GLASGOW & ELGIN, Scotland – People-watching on a freezing Sunday afternoon in February outside a Glasgow shopping center is a surprisingly appropriate place to ponder the foreign and defense policy of a future independent Scotland. Most passersby just want to get out of the rain, but a small group of noisy Syrians and other Arabs were dancing around and calling people's attention to the plight of their people.
Propped against the wall was a placard reading "Russia & China: Stop Supporting the KILLER." Some of the protesters were waving a large Syrian revolutionary flag; one had wrapped herself in a Scottish flag. It was a little hard to work out exactly what they wanted: NATO intervention, like in Libya last year, or Britain to stay out of Syria? It must be the former, as the only ones with the anti-imperialist war leaflets appear to be Scots skulking about on the margins.
To intervene or not to intervene: that is the issue that has exercised Scots, just as it has everyone else, for years. Alex Salmond, Scotland's first minister and the leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) famously denounced NATO's intervention in Kosovo in 1999 as "unpardonable folly." The unpopular war in Iraq, which the SNP called "illegal," also boosted the party's fortunes; since 2007 it has been the largest political party in the Scottish Parliament.
Libya remains a delicate topic here. In Scotland, the Libyan war -- in a political sense, at least -- began almost three years ago when the Scottish Government released Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, convicted for his part in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing of Pan Am 103, which claimed 270 lives. Diagnosed with cancer and said to have only three months to live, he was set free in 2009 on compassionate grounds after serving only eight and a half years of a life sentence. The United States was furious. When al-Megrahi arrived home in Tripoli, grateful crowds waved the Scottish flag. He is still alive, if not well. So when it came to bombing Libya last year, the SNP had no qualms. It gave the action its full support (but pointed out that this had been sanctioned by the United Nations).
A line can be drawn from the Libyan sands all the way to the question of Scottish independence and what that means for Scotland's ability to participate in foreign conflicts. Angus Robertson, the SNP's spokesman on defense and foreign affairs, has two air force bases -- Kinloss and Lossiemouth -- in his constituency of Moray which were recently threatened by defense cuts. After the Libya bombing commenced, he said: "If ever there was to be an argument against their closure we've had it in the last few days." The Royal Air Force (RAF) said that planes and crews from Lossiemouth had been at the "forefront" of the NATO campaign.
Moray is a more than four hour drive northeast of gritty Glasgow. Elgin, the main town -- which sits some 20 minutes drive from the sea -- has a typical British high street with all the same familiar shops. Inside the bustling Starbucks, a heavily tattooed couple drink coffee as their child waits patiently. Swirling blue designs cover half the man's face, reminiscent of the famously tattooed Pictish warriors of ancient Scotland. A nearby church has been converted into a Tandoori restaurant, and there is a British Army recruiting office off the high street.
The big news in February in the Northern Scot was standard fare for a local newspaper: Elgin museum's Peruvian mummy and its Ecuadorian shrunken head have been sent to "undergo craniofacial reconstruction -- providing a fascinating glimpse of how they would have appeared." But beginning in 2010, the paper mobilized thousands of people to save the base at Lossiemouth, threatened by British defense cuts. Closure of the bases, says editor Mike Collins, "didn't bear thinking about" -- meaning that losing 8 percent of all local civilian employment in the area would have been a disaster.