On 27th February, the House of Lords published a much-anticipated report on the UK’s approach to Arctic affairs.[i] The report’s analysis of Arctic change and its consequences is authoritative. It also contains some striking observations.

One such observation is the Lords’ criticism of existing UK policy towards the Arctic. This policy – set out in a Foreign Office-edited report of October 2013, entitled Responding to a changing Arctic – is described by the Lords as being ‘too hesitant and cautious’.[ii]

In earmarking ways in which the UK might develop a more robust strategy, the Lords calls for a better-coordinated and more proactive approach to fisheries protection and maritime accident response, issues that are potentially crucial for Scotland. Also of significance to Scotland is the report’s recognition of the devolved administrations’ right to be consulted on a revised UK Arctic strategy, and its insistence that those administrations be given the chance to participate appropriately in the UK’s Arctic activities in future.

The Lords’ report is a notable contribution to the debate over the UK’s approach towards Arctic affairs. It is also of considerable significance for Scotland, and it raises the prospect of a vastly different approach to UK foreign policymaking.

Critiquing the current UK Arctic policy

Prior to the Lords’ report, the official UK paper of 2013 had already been the subject of some discussion. The paper makes a claim for the UK to be ‘the Arctic’s nearest neighbour’, a view endorsed by the Lords. It is careful, however – many would say overly deferential – in recognizing the rights of the full members of the Arctic Council (where the UK is only an observer) on the one hand, and the importance of decisions to be taken by business on the other. [iii]

The paper was criticized in the UK parliament for seeming to under-acknowledge the environmental dangers of Arctic development; it was censured in other quarters for its weak treatment of security and safety issues.[iv] It has been further criticised for failing to recognize that certain parts of the UK have specific interests in Arctic-related affairs, interests which should perhaps be recognized in any formal UK approach.

For example, Scotland counts fishing, energy and maritime activity – three areas of great significance to a changing Arctic landscape – among its key economic interests. Scotland is also far closer to the Arctic Circle than any other part of the UK and it has a substantial network of established relationships and agreements with its Northern neighbours across the political, business, education and scientific sectors.[v] Despite this, the Scottish government was not consulted once by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) during the five years it took to research and publish the Arctic policy paper.[vi]

Given the strength of Scotland’s interests in the developments associated with Arctic change, the overlooking of distinctive Scottish interests by the UK government has meant – at least thus far – a less-than-comprehensive, and arguably sub-optimum, UK approach to Arctic affairs. Some would argue that if Whitehall persists in such an approach, the Scottish government would be justified in exploring the scope to formalize its own distinctive Arctic policy. Scotland would not be the only non-sovereign nation to go down this route; the Faroe Islands, part of the Danish kingdom, recently adopted its own Arctic strategy despite already being ‘covered’ by (and having signed up to) Denmark’s Arctic policy.[vii]

A better way forward?

Having earmarked some of the perceived deficiencies in the existing UK approach to Arctic affairs, the Lords’ report proceeds to take a more pragmatic and insightful line. It avoids hyping either the prospects of an Arctic bonanza or the risks of an Arctic conflict. It acknowledges that oil and gas production may develop more slowly than some initial projections, and that the scale of shipping growth remains to be proven. Rather than depicting this likely slower growth-rate as a negative, the Lords instead depict it as a useful time-window that we must actively exploit to find safe and sustainable models for Arctic development.

It is acknowledged that the warming climate itself is causing serious environmental, human and economic damage that can only intensify. Also acknowledged is that the upturn in maritime activity arising from Arctic change increases the chances of accidents and emergencies, especially at sea. The report views these developments as shared global concerns and responsibilities. It advocates collaboration as the most fruitful way forward.

Notably, the report argues that current tensions over Ukraine should not be allowed to complicate the necessary cooperation with Russia on a wide range of Arctic affairs. ‘Every effort’, it asserts, ‘should be made to insulate Arctic co-operation from geopolitical tensions arising in other parts of the world because there is a global interest in protecting this unusually vulnerable environment.’[viii]

The Lords’ report also urges the UK to identify and stand up for its Arctic interests much more clearly in future. It urges that London should appoint an Arctic Ambassador, as others – including France – have already done, to coordinate related activities and promote the UK line abroad. It contends that UK scientific involvement in the Arctic – which was much praised in the FCO paper – should be harnessed (and duly funded) to support national interests better; for example, by ensuring a presence in all fields of research and policy activity under the Arctic Council. It also acknowledges the contribution that the UK’s scientific community could bring to collaborative region-wide monitoring and analysis regimes.

