On 17th October 2013, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London published a paper called ‘Adapting to Change – UK Policy towards the Arctic’.[i]  It was the first time that the British Government had put out such a comprehensive statement on an issue that has attracted growing and sometimes strident debate, at home and abroad, for over a decade.  In a nutshell, climate change is advancing almost twice as fast in the regions around the North Pole as elsewhere; this process is threatening natural and human habitats and bringing more unstable weather, but it is also making new spaces accessible for economic activity.  New offshore oil and gas exploitation is the most controversial prospect, but there are also possibilities for extraction on land (e.g. mineral mining in Greenland), for extended fishery areas, for new routes for goods shipping (especially over Siberia), and for increased eco-tourism.

One obvious question is the balance to strike between exploring and profiting from such openings, and preserving the Arctic environment itself – so far as it can still be salvaged.  Another is who will profit, and how the Arctic can be managed to ensure consistent, responsible standards while avoiding conflict. The states with the largest Arctic coastlines (Russia, Canada and the US, but also Norway with its important oil and gas fields and Denmark which owns Greenland) are stressing their right and determination to maintain their respective sovereignties, and have made plans to strengthen their Arctic-capable armed forces.  On the other hand, the same countries have pledged themselves to behave peacefully, settle any disputes by law, and make a common front against the challenges of an unstable climate, shipping safety, and other possible accidents.[ii]  Finland, Iceland and Sweden work together with them in a regional institution called the Arctic Council, which has strengthened its profile and output in recent years, but cannot directly manage either military or commercial developments. [iii]

The UK – an established Arctic actor

The UK has been one of several European ‘observers’ in the Arctic Council since the latter was formalized – growing out of an earlier cooperation process on science and the environment – in 1996.  It has a strong claim to have been an actor in the Arctic ever since the 15th-century age of explorations, if not before. Individual British explorers and scientists have been among the best-known North polar pioneers.  British ships took an enthusiastic part in the near-extermination of Arctic whales in the 18th-19th centuries and still harvest their share of Arctic fish.  British oil and gas companies are keenly interested in possible Arctic projects and they hold some relevant licences, either alone or with foreign partners.  Last but not least, the British military fought on the Arctic front in two world wars and the UK has retained some special roles in Northern defence since NATO was founded, leading to frequent British participation in cold-weather exercises and close defence relations with all the Nordic Allies.

All of this might prompt the question of why London did not formulate a British Arctic policy even earlier.  Of course, guidelines for resource use and direction have existed in specific fields such as funding for the (extensive) UK input to Arctic science, or the adaptation of the UK military role to new circumstances.  But the idea of a comprehensive document shaping policy on a ‘whole-of-government’ basis is a relatively new one, even for the front-line Arctic states.

Norway led the way with a ‘High North Strategy’ in 2006, and over the next seven years all of the Arctic Council members issued one or more iterations of similar documents.[iv]  The European Commission made suggestions for the content of an EU collective strategy in 2008 and then again in 2012.  In April 2013 the Faroe Islands adopted their own strategy within the framework of the one for the Danish Kingdom, to which they belong.[v]  Among the group of Arctic Council observers, however, the mid-October 2013 date of the UK’s policy paper made it the first to emerge – but only by a short head.  A similar document was published by the German Foreign Ministry in November, just weeks later.

The UK Arctic policy paper – key points

The UK paper was the result of a longer consultation process, going back at least five years and strongly involving the main British scientific institutions as well as several ministries.  The Environmental Audit Committee of the Westminster Parliament was also engaged, challenging the government to explain how it could reconcile its pride in Britain’s leadership in climate change mitigation with its openness to new oil and gas exploitation in a vulnerable region.  The paper as published is fairly unrepentant on that score, arguing that the Arctic states and peoples have a right to prosperity and that European demand for gas is bound to grow.  It adds the more general points that the Arctic has been affected by external economic demands and external pollution for centuries, and that major oil and gas extraction has been going on already since the 1960s.  In condoning further economic development under careful environmental controls – including a ‘prudential’ approach to developing fisheries – the UK document in fact brings London into line with all the Arctic Council states and also with the evolving EU policy towards the Arctic.

Other parts of the policy paper also conform to the emerging state-level consensus, for instance in rejecting the idea of a single new ‘Arctic Treaty’, and preferring to rely on the application of existing legal frameworks, global or regional.  The UK particularly commends the UN Law of the Sea Convention, the International Maritime Organization as the forum for shipping codes, the Arctic Council itself, and the development of Regional Fisheries Management Organizations.

