The news that Iran interfered in the Scottish independence referendum is not terribly surprising. The Islamic Republic, along with Russia and China, was an early entrant into the fake news market, weaponising social media to spread misinformation. The object is to destabilise Western democracies domestically and thus weaken their ability to act on the international front. Iran’s Press TV and Russia’s RT function on the same basis — and both were noticeably enthusiastic about the possibility of Scotland voting Yes.
A report commissioned by Facebook confirms Iran set up proxy accounts on social media to push nationalist messages to Scottish users in 2014, including cartoons depicting David Cameron as ‘the embodiment of English oppression’. The propaganda operation appears to have been a pitifully modest and short-lived affair. Losing Scotland was bad enough but it turns out the Yes campaign couldn’t even keep the Ayatollah on board.
Even so, the revelation ought to — but won’t — cause the government to wake up to the real threat of Scottish separatism. Westminster and the sweep of English public opinion mistake independence for a breakaway rather than what it is: a break-up. If Alaska seceded from the United States or Greenland from Denmark, their departure would cause much grief but it wouldn’t alter the fundamentals of their respective countries. The Union between Scotland and England lies as the heart of the United Kingdom, historically and constitutionally. If Scotland left, what exactly would be left behind?
Iran understands this far better than the British do. It didn’t interfere for no reason. Tehran grasps that independence would distract the UK internally and undermine its global standing. London would have to endure long negotiations with Edinburgh, establish new borders and customs arrangements, and build a naval base in England capable of housing Trident and transfer the submarines there, all while touring the world touting the UK as a stable investment in trade talks. The interruption in the nuclear deterrent alone would be humiliating for Britain’s strategic position and might even raise questions about its permanent membership of the Security Council. This is without considering the turbo charge Scottish independence would give to Welsh nationalism and Irish unification.
When it comes to countering the lively menace of separatism, there is a middle ground between Westminster’s benign neglect and the batons-and-broken-bones approach of Madrid towards Catalan sovereigntism. The government should start to think about Scottish nationalism as a foreign affairs and national security concern. It ought to be accorded the strategic thought, priority and spend due such a peril. Decisions that directly (or, sometimes more importantly, indirectly) affect Scotland should be taken with a mind to their longer-term impact on the Union and the consequences that flow from that.
Some of this is straightforward: put the right personnel in place, punt a few more quid in a few more kitties and apply the Nicola Sturgeon Test to all government decisions: would doing (or failing to do) this put a massive smile on Nicola Sturgeon’s face? Some of it, however, is bigger-picture stuff. More powers have been devolved to Holyrood than is consistent with a strong, coherent Union. Every prime minister who ignores this fact stores up problems a future prime minister will pay the price for. Boris Johnson should be thinking about how to correct the mistakes of his predecessors while he has the majority necessary to do so.
Getting Westminster interested in Caledonian constitutional crocitations is a thankless task at the best of times, so shaking MPs and ministers out of their torpor is unlikely at present. There are, of course, honourable exceptions: Scottish Secretary Alister Jack has ideas and Michael Gove is cheerily vicious in his unofficial role as Scourge of the Separatists. But while Covid-19 is properly the top priority right now, ministers may come to regret letting down their guard on Scottish nationalism. It is as vigorous a force as ever and we now know it has friends among the UK’s enemies. The nationalists fell short in 2014 despite the efforts of their sinister patrons. Next time, we might not be so lucky.