Special interest for Scotland?

It is interesting to note that the Lords also look closely at issues that were less fully explored in the 2013 paper but which could be of special concern to Scotland. Key issues raised relate to fisheries, maritime search and rescue capability, and the prospect that the Scottish government in Edinburgh might have a fuller say in the construction of future UK Arctic policy.

The Lords’ report accepts the UK government’s view that a moratorium should be considered on fishing in the Arctic high seas (i.e. waters not currently under national sovereignty) until the conditions for sustainable management are better understood. It urges the authorities, however, to get more directly involved in the international debates on this subject, currently taking place among the Arctic’s five littoral states, and between them and the EU.

These recommendations matter greatly to Scotland, which has some of the richest seas in Europe; approximately 4 tonnes of fish is taken from each square nautical mile of Scottish waters, compared to an approximate 1-tonne EU average. Within the UK, Scotland has the largest proportional stake in fishing. Its fishing zone makes up over 60% of UK waters and whilst it has just 8.4% of the UK population, Scottish vessels land around 80% of the total value of UK landings of key fish stocks.[ix]

The Lords’ recommendation of greater engagement in the debates over Arctic fishing may thus be viewed with particular interest by the Scottish fishing industry as well as by the Scottish government. Scottish scientific institutions such as the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) – a world-renowned marine research institute with a proven track record in coordinating and leading multi-partner research programmes – may also be interested in any prospective increase in the UK’s involvement in marine monitoring activities.[x]

Maritime surveillance, search and rescue
The Lords also have far more to say than the 2013 UK report about civil emergencies and natural disasters in the High North, which may pose especially tough challenges for search and rescue (S&R) operations. The Arctic states are cooperating closely on this issue but they lack resources, especially in the North Atlantic gap.

Noting these deficiencies, the Lords argue that the UK should shoulder its responsibility in this area and ‘give urgent attention to developing a pan-Arctic search and rescue strategy along with the Arctic states’ (para. 323). This raises the question of whether the UK possesses the assets to fulfil any wider S&R role.

Filling the capability gap
The Lords’ report notes various deficiencies in the capacity of the UK military to fulfil a variety of important tasks across the High North. It notes, for example, that UK armed forces’ cold-weather training has been cut down in recent years. Also that the Royal Air Force has lost maritime patrol capacity, and that ship patrols do not reach the Arctic zone. It concludes (paras. 427-428) that,

‘…the Ministry of Defence should maintain and develop its cold-weather operational capabilities, expertise and resources. The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review must give urgent consideration to reintroducing a maritime patrol capability for the UK. This is needed for both defence and search and rescue operations’.

These recommendations emerge at a time of great debate over the UK military and the cost of maintaining it. Many suspect that UK defence spending will drop below the NATO target of 2% of GDP in the next parliament.[xi] Debates on this issue are certain to be enflamed given that the next UK government will also have to take a decision on replacing the UK’s fleet of four nuclear-armed submarines, an investment which may cost £20 billion.[xii]

The Lords’ recommendations for bolstering the UK’s maritime patrol capability will clearly add to this debate. They will also have added resonance in Scotland, where this subject was much-discussed during the recent independence referendum. Scotland has suffered a significant downturn in provision for its vast air and sea-space in recent years, in no small part as a result of the UK Government’s 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). A key outcome of this review was the withdrawal from service of the Nimrod aircraft fleet. This decision was widely criticized for decimating the UK’s aerial maritime surveillance capability.[xiii] However, it also hastened the decline of the RAF’s overall presence in Scotland, resulting as it did in the closure of RAF Kinloss in the north-east of Scotland.[xiv]

The UK government’s 2010 cuts also resulted in a vast reduction in coastguard cover in the UK’s northern seas, a move which caused great disillusionment amongst coastguard staff and subsequent staffing shortages.[xv] Those same cuts also saw Scotland’s two emergency tug-boats cut from two to just one. The inadequacy of emergency provision in the waters around Scotland, critics contend, have been vividly exposed by a series of shipping accidents in recent times.[xvi]

