Independent Scotland would be good for Middle East: SNP

Independent Scotland would be good for Middle East: SNP
Interview: Scottish National Party MP Tommy Sheppard spoke to The New Arab about Brexit, Scottish Independence and what this could mean for the Middle East.
7 min read
23 July, 2016
Tommy Sheppard, MP for Edinburgh East [Getty]
It was on a busy day in Westminster when I met Scottish National Party MP Tommy Sheppard to catch up on dizzying amount of developments in the country's seat of power following the UK's "Brexit vote".

I was sat beneath the grand arches of the House of Commons' historic Central Lobby when the SNP cabinet spokesperson arrived for our meeting. At once, I was led through Westminster's maze of narrow corridors with a pace that typified the business of an MP's day.

Passing statues of two giants of 19th century British politics - former prime ministers William Gladstone and Lord Earl Russel - the obvious starting point was his views on the new Prime Minister Theresa May's cabinet- particularly the surprising elevation of Boris Johnson to the role of foreign minister.

"I think it is farcical to put Boris Johnson as the international face of the United Kingdom," said the MP for Edinburgh East while settling into his chair. 

"He is about as far away from the definition of a statesman as you can possibly imagine. He is regarded as a figure of fun, as a buffoon, his antics do nothing to dissuade that. I hope he doesn't embarrass us too much. He is not just prone to gaffes, but he courts them as well," he continued.

As a founder of Glasgow and Edinburgh's Stand Comedy clubs, Sheppard is no stranger to humour - when appropriate. However, his tone conveyed his serious reservations about the man who is now the UK's most senior diplomat.
If Scots were to lose their European passports, it will leave them with only one option which would be another vote of independence from the UK
End of the Union?

With this new Conservative government set to lead the UK out of the EU, where does this leave Scotland whose population voted overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the European bloc?

"As the first minister [SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon] said, the option of a second independence referendum is very much on the table," Sheppard said. 

"We're not there yet, but it may be that we reach a  situation where either all other avenues have been exhausted, or indeed they've been blocked off and people haven't even decided to go down those certain avenues."

He said that if Scots were to lose their European passports, it will leave them with only one option which would be another vote of independence from the UK.

"We may arrive at that situation. Whether we do, and how quickly we do is not up to us - that is in the gift of others. As I said, if we're met with obstinancy and intransigence, then we may get to that conclusion sooner rather than later," he said.  

"People say, 'you're in the SNP so you'll do anything for a second independence referendum, you would say that wouldn't you?' Well I would say that and that's why it's important that if we arrive at that conclusion that it's not just the SNP and the people who voted 'yes' [to independence] last time who arrive at that conclusion, but it's others who voted 'no' last time arrive at that conclusion together with us."

Scotland and the Middle East

Sat before one of Scottish independence's most prominent advocates, I was keen to know how he foresees this vision playing out on the world stage. Would an independent Scotland work harder on issues of war and peace in the Middle East?

"Certainly an independent Scotland would be outward looking, we would make a priority out of participating in the international arena. We would have an agenda which is about fairness, equality and self-determination throughout the world, and we would aim to punch above our weight  as other small European countries have done.

He uses the Scandinavian countries as an example who have become key peacemakers in the world's conflicts.

"We want independence to play a bigger role in the world, not a smaller role," as an example.

As a matter of priority we would try and assist in a new peace initiative between Israel and Palestine, and that would require putting pressure on Israel.

"I can only speak for my party, the SNP, but just right now we're speaking about the Iraq Inquiry, we argued and fought against the Iraq War in the first place. We're now fighting for the people who took us to war to face consequences," he added. 

"Our position would be considerably different from that adopted by the British government if we had our own international foreign policy."

At this point, mention of the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war brought our discussion to a crossroads. I was still keen to know what role Scotland could play out in one of the world's most volatile regions, however, before we could proceed Sheppard went on to affirm his stance on more specific issues affecting the Middle East.

Tommy SHeppard MP
Tommy Sheppard MP speaking during a parliamentary debate on the European Union [YouTube screenshot]

"For example, the whole question of Palestine has slipped down the agenda, because of the other tragic conflicts in the Middle East. But as a matter of priority we would try and assist in a new peace initiative between Israel and Palestine, and that would require putting some pressure on Israel," Sheppard added.

"That is something the British government should be doing, half-heartedly so if you ask me, but Scotland would be able to do so with a full heart. I think without a doubt we would do better than a current government".

"Scotland needs immigration"

"If Scotland became an independent country then anyone who is currently living in Scotland wil be offered a Scottish passport," Sheppard affirmed, contrasting PM Theresa May's comments earlier this month where she said that the status of Britain's 3 million EU nationals would be part of the Brexit negotiations.

"Scotland needs immigration, we need people to come to our country. Over the last century we've been depopulated, and we welcome and want people to come here from all over the world. We would have a much more positive  attitude towards migration than the current UK government does".

We welcome and want people to come here from all over the world. We would have a much more positive attitude towards migration than the current UK government does.

"Would this include refugees, like those from Syria?" I asked.

"Absolutely," the SNP deputy leadership candidate responded. "We would want everyone who has chosen to come to Scotland to feel welcome and to play a full and equal part in the future of our country".

Atlanticism and interventionism

With some European politicians now holding Britain in contempt for deciding to leave the EU, many are now wondering whether the UK will veer towards its ally across the Atlantic, and perhaps pursue a policy of appeasement and greater cooperation. Sheppard, a politician who opposed UK military action in Syria in 2015, is hopeful that this will not be the case.

"I think part of the political makeup of the brexiteers were people who actively preferred an Atlanticist outlook to a European one," he said.

"I think the chances are that you might see a more Atlanticist line emerging in foreign policy, I hope not. Of course that depends on what happens in the United States. You would like to think that the Chilcot report would have taught us some lessons about being dragged into foreign interventions as a willing accomplice. I'm not against international military action under a UN mandate on humanitarian or other grounds, but theres a difference between doing that through the UN and just supporting American foreign policy, which I've never been a great fan of".

Scottish Independence - a reality?

Having projected such a positive picture of what an Independent Scotland would look like, as our time drew to a close there only remained one question that hadn't been asked around the issue of Scotland leaving the UK. Is Scottish independence a reality that Sheppard and his SNP colleagues really forsee happening?

"Oh I'm convinced we will. Its not a matter of if, its a matter of when," the Edinburgh East MP affirmed.

"At the minute we'll see how these current developments play out. The British government have a choice: they need to ask themselves, would they rather assist in some special arrangements that allow Scotland to remain in the EU, or are they going to refuse to even contemplate that knowing that it will fuel the appetite for Scottish independence- that decision is theirs to make."

Tommy Sheppard is currently running to become the SNP's deputy leader.