Size isn’t Everything

According to Napoleon Bonaparte, “God is on the side of the big battalions”. I’ve been reminded of that maxim several times just recently, while following the comments from some folk who, while they want to see Scotland controlling more of her own affairs, worry how an independent Scotland might fare, as a small nation, in an uncertain world.

This worry is understandable: we do live in a big, sometimes scary world. The global economic centre of gravity is shifting away from Europe to the fast-growing economies of, amongst others, China, India, and Brazil. The Cold War may be long over, but we have the threat of international terrorism; and who can say where the political instability in the Middle East may lead – welcome though the fall of oppressive regimes is. In such circumstances it’s human nature to huddle together and to seek apparent safety in numbers. However, and without wanting to offend our oldest allies, the French, Napoleon, able general though he was, didn’t get everything right all of the time: for instance, he invaded Russia without making proper provision for winter. And at least when it comes to judging what makes a nation viable, size isn’t everything.

It’s true that there are some small states that have had their difficulties of late. Ireland and Iceland spring to mind. But there are also plenty of large, populous countries that have their problems, too; and there are also plenty of small states that are doing very well, thank you very much. Take Denmark, Monaco, or Luxemburg, for instance. They aren’t exactly places with which we associate poverty and insecurity.

Mention Ireland or Iceland, and that brings forth another argument put forward by those who worry whether an independent Scotland could be successful because of her size. Some say that an independent Scotland could not have survived the banking crisis. That argument might sound plausible, but it is, in fact, completely spurious when considering what the future may hold. As an argument against independence, it rests on believing in a scenario in which Scotland was independent back in 2008, but that everything else was exactly the same. If that were the case, you’d have to imagine, amongst other things, Alex Salmond, not Gordon Brown, persuading the Chairman of Lloyds, over cocktails, to buy HBOS. That beggars belief. But even if you can accept that mind-bogglingly implausible scenario, it’s irrelevant: that was then, this is now. The size and shape of our banking sector, and how banks are regulated, have changed. The government of an independent Scotland would be under no legal or moral obligation to bail out Scottish banks in a future crisis, in the way that some governments did in the last one.

Of course, there is more to the question of a state’s viability than just economics, important though that is. What about defence and security? If we look at public opinion across the European Union, it turns out that there’s no correlation whatsoever between the size of a country and how much its citizens worry about defence and security. Countries where citizens worry more than the EU average about these issues do include small states, such as Denmark; but top of the EU ‘worry list’ about defence is Germany, its biggest member. Similarly, those Europeans who are pretty relaxed about defence come from larger states, like France, but also from small ones, including Ireland or Estonia.

The degree to which a country’s citizens worry about defence isn’t quite the same as an assessment of its actual defence needs. For example, Scotland has a very long coastline, and that coastline does need protecting. That’s a consideration that doesn’t face some other small states, such as Austria, for instance. But defending Scotland’s coast shouldn’t be prohibitively expensive. If we look at the country with the world’s longest coastline, Canada, we find that it’s pretty near the bottom of the NATO league table in terms of percentage of GDP spent on defence. The Canadians spend about 1% of GDP on defence – much less than the UK, which spends roughly 2.5%. Granted, Canada is a big place; but then Belgium, which isn’t a large country, also spends only about 1% of GDP on defence; and neither the Belgians, nowadays, nor the Canadians seem terrified by the prospect of imminent invasion.

A small country would certainly face major problems if it tried to cut itself off from the rest of the world. But that isn’t going to happen. The SNP – which we can assume would form the first government of an independent Scotland – is internationalist in outlook: its record in office since 2007 shows that it is serious about internationalisation, and about engaging with supra-national organizations. And discussions about the precise mechanism whereby Scotland would be a member of the EU, having left the rest of the UK, though fascinating, miss the point. No one seriously doubts that if an independent Scotland wanted to remain in membership of the EU, the legal niceties would be sorted out. Arguing that this would be a problem, on the basis of the finer points of particular treaties is as irrelevant as those debates over whether Berwick on Tweed is still technically at war with Russia, not having been mentioned in the peace treaty that ended the Crimean War.

It’s perfectly possible, therefore, for a country to be small, and prosperous, and secure. That Denmark is small and economically successful, or that Belgium doesn’t spend much on defence, doesn’t, of itself, make the case for independence. It doesn’t guarantee that an independent Scotland would also be secure and successful: that would depend on the energy and talents of her people, and on the policies a Scottish Government puts in place to harness those talents. But the example of nations that are both small and successful should reassure those who worry, simply on the basis of her size, that Scotland could not survive on her own.

The bulk of this post was first published on Newsnet Scotland on 7 June 2011.

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