Opinion

What an independent Scotland could do with aid

by | 14 Mar 2024

The National's appeal for aid for Gazza shows what a focussed campaign can achieve. What could we do if an independent Scotland took that attitude?

First published by The National

Scotland can take pride in how we have responded to the war on Gaza. The Scottish Government has been excellent, the National’s appeal is a beacon and civic society has stepped up. So what could that tell us about what an independent Scotland could do on the world stage?

We’re small with limited resources, but that need not mean small impact. Small countries like Sweden, Norway, Ireland, Costa Rica, Qatar and many others have played an outsized role on the world stage for many years. Right now both Ireland and Qatar seem to be contributing more to a just world than Britain or the US.

However it requires two things. It requires the ability to think for yourself as a nation and it requires that you are clever and focus on what difference you can actually make. That is the opportunity for Scotland.

In the development of our book Sorted, Common Weal thought about this a lot and spoke to many experts. There are at least three strands of impact Scotland could have – a route of communication, a good example domestically and a focussed, practical partner.

The role of ‘communicating between conflicting sides’ has often been the preserve of smaller countries. Big, powerful nations are far too often protagonists in conflict and even where they aren’t directly involved, they often face mistrust because of their previous actions.

This is why Norway and Sweden have had such a powerful impact in negotiations and the development of multilateral treaties over the years. There was a time that Sweden would have been the state taking the case against Isreal to the International Court of Justice – but that was before they fell under Nato’s gravitational force.

The world needs more honest brokers and Scotland has a historical track record of positive international engagement (as well, sadly, as some hopelessly destructive interventions as well). The concept of a Centre for Global Peace and Justice in Scotland is a strong one.

The second role we could play is in setting a good example in our domestic policy, in an attempt to influence global behaviour. Let me give you two examples; decarbonisation and immigration. The former is a no-brainer because Scotland has such a capacity to decarbonise its economy we should do it at speed and attach a research institute to the project, learning the lessons and sharing them with the world. That could make a very big difference.

On immigration, the key isn’t a numbers game of how many people you welcome or turn away, the important thing is the quality of the welcome. If Scotland could create an independent immigration system which was open but controlled, made decisions rapidly and then did a first rate job at supporting immigrants as they settle in and acclimatise, it could be an approach the world looks towards.

There is one crucial condition for all of this – we must remain free to think for ourselves

There are lots of things we could do – I’d love Scotland’s constitution to embed radical principles of participatory democracy to show the world that less democracy is not the only future for the planet. But none of this is international aid. How could we focus our international development funding?

If we get it wrong it can be patronising and amount to little more than virtue signalling. But if we focus on what national assets we have beyond our spending power we could achieve more. We have excellence in renewable energy – we could use that to provide services for free to developing nations as they try to decarbonise.

We have a track record of excellent life sciences in Scotland. We could set up a National Pharmaceutical Company to support the NHS with inexpensive patent-free drugs and direct our international development spending into developing patent-free drugs for the global south.

Or what if, as a nation which has just recreated itself from the ashes of an imperial power, we focussed our international development work on helping nations that need to rebuild their institutions with the learning we have developed as we did the same. All of these options point to a really positive and exciting future for Scotland on the world stage, realistic about our size and resource and so focused on using them well.

But I must return to one crucial condition for all of this – we must remain free to think for ourselves. If we join Nato, none of the above is possible. Look at how Sweden went from one of the nations developing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons to actively opposing. We are no honest broker if we are part of an aggressive military block with its foot on the neck of nations around the world.

Like that Scotland can make little difference other than facilitating war. If we remain independent of mind, we can do so much more.

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