“The United Kingdom would be weaker in every international body it attends,” warned former British prime minister Sir John Major last week as he campaigned against Scottish independence. “It would certainly be weaker in the EU in the forthcoming negotiations. We would lose our seat at the top table in the U.N.” Major is not the only one to suggest that Scottish independence could jeopardize the U.K.’s permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. Many major British newspapers have consistently mentioned the issue, from the Guardian to the Telegraph. But would a “yes” vote on Thursday really deal such a catastrophic blow to Britain’s world standing, or are the predictions of doom and gloom simply an attempt to scare Scotland into staying in the Union?
Strictly speaking, the Scottish referendum should not affect Britain’s Security Council seat, but reform of the U.N. is increasingly in the air. Currently, there are five permanent Security Council members who hold veto power (the U.S., France, the U.K., Russia, and China), and ten rotating members elected by the General Assembly to serve two-year terms. There’s a general consensus that the Council should be expanded to 20-25 permanent members, but that’s when things start to get tricky. Which countries should join? India, a nuclear power home to a fifth of the world’s population? Germany and Japan, two of the world’s largest economic powers who contribute more to the U.N. budget than any country other than the U.S.? Nigeria, to give Africa a seat and correct the skew of power towards Western countries? Should France and Britain’s seats be combined into a single European seat to better accommodate the changing political realities?
Independence could accelerate these conversations, especially since the Scottish referendum comes just two days after the opening of the U.N.’s General Assembly on Tuesday. Should Scotland become independent, the position of the new, much smaller Britain on the Security Council might be called in to question. (An independent Scotland would apply for U.N. membership, a process that should be relatively smooth and straightforward.)
The situation is not entirely without precedent. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the international community unilaterally agreed that Russia should take over the USSR’s seat to ensure a stable transition. France, another Security Council member, also kept its seat after it lost Algeria, then constitutionally part of metropolitan France, in 1963.
A key difference between the Soviet situation and the current, prospective one, however, is that, since the mid-1990s, many countries have started calling for reforms to the U.N. Only last year, South Africa’s International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane told the press, “We must not reach that point where the organization reaches 70 years and there is no change. 70 percent of the issues that go to the Security Council are about us, so it cannot continue to be without us." In 2010, President Obama endorsed India’s bid for a permanent seat, saying, “In Asia and around the world, India is not simply emerging. India has emerged.” Reform is clearly long overdue, and reformers could use Scottish independence as a catalyst. “It was a different world back when the USSR dissolved,” said Denis Fitzgerald, editor of the U.N. Tribune, a news site dedicated to the United Nations. “Countries like South Africa, Turkey, and Brazil weren’t the powers they are now. The idea that two middling European powers should have two Security Council seats is outdated. People could say, ‘Britain, your time is up. The world has changed.’”
Would a much smaller Britain even want to keep its seat, given the considerable financial burden maintaining the seat entails? “None of the main political parties want to give up the U.K.'s permanent seat,” said Nigel White, a professor at the University of Nottingham who specializes in United Nations law. “But there are arguments to the effect that the military expenditure and involvement in military action overseas which the U.K. feels it has to commit to as part of its responsibility as a permanent member would be too great a burden for a middle ranking power, something that would be more starkly revealed if Scotland achieved independence.”
With two days to go, the world’s eyes are on Scotland. It’s not just a question of Union, a choice between being Scottish or British, but a decision that could have lasting repercussions for the global balance of power.