James Forsyth gets a bit carried away in his assessment of what Scottish independence would mean for the rest of the U.K.:
On 19 September, people over all Britain could wake up in a diminished country, one that doesn’t bestride the world stage but hobbles instead. If Scotland votes to leave the United Kingdom, it would be Britain’s greatest ever defeat: the nation would have voted to abolish itself.
The rump that would be left behind after a Scottish yes vote would become a global laughing stock.
It is already quite an exaggeration to say that Britain currently “bestrides the world stage.” Scottish independence wouldn’t have to reduce Britain’s role in the world very much at all, and if we’re honest the impact on the rest of the world would be negligible. Still, the possibility that Britain won’t have an activist foreign policy is what seems to worry Forsyth almost as much anything else. He writes:
But perhaps the greatest danger to the country’s military position from Scottish independence is that a shrunken Britain would simply decide to abandon its global role. As the House of Commons vote on Syria last summer revealed, an isolationist mood already pervades the land. This would be exacerbated by Scotland deciding to leave. After all, this would no longer be the same country that had fought on the winning side in two world wars and coloured half the globe pink. It would, instead, just be the successor state to that great nation.
Well, that may be partly true, but what of it? In many respects, Britain already isn’t “the same country that had fought on the winning side in two world wars and coloured half the globe pink,” so independence for Scotland wouldn’t change things as much as Forsyth thinks. As for the “isolationist mood” in the country, the British public recoiled from the attack on Syria because they understandably didn’t trust the government’s claims, and they saw no merit in the proposed mission. The public rejected the intervention because it made no sense and because they correctly saw no need for Britain to be involved. If that qualifies as “isolationism,” Forsyth should get used to a lot more of it regardless of the referendum result in September. More to the point, if most people in the rest of the U.K. later decide that they don’t want their country to have a “global role” it’s not clear why their government should keep trying to have one. On the other hand, opposition to Britain’s recent foreign wars is particularly strong in Scotland, so it is conceivable that the remaining parts of the U.K. could be relatively more activist abroad after independence than the U.K. is now.
Forsyth complains that the British “have forgotten our raison d’être,” but that’s not quite right. Many unionist arguments I have read over the last few months keep coming back to this obsession with Britain’s international status and what other nations will think of the rest of the U.K. after a ‘yes’ vote. If it is so difficult to argue the unionist case without linking it to this status and to watered-down nostalgia for the Empire, perhaps the case isn’t nearly as strong as its supporters imagine.