Juliet Kaarbo, University of Edinburgh, and Ryan Beasley, University of St Andrews

In the September 2014 referendum, citizens of Scotland will decide whether ‘to be or not to be’ a sovereign state. As part of the campaign preceding the vote, those within and outside of Scotland are debating the proposition of Scotland playing that sovereign role.  Whether independence is achieved or not, these internal debates, and external efforts, are likely to shape Scotland’s external relations and its internal identity well into the future. Relationships between Scotland and the EU and its member states, for example, may evolve as a consequence of the pre-referendum period.  Relations between the Scottish government and the central UK government will also be affected by Edinburgh’s attempt to secede and London’s attempts to block or shape that secession. Independence movements, successful or otherwise, leave a lasting mark on states and the international society.

Here, we examine processes of role construction and contestation – in essence, efforts to ‘socialize’ Scotland into playing a particular role – by actors within Scotland, as well as by important external actors. Roles are ‘repertoires of behaviour, inferred from others’ expectations and one’s own conceptions, selected at least partly in response to cues and demands’ (Walker 1992: 23). That is, states locate their role through an interactive socialisation process, ‘whereby new members of the international system learn their appropriate roles in response to cues and demands from the audience of member states’ (Thies 2012: 27).

Often there are significant disagreements within a state about what role the newly-forming state should play.  Such ‘role contestation’ can occur along two dimensions – vertical and horizontal (Cantir and Kaarbo 2012).  Roles are contested vertically when elites and masses disagree on their country’s proper role in the international system. Roles are horizontally contested when ruling elites disagree amongst themselves on their state’s roles. Roles, however, are not simply the outcome of this internal contestation. Role contestation within a state and socialization efforts by other states can influence each other in complementary or contradictory ways.

In the Scottish referendum debate, there are two related dimensions to role contestation and socialisation.  The first concerns whether Scotland should adopt the role of a sovereign state at all.  The second involves a debate about what type of role Scotland would play if it were independent.  These are related.  Both sides on the independence question use what type of role Scotland could or could not play as a way to argue for or against a role as an independent state.

Internal role contestation is between the elites who favour independence (the ‘Yes’ camp, mainly the leadership of its ruling political party, the Scottish Nationalist Party, or SNP) and the voters whom they are trying to persuade. Elites advocating against independence, primarily through the ‘Better Together’ campaign are trying to strategically persuade a majority of Scottish voters to vote ‘no.’

Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland, and other leaders of the SNP propose that a sovereign role would be better for the Scottish people.  The campaign is based on a number of arguments, but underpinning many of them is the value of sovereignty itself – that Scots would have self-determination in both domestic and foreign policies.  In domestic policies, pro-independence leaders point out that some popular policies will not change, since Scotland as a devolved territory already controls many policy areas.  The changes that the ‘Yes’ campaign claims could occur with independence try to tap into popular support for a ‘fairer’, more ‘socially just’, and ‘greener’ country. Finally, the ‘Yes’ campaign argues that an independent Scotland would be better off economically.  Many of the ‘No’ arguments are direct contradictions of the claims advanced by the other side.  More generally, they question whether a sovereign role is viable for Scotland, by challenging its economic ability to afford the social benefits that are promised or that Scots currently enjoy.  To date, these efforts have been successful.  The opposition to independence has consistently held the lead in public opinion polls.

In terms of what type of role an independent Scotland would play in the world, the SNP has articulated some ideas of foreign policy in its campaign. Its vision includes both similarities and differences with UK foreign policy.  Like the UK, an independent Scotland would be a liberal trading state, committed to multilateralism and international organisations.  Scotland would seek to retain membership of the EU, and Scottish voters generally support EU membership and regional integration efforts. The SNP also now accepts NATO membership as part of an independent foreign policy, although this has been horizontally contested and not all of the voting public agree.  The SNP’s foreign policy vision differs from the UK’s in two important ways. First, the SNP promotes a non-nuclear status for Scotland (a generally popular position in Scotland), and they pledge to negotiate the removal of the UK’s nuclear submarine base in Scotland.  The second difference directly connects to Scotland’s role in the world and involves a vision of a more ‘civilian power’ role for Scotland.  Pro-independence statements endorse a value-based foreign policy, promoting international law, international development, climate justice, and human rights.

