Nicola Sturgeon sets out Scotland’s Arctic ambitions. Photo: Arctic Circle
With global interest in the Arctic growing, Scotland is the latest non-Arctic nation to claim it has exceptional interests in the region. At the recent Arctic Circle conference in Edinburgh, the Scottish Government took this claim a step further by announcing it intended to develop its own Arctic Strategy, distinct from the broader Arctic Policy Framework established by the UK Government in Westminster in 2013. This presents complications for the UK, but it also raises questions about how regional actors from beyond the Arctic are contesting state-centric interpretations of what constitutes a legitimate Arctic stakeholder.
Despite important historical and contemporary connections to the Arctic, the United Kingdom (UK) is not seen to be an ‘Arctic state’ by Arctic Council states and Permanent Participants. But it is proximate to the Arctic, and, as Duncan Depledge sets out in Britain and the Arctic, over the past decade, Britain’s scientific, commercial, and environmental connections and interests in and to the Arctic have expanded since the end of the Cold War.
In the past five years alone there have been five separate parliamentary inquiries into the UK’s interests in Arctic affairs cutting across environmental protection, defense, and strategy. The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) has invested more than £30 million in British Arctic science and established an ‘Arctic Office’ in Cambridge to better coordinate the UK’s scientific output. In 2013, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Polar Regions Department (PRD) published the UK Government’s first (and so far only) white paper on the Arctic, making the UK the first non-Arctic state to do so.
Far less noticeable, though, has been the parallel emergence of a constituency of Scottish society claiming that Scotland has an even stronger claim to be recognized as an Arctic stakeholder than the rest of the UK. The first real sign of this was an article published in 2011 by Angus Robertson, who at the time was the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) leader in Westminster. In it, he claimed that “The UK has opted out of taking a serious approach to the economic and military changes the melting ice cap will bring”, apparently in response to the failure of the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) to mention the Arctic even once, and, specifically, the Ministry of Defence’s decision to scrap the UK’s Maritime Patrol Aircraft.
That was followed in 2012 with a paper published by the Scottish law professor, Rachael Lorna Johnstone in the Arctic Yearbook. In it, she claimed that “Scotland has quite distinct [from the rest of the UK] historical, social, economic and political interests in the Arctic”, and that the UK Government’s apparent disinterest in the Arctic put at risk Scotland’s ability to pursue those interests.
The timing of these expressions of Scottish ‘Arctic-ness’ cannot be ignored, coming as they did in the run-up to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. Indeed, it is worth noting that claims about Scotland’s distinct interests in the Arctic have come almost exclusively from the SNP. This was evident in the hearing held by the Scottish Affairs Committee in Westminster earlier this year, where it was not clear whether non-SNP members of the Committee were as enchanted about Scotland independently renewing its own distinct connections to the Arctic.
The SNP’s interest is therefore perhaps best understood as an expression of independence, and a desire to envision and build a distinctly ‘northern’ (as suggested by the the Scottish Government’s recent Nordic Baltic Policy Statement) future for Scotland, girded by the claim that the UK Government in Westminster is not only holding them back from the Arctic, but is also ignoring Scotland’s distinct interests in, and historical connections to, the region. In the nineteenth century, for example, Scotland was a world leader in Arctic whaling and the industry was based out of Aberdeen and Dundee. Today, John MacDonald of the Scottish Global Forum argues that Scotland is more exposed to changes in the Arctic (potentially impacting fisheries, search and rescue, pollution levels, and port developments) than the rest of the UK.
One might reasonably ask, then, whether the SNP has a point? After all, a report surfaced in 2014 that the Scottish Government was not consulted by Westminster during the drafting of the UK’s Arctic Policy Framework. Indeed, the word ‘Scotland’ does not appear once in the entire forty page document. Lorna Johnstone, meanwhile, has argued that because the UK has a very wide-angled strategic gaze (one that will soon underpin ‘Global Britain’), the Arctic is not afforded enough priority, and that Scotland may bear the brunt of any missed commercial and political opportunities.
The failure to involve the Scottish Government in consultations was a misstep in a post-devolution context. Yet the absence of specific references to Scotland, in a paper that presented the UK’s interests in the broadest possible terms, might not be that surprising. The direction of political travel in Westminster has been to emphasize the value of the UK Arctic science community per se, coordinated through NERC’s Arctic Office, which works closely with other bodies including the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS).