Some twenty two years after the MV Braer ran aground off Shetland, spilling 85,000 tonnes of crude oil into the sea, the Lords’ report exhorts the UK government to reinvest in its northern S&R capability, and to set in place an infrastructure which might lessen the chances of maritime accidents. Implementing such measures would be costly but they are surely necessary if the UK is to contribute meaningfully to regional efforts on this issue.[xvii] Any such reinvestment could – and should – show its fullest effect in Scotland, which has suffered as a consequence of maritime service cuts in recent years, but which surely remains the most logical ‘launch-pad’ for UK participation in S&R activities off Northern coasts.

It is important to note that any enhancement of UK maritime activities operating out of Scotland may well require the participation of the Scottish government, notably on key issues such as harbour and coastal works, maritime safety and pollution prevention. Whilst legislating on shipping matters is the preserve of Westminster, the 1999 devolution settlement transferred responsibility for harbours and ports to the Scottish government.

Cross-UK participation in sculpting the UK’s Arctic policy?

The last of the Lords’ key recommendations may have great significance not only for Scotland but also perhaps for the way in which aspects of UK foreign policy are constructed and implemented in the future.

The report contends that the UK government should make a stronger effort to promote the interests of all UK economic branches with Arctic potential and (para. 490) that it ‘should also consult the UK’s devolved administrations in doing so, as Arctic expertise and interests are distributed widely across the country’. As one illustration, the Lords point to Aberdeen’s role as a centre of expertise for the oil and gas industry. They add that northern and eastern UK ports might be well-placed to take advantage of the expansion of shipping through the Northern Sea Route (and eventually the polar route)’.

Perhaps most significantly of all, the Lords conclude that ‘The Government needs to ensure that the devolved administrations are able to participate appropriately in the UK’s Arctic activities’ (para 449). Whilst the precise meaning of ‘appropriate’ participation is open to speculation, this recommendation might be seen as a tacit endorsement of a groundbreaking approach to UK foreign policymaking: namely, that the devolved governments outside London might have a say on how that policy is constructed.

Any such arrangement would clearly represent a huge step away from what currently exists. If it proved successful, it might conceivably be extended into other areas of foreign policy, excluding ‘hard’ areas such security and defence. This approach might, for example, allow the Scottish government to have a say in the UK’s EU policymaking, on issues of particular Scottish interest. Whether this recommendation is taken up by the FCO or not, the Lords have shown considerable boldness in highlighting it as a possible way forward for UK policymaking.


To enshrine all these points in central policy, the Lords call for the UK Arctic policy paper to be reviewed in 2015 and turned into a formal ‘strategy’, to be updated every five years. Quite what may follow these recommendations remains to be seen, but this is undoubtedly a report of considerable significance.

In the present political climate – pre-General Election and with the independence referendum still reverberating – it would be unrealistic to expect the report of a multi-party Lords committee to be unnecessarily provocative in its conclusions. However, the report produced by the peers undoubtedly makes some dramatic observations.

Its critique of existing UK policy may be difficult enough for the powers-that-be to swallow. But we certainly could not have expected the Lords to push Scotland’s particular claims on the Arctic in a more vigorous way than this. Their carefully researched and clearly-expressed findings provide a concrete and surely incontestable base for Scotland – government, business, and academics alike – to demand its proper place, and full respect for its interests, in the future framing of UK Arctic policy.