The intervention into the independence debate by business firms based in Scotland is another form of vertical contestation over a sovereign role as elites from business and unions’ pronouncements presumably are aimed at influencing voters.   Standard Life, the Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds banking group recently claimed they might leave an independent Scotland.  The head of Shell Oil also warned of risks and uncertainties of independence.  British Airways and RyanAir, however, weighed in to say that independence might be a good development for their companies. Some trade unions have supported independence, others have opposed..

Horizontal role contestation is occurring between political parties and leaders of the ‘Yes’ and ‘Better Together’ campaigns.  The referendum debate is in a wider politically competitive context, with key events upcoming on the electoral calendar, including the UK general election (2015) and the Scottish election (by 2016). How well the Parties fare in the referendum may influence their chances in subsequent elections. Contestation of Scotland’s sovereign role has also occurred within political institutions (i.e., in the form of parliamentary enquiries) and in the wider public sphere (i.e. media outlets).  There has also been some internal party division within the SNP over what kind of role an independent Scotland would play in the world.  In 2012, for example, the SNP voted 426 to 332 to change its 30-year old opposition to NATO. A few resignations within the SNP followed the vote.

In terms of socialisation, key external actors have moved to shape the Scottish internal debate.   In December 2012, the President of the EU Commission declared that any new state would have to apply for EU membership, despite the SNP’s claim that Scotland would be able to renegotiate its terms of membership from inside the EU. The UK government published its own legal advice, stating that an independent Scotland would immediately be outside the EU and the UN. Questions about the SNP’s legal advice arguably became a thorn in the side of its independence campaign, illustrating the relationship between external socialisation and internal contestation. Other significant actors within the EU have cast doubt upon the UK government’s interpretation that Scotland could not expect to become a member of the EU immediately upon independence and other EU member states have also weighed in.  With these attempts, socialisation efforts appear to be active in the Scottish debate, but not consistently pointing in the same direction.

NATO has also indicated that an independent Scotland would have to apply as a new state and that membership would require unanimous agreement of all twenty-eight states in the alliance. Although the United States has not put forth an official position, concerns about precedent for secession in other states, weakening of the UK as its ally, and consequences for nuclear deterrence have been voiced in US-based elite opinion pages, with SNP reactions.

The primary external actor attempting to socialise Scotland is the UK government.  One area particularly ripe for simultaneously casting Scotland as facing uncertainty, but with the near certain limitations of a weak new state, is economics. Several efforts by the UK government alter-cast an independent Scotland as a ‘small state’ that would suffer economically from its weakness.  Examples include highlighting Scotland’s limited capacity to exploit its North Sea oil resources.  UK leaders have also cast uncertainly on the SNP’s preference to keep the Pound as its currency.

As we see in this case, the birth of a new state has many midwives.  Scotland’s bid for independence has roused a host of interested stake-holders and involves a complex interplay of policy debates, legal interpretations, and political jockeying. At the heart of the process, we have argued, is the way in which actors within and outside Scotland attempt to interpret and shape its role within the international system. The Scottish case of seeking independence may be somewhat unusual, coming as it does within a firmly established EU state, with the reluctant blessing of the UK government, and during a period where prevailing international norms strongly support democratic self-determination. Despite these distinct features, a role approach allows for a theoretically informed inside-out and outside-in account of the formation and development of Scotland’s role – either exercised as a sovereign state or a regional para-diplomatic actor.  It may also help to interpret other actors’ policies and behaviors toward Scotland after the referendum.


Cantir, Cristian and Juliet Kaarbo, “Contested Roles and Domestic Politics: Reflections on Role Theory in Foreign Policy Analysis and IR Theory,” Foreign Policy Analysis, January 2012, 8: 5-24.

Thies, Cameron (2012) “International Socialization Processes vs. Israeli National Role Conceptions:  Can Role Theory Integrate IR Theory and Foreign Policy Analysis?” Foreign Policy Analysis 8:25-46.

Walker, Stephen G.  (1992). “Symbolic Interactionism and International Politics: Role Theory’s Contribution to International Organization,” in Cottam, M. and C. Shih (eds.) Contenting Dramas: A Cognitive Approach to International Organizations, New York: Praeger.


Ryan Beasley is Senior Teaching Fellow in the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews. His research focuses on coalition politics and foreign policy, the psychology of security, and problem representations in group decision making. Juliet Kaarbo is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Edinburgh.  Her research interests include the role of parliaments, coalition cabinets, and leadership style in foreign policy.  She has recently published work on using role theory in international politics in the journals of Foreign Policy Analysis and Cooperation and Conflict.