More widely, SAMS has played a substantial role in the development of UK Arctic policy over the last decade, having conducted a major review of Arctic science in 2008, and hosted a UK Arctic Stakeholder’s Workshop in Oban that same year. SAMS also worked in partnership with the Royal Geographical Society and the British Antarctic Survey to jointly develop the educational website discoveringthearctic.org.uk. Scottish actors, commercial and scientific, have enriched and enabled the UK’s approach to the Arctic, most recently by hosting NERC’s annual Arctic Science Conference
Edinburgh and the Arctic Circle
The Arctic Circle came to Edinburgh in November 2017 after meetings in Quebec, Singapore, Nuuk, and Anchorage. With the exception of the Asian city-state of Singapore, the other places are all major Arctic centers located in the Arctic states of Canada, Denmark, and the United States. So, Edinburgh is arguably a hybrid location—the capital city of a northern country with a long history of Arctic commercial endeavor, exploration, and scientific research, but also a constituent part of the UK.
The global showcasing of Arctic Circle as a ‘bazaar’ has been the project of Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, who served as Iceland’s President from 1996 to 2016. In April 2013, Grímsson announced that Iceland would, later that year, begin hosting a new annual assembly of international Arctic stakeholders, named ‘Arctic Circle’. The aim of the assembly would be to “strengthen the policymaking process [in/for the Arctic] by bringing together as many Arctic and international players as possible under one large tent” because “the Arctic has suffered from a lack of global awareness and, as a result, a lack of effective governance” (emphasis added by authors).
The timing of the announcement was not innocent, coming as it did shortly before the Arctic Council was due to decide whether to open itself up to more observers, predominantly from South- and South-East Asian states. As the authors have written elsewhere, “there was palpable feeling at the time that Grímmson was challenging the Arctic Council to take on a more global profile, with a view that should the Arctic Council reject the observer applications, then the Arctic Circle would be prepared to provide an alternative platform for global interest to be expressed in the Arctic”. Implicit within this was a question about whether—or at least, the extent to which—the eight Arctic States (A8) should retain their political, economic, and even ideational dominance in Arctic affairs. The latter being rooted in what Depledge has termed the ‘principle of circumpolarity’ (that states with territory north of the Arctic Circle have primacy in the region).
Just a few weeks after the inaugural Arctic Circle, Grímmson arrived in London to speak at the Poles Apart conference in London, organized by James Gray MP (who now chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Polar Regions in Westminster). There, Grimsson challenged the UK Government to be more explicit about its interests in the Arctic. A year later, Gray led a sizeable (and very visible) British delegation to take part in the second Arctic Circle assembly. However, significantly, the delegation was not led by the British Government (although it did carry with it a video message from the then-Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond), and although the UK has had a presence at every Arctic Circle meeting since, it has been low key.
Seemingly unable to get a high-profile member of the British Government to give a major speech at Arctic Circle, in 2016, Grímsson turned to Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the SNP, who accepted his invitation. Afterwards, their relationship strengthened and over lunch the two agreed that Edinburgh should host one of Arctic Circle’s satellite forums. A further one is planned for the Faroe Islands in 2018. What arguably unites these disparate locations is that they represent a ‘network of the marginalized’—nations that feel that their voices are not being heard in the Arctic (and with the exception of Singapore, all nations that are constituent parts of larger Arctic states).
Sensing, perhaps, that these nations are being failed by a state-centric Arctic that principally revolves around the eight Arctic states and various observer states, Grímsson has managed to create new venues wherein their interests can be exhibited and pursued. The UK does not appear to have pursued the opportunity to host a forum meeting in London. Scotland, though, seized it, and with the announcement that it will publish a Scottish Arctic Strategy the Scottish Government appears keen to follow Grímsson in testing out far it can go by operating in the margins in the formal geopolitical architecture of the Arctic region.
The UK Government now has to consider what that means for its own public approach to the Arctic. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has repeatedly stated on the public record that it does not like the term ‘strategy’, and that when it published the Arctic Policy Framework in 2013 it had to be very careful not to provoke a ‘backlash’ from the Arctic states—who were coming to terms with the admittance of new Asian observer states such as China, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore.
That raises several interesting questions that remain to be answered. First, is Scotland about to show that the UK been too cautious in its approach? Second, how will the UK Government respond given that the UK Arctic Policy Framework is due for revision? Is the UK Government content for Scotland to lead the way or will it have to ‘trump’ the Scottish position with its own Arctic strategy, or even by appointing an Arctic/Polar special representative (perhaps before the Scottish Government does—the SNP recently called a Westminster Hall Debate on whether the UK should appoint an Arctic ambassador)? And if Scotland does escape ‘censure’ from the A8 for daring to publish an Arctic strategy, what does that mean for the principle of circumpolarity and the formal geopolitical architecture of the Arctic, which has traditionally revolved around a clear division about who can and cannot strategize about the Arctic and who can and does ‘observe’ regional governance?
Duncan Depledge is the author of Britain and the Arctic. Klaus Dodds is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London.