Subarctic backyards? Britain, Scotland, and the paradoxical politics of the European High North.

Author:Powell, Richard C.

Abstract: This article discusses the ways in which the relationship between Britons and the Arctic has been positioned in recent political discussions. It is argued that both UK and Scottish politicians have used changes in the Arctic environment to argue for shifts in policy direction involving a reconfigured northern imagination. Within the Atlanticist wing of the British Conservative Party, the perceived need for the relationship between Britain and northern Europe to be reinforced, through the use of bilateral and multilateral partnerships, has been used as part of a wider strategy to revisit the relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union. For many subscribed to this section of British political thinking, the ultimate aim is withdrawal from the European Union. It is current UK Government policy that a referendum on British withdrawal from the European Union will be held by 2017. At the same time, a perceived lack of engagement by the UK with Arctic issues has been mobilized by Scottish nationalists in the debates that are preceding their independence referendum scheduled for September 2014. Moreover, this is complicated by the apparent desire of the Northern Isles, formerly dependencies of the Danish-Norwegian crown, to remain within the UK, regardless of the political future of the rest of Scotland. As such, northern visions about the Subarctic are being folded in complex ways into the domestic politics of the UK. This has implications for the constitution of arguments about the politics of the High North.


We cannot forget that geographically the United Kingdom is a northern European country. Let me be clear, this is not about carving out spheres of influence; this is about working together on mutual interests. For too long Britain has looked in every direction except its own backyard. (Fox, 2010: p. 1)

Liam Fox MP, then UK Secretary of State for Defence

The facts are sobering. Sea ice in the Arctic is melting faster than at any time in the past four decades. During this summer the Northwest Passage was free of ice and this trend is set to continue and become the norm. These changes in Scotland's backyard are significant and are accelerating. Our neighbours are at action-stations and Scottish government ministers are thinking about the challenges as we approach the independence referendum. (Robertson, 2011: p. 1)

Angus Robertson MP, leader of the Scottish National Party at Westminster

The argument for engagement in the Arctic as a matter of national imperative is a familiar trope. For citizens of Canada, Russia, or Norway, it has become commonplace. In recent years, the need for respective national polities to re-engage with their northern territories has been made by Prime Minster Stephen Harper in Canada, former Prime Minster Jens Stoltenberg in Norway, and former Prime Minister and now, again, President Vladimir Putin of Russia. (1) Other "Arctic states," historically perhaps less emotionally-involved with the northern regions, such as Finland, the United States, Sweden, and the Kingdom of Denmark, have over the past half-decade also issued new frameworks and policies regarding the Arctic.

This state of affairs has been discussed by a range of commentators. It is generally accepted that, due to significant changes in the environmental and cultural milieu of the Circumpolar Arctic, the Arctic states have had to adapt political position (Powell and Dodds, 2014). As well as national interests, the wider institutions of Arctic governance, such as the Arctic Council, have also had to undergo revision and modification. This has been in response to the increasing engagement of new state actors from Asia in the Arctic. Most notable, and widely commented upon by media and policy analysts, is China, but the new Arctic Council Observers inaugurated at the Kiruna (Sweden) meeting in May 2013 included India, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore (as well as Italy).

This focus on Asia and the Arctic suggests a re-visioning of the connection between the Pacific and Arctic Oceans. But a different, if equally interesting, story can be told about current imaginings of the connection between the Arctic and the North Atlantic. (2) In some ways, this narrative should be about attempts by the European Union (EU) to open up a role in Arctic governance through its "Arctic Window" and "Northern Dimension" (Powell, 2011). However, I argue here that, at the national scale within the United Kingdom, a number of tropes about the Subarctic are being reinvented and deployed as part of arguments about separation and devolution across the political spectrum.

Readers will not need reminding of Britain's historical association with Arctic exploration, and the UK continues to maintain a sense of being a "serious player" through economic interests in fisheries, resources, and tourism, and through state funding for science and defence. However, the notion of Britain having wider policy interests in the Arctic has been much more contentious; the claim that Britain has deeper cultural ties to the region even more so. There have always been arguments about the "northernness" of the Shetland and Orkney Islands, previously part of the Danish-Norwegian crown until the fifteenth century. The importance of "The Arctic in your backyard" was also used as the title of a campaign by environmental groups in Britain to increase public attention about climate change in the Circumpolar Region (WWF-UK, 2009). Interestingly, in the past three years, arguments about the Arctic have become important to two, distinct, groups of political actors within the United Kingdom, but for reasons that have much more to do with relations between Britain and Europe and, at another scale, between Scotland and England.

This article, then, discusses the adoption of the idea of a Subarctic backyard by Scottish political figures within the United Kingdom. Paradoxically, this backyard has been used by Scots to advance both the cause of British secession from the European Union, and that of Scottish independence from the rest of the United Kingdom.

The United Kingdom and the European High North

Historically, the Arctic has been central to the British cultural imagination, whether through the voyages of Martin Frobisher or John Franklin or in media culture and film (Spufford, 1996; Powell, 2011). The UK maintains a strong scientific presence in the region, as evidenced, for example, in the 15 million [pounds sterling] Arctic Research Programme 2010-15 of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), or the NERC Arctic research station at Ny-Alesund, Svalbard (Depledge and Dodds, 2011).

However, since 1945, security and defence have formed the main basis for British interests in the North Atlantic. The United Kingdom, and particularly the Royal Navy, had a specific responsibility to defend the Greenland-Iceland-UK Gap during the Cold war. Following Mikhail Gorbachev's Murmansk speech in 1987, the Arctic was supposed to become an area for peaceful co-operation (Atland, 2008; Griffiths, 1988; Mottola, 1988). This new imagining of the Arctic led to initiatives around environmental pollution or the incorporation of Indigenous voices into discussions about political governance, facilitated by states such as Finland and Canada (Heininen, 2008; Koivurova, 2010; Powell, 2011).

Through these discussions, the Arctic Council was established in 1996...

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