, adjusting in changing circumstances.

We discussed the challenges and opportunities for Scotland today. Professor Bailes has written, with her colleague Professor Baldur Thorhallsson, on the ‘Wider Security Dimensions of Scottish Independence’. “It starts from the fact that for over a decade Iceland has had a centre for the study of small states. We have tried to make ourselves a centre of excellence for academic research with other Nordic countries. This lead us to look at Scotland. We thought it was fascinating to take Scotland as a potential, independent state. Where would it go on the big strategic questions? How much would it share this neighbourhood agenda?”

They aimed to present policy propositions for an independent Scotland in an analytical form – separate from the political arguments of the referendum itself. “The present discourse (in Scotland and the UK) is like an election campaign. We needed to calm the debate down. Our academic analysis – which is as objective as can be possible – does rather play down the more dramatic interpretations. It plays down bad behaviour by London or by Edinburgh in the event of independence.” Alyson, for instance, criticised the antagonistic position taken by Westminster: “The day after a ‘yes’ vote all the talk of the UK keeping Scotland out of the EU or NATO would become ridiculous.”

There are still challenges in defence policy for an independent Scotland. There are questions of scale, of NATO membership and of how quickly nuclear missiles can be disarmed. There are also opportunities. We discuss whether the ‘Nordic Model’ of defence is better suited to Scotland’s interests. “We have to remember how different all the Nordic countries are. There are many models,” said Alyson. However, there is an international trends towards smaller nation states exercising ‘soft power’: “I think there is a lot of truth in that. Small states can have nice ideas. The international system gives them more room to spread ideas. We have greater rule of law and institutional space. Like in the case of Iceland – within the arms treaty – small countries can raise their voice. In the age of globalisation, the big countries cannot solve the problems on their own. They need new ideas.”

I mention proposals which have caught my attention: the SCND report which proposes an ‘International Peace-making academy’ for Scotland, Humza Yousaf’s proposals on international development and debt relief, and Adam Ramsey’s proposal for a Scottish counsel in Palestine. This meets with Alyson’s approval: “They are all worth looking at. If it has specific proposals it could be successful. Sweden has set-up a peacekeeping academy.” “It’s quite active”, interjects the Icelandic Ambassador to Sweden. “Setting up a peace institute is one to add to your list. The Flemish peace institute is an excellent example,” Alyson adds.

We speak about Iceland’s recent success in adding a clause on gender violence into the United Nations Arms Treaty. “We had the support of the other Nordic countries. We were quite surprised that it made it through!” It is another example of how small nations can raise their voice in the world. “Small can be beautiful. Small can also be ugly. Nordic and small is more beautiful that most states. I think that is the case,” she states. “It would be worth speaking to the Swedish academy – worth partnering.”

A consensus was crystallising. While the Scottish government is yet to approach our neighbours, there is common ground and a willingness to work together. In Alyson’s case there is an awareness of current UK limitations: “People are aware of things that Scotland want to change. The SNP have been clear that they would be involved in humanitarian actions. The UK cannot pose as a harmless nation. In Palestine for instance, the UK is linked with the Balfour Declaration. Scotland has an opportunity to go in a different direction. If Scotland wants to change from the UK’s imperial position, it has much to gain from turning to the Nordics. Scotland can be an example for disarmament and peace, but it can also be an example of a peaceful break-up.”

The potential for progress exists, yet the prospectus for independence is fuzzy. In Alyson’s view, there is still a great deal of work to be done. I ask if the opportunities of independence outweigh the risks? “I personally find the idea of Scottish independence more exciting than threatening”, she replies. “I have personal connections to the North-East of England. I think most people in the North-East would say good luck!”

Throughout our conversation, I felt invigorated. It felt like a new beginning. It felt like a personal step towards connecting one people with another. It felt like a process that could grow and grow for generations to come. We swapped contacts and stories, mythologies and methodologies, hopes and fears. Then I heard the most uplifting words of the independence campaign so far:

“Even in the event of a negative vote in the referendum, the world will have changed. A map will have been made: like the creation of an independent foreign policy. Some of the models and the friends that are made along the way will still have an impact. Nordic cooperation absolutely comes into that.”

In 2014 the world will have changed. A map will have been made and the friends that are made along the way will change Scotland forever. It is uplifting. Today I feel like it was all beginning right in front of my eyes – a new Scotland emerging into a new world.

Michael Gray
National Collective 


About Michael Gray

Michael studies politics at the University of Glasgow. He admires creativity, optimism and education. He desires peace, social justice and good parties.