The report also makes clear what is required for the UK to deploy a more robust and functional Arctic policy, one which will allow it to contribute meaningfully to international efforts on a sustainable Arctic fisheries policy, maritime safety and a regional S&R framework. And at all junctures, the Lords’ recommendations on these issues mean something significant for Scotland, whether it is the possibility of seeing personnel, aircraft and ships based in Scotland to facilitate a range of aerial and maritime operations, or even the Scottish government itself making a meaningful contribution to both the visualization and execution of policy.
[i] ‘Responding to a changing Arctic’, text available at: http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/lords-select/arcticcom/news/report-published/
[ii] Text at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/251216/Adapting_To_Change_UK_policy_towards_the_Arctic.pdf.
[iii] The states members of the Arctic Council (AC) are Canada, Denmark (because of Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the Russian Federation and the US. The UK is one of numerous observers entitled to attend Council meetings and contribute to AC working groups; others include France, Germany, Italy and a group of Asian countries – China and Japan among them – who were admitted in 2013. The EU is still fighting for its place as observer and the Lords call upon the UK to support it in its efforts.
[iv] Duncan Depledge of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) has long held this view and expressed it i.a. in evidence to the Lords enquiry; see also Alyson JK Bailes, ‘The Arctic’s Nearest Neighbour? An evaluation of the UK’s 2013 Arctic Policy Document’ in The Arctic Yearbook 2014, at http://www.arcticyearbook.com/index.php/articles2014/108-the-arctic-s-nearest-neighbour-an-evaluation-of-the-uk-s-2013-arctic-policy-document
[v] See, for example, Rachael Lorna Johnstone, ‘An Arctic Strategy for Scotland’. Arctic Yearbook, 2012 at: http://www.arcticyearbook.com/images/Articles_2012/Johnstone.pdf
[vi] Alyson JK Bailes, ‘The UK and the Arctic – Where is Scotland?’ Scottish Global Forum, February 2014, at https://www.scottishglobalforum.net/uk-arctic-strategy-jan-2014.html
[vii] For the Faroese Arctic policy, see ‘The Faroe Islands: A Nation in the Arctic’. The Prime Minister’s Office, 2013 at: http://www.government.fo/media/5345/101871-foroyar-eitt-land-%C3%AD-arktis-uk.pdf
[viii] Quoted in the press release and summary at http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/lords-select/arcticcom/news/report-published/. See also Alyson JK Bailes, ‘A New Arctic Chill? Rections in the North to New Tensions with Russia’, Scottish Global Forum, February 2015, at https://www.scottishglobalforum.net/alyson-bailes-arctic-chill.html
[ix] Scottish Government figures (2014) at: http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2014/08/8589/2
[x] http://www.sams.ac.uk/
[xi] Stephen Swinford, ‘Tories would need £8bn to protect defence spending’. The Telegraph, 19th March 2015 at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/david-cameron/11484284/Tories-would-need-8bn-to-protect-defence-spending.html
[xii] Matthew Holehouse, ‘Ed Miliband hints he may back replacing Trident with cheaper system’. The Telegraph, 5th January 2015 at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/ed-miliband/11325940/Ed-Miliband-hints-he-may-back-replacing-Trident-with-cheaper-system.html
[xiii] Craig Hoyle, ‘UK left exposed by Nimrod Cancellation, report says’. Flight Global, 27th September 2012, at: http://www.flightglobal.com/news/articles/in-focus-uk-left-exposed-by-nimrod-cancellation-report-says-376998/
Also, House of Commons Defence Committee, Fifth Report. ‘Future Maritime Surveillance.’ Published 5th September 2012. Quotes taken from Section 6, Conclusion. Available to view at: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmselect/cmdfence/110/11002.htm
[xiv] ‘RAF Kinloss to close as ministers cancel Nimrod order’. BBC News, 19th October 2010 at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-north-east-orkney-shetland-11565829
[xv] See the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee’s report ‘The Future of HM Coastguard in Scotland’. Fifth Report of Session 2012-13. Also, ‘Follow up report on Coastguard, Emergency Towing Vessels and the Maritime Incident Response Group’. House of Commons Transport Committee, 11th December 2012 at: http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/transport-committee/news/coastguard-fu—report/
Also, ‘PCS Concern at Coastguard Staffing Levels’. BBC News, 19th August 2013 at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-north-east-orkney-shetland-23759050
[xvi] Julia Horton, ‘After 20 years, Scotland ‘still risks another Braer disaster’. The Scotsman, 5th January 2013 at: http://www.scotsman.com/news/environment/after-20-years-scotland-still-risks-another-braer-disaster-1-2719723
[xvii] Ibid. Also, David Ross, ‘One tug not enough to protect Scotland’s seas’. The Herald, 20th February 2015 at: http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/home-news/one-tug-not-enough-to-protect-scotlands-seas.118933711

Professor Alyson JK Bailes is currently Adjunct Professor at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik, and a Visiting Professor at the College of Europe in Bruges. She sits on the Advisory Board of the the Scottish Global Forum.
Dr John MacDonald is Director of the Scottish Global Forum.