These policy stances aside, the document is remarkable mainly for its massive emphasis on the general importance of science in the Arctic and the UK’s many contributions to it, illustrated with numerous case-studies.  It touches only lightly on the military dimension, stressing NATO’s role as a security framework – something that most Arctic strategy papers except Denmark’s have avoided – but does not go into details about the various civil security challenges (Arctic accidents, natural disasters, infrastructure collapses, etc.) where military expertise may be required to help. [vi]

Standing back from the UK paper to consider its context, it seems clear that it was written with the Arctic Council states very much in mind – indeed, it might be seen to be aimed at them more than at any domestic constituency.  In May 2013 at Kiruna, the eight Arctic Council members states’ ministers agreed – after a long and difficult debate – to accept six new observers including China and India, under conditions for observership that were more explicit and elaborate than before.  In particular, all of the observers, old and new, will henceforth be judged on whether they show sufficient ‘respect’ for the eight member states’ rights and those of indigenous peoples, and whether they can prove a substantive contribution to Arctic affairs.

The UK Arctic paper is tailored to do precisely that, while signalling that London presents no threat on the more ticklish issues of Arctic governance.  It perhaps chooses to play up the scientific aspect of UK contributions in awareness that emphasizing the actual roles of British business, or the military dimension, would have been more controversial.  Given that the German paper of November 2013 made broadly similar choices, the British drafters’ tactics may be judged to be prudent within the Arctic Council context.

An overly timid approach?

It is important to note that the issues that the UK policy paper covers are not the only pressing ones in the Arctic.  Nor is the Arctic Council the only place where these issues will be decided.  Whilst it is considered to be a coordinating instrument and manifesto for the whole Arctic agenda and for all relevant UK actors, the document of 17th October does have weaknesses.  It provides no clear directives for the future UK military role, or for the ambitions of British business.  Nor indeed does it address an array of other questions about non-state Arctic actors, including how far they ought to regulate and restrain themselves.[vii]

On three occasions, the document stresses that business will make its own choices about what to do in the Arctic and when.  Equally often, it stresses that it is up to the Arctic states to make rules within their own jurisdictions.  The UK could support some new international regulations – for example on shipping safety – but the paper’s stance on governance is broadly conservative, and it keeps stressing the need for evidence-based decisions, something which might be seen to clash with the ‘prudential’ principle that it voices elsewhere.

This all adds up to a pretty low profile for one of Europe’s largest states and military powers to adopt.  Even the German paper is more vigorous in insisting on ‘freedom of shipping’ and ‘freedom of research’.[viii]

What place for Scottish interests?

Another gap in official UK Arctic policy-making so far is any acknowledgement of differential interests and capacities within the United Kingdom.  The Scottish Office and Scottish Government were apparently not involved in the new paper’s drafting process.  Yet Scotland is the nearest part of the UK to the Arctic, with a larger proportional stake both in fishing and the hydrocarbon sector, and more natural ports of call for Arctic shipping.  It is more directly exposed to the working of Arctic climate change, and is far more likely to be affected (and asked to help) in any major disasters affecting the European High North.

The question has already been asked – at least in academic circles – whether Scotland should develop an Arctic strategy of its own. [ix]  The 2013 Arctic statement by the Faroes provides precedent for doing so on the authority of a non-sovereign autonomous entity.  The Faroese carefully stuck to those areas where they had devolved authority: environment; commerce including oil and gas development and shipping, fisheries; civil accident handling; education and research.  On the face of it, there would be many interesting issues for Scots to discuss in precisely these areas.

A further question is whether a distinct Scottish Arctic policy would be guided by the same beliefs and interests that seem to have played a role in steering the present UK strategy formation, or not.  Would there be a greater normative stress on business and social responsibility, more on the plight of Arctic inhabitants and nature, more or less insistence on the role of scientists as Britain’s main ambassadors for the region?  Or should Scotland be even more hard-headed about exploiting the Arctic’s new opportunities, as a potential boost for a diverse and sustainable Scottish economy in the longer term?  If nothing else, Scotland would surely have to take more seriously the threat of multiplying natural disasters and accidents in the seas to its North, and would have to look harder at local responsibilities and capabilities.

Last year’s UK statement is just that, a statement – and one made under a strong tactical imperative.  It does not necessarily reflect either what Britain as a whole is doing in the High North, nor what the government really hopes and plans to achieve.  The paper itself says that it is a ‘living document’ that should be debated and can be revised, maybe even before the end of 2014.  For those who believe that this is an important issue for Scotland, it may be a case of ‘Speak now, or forever hold your peace’.


[i] Available at
[ii] See the declaration of the ‘Arctic Five’ at Ilulissat, Greenland in 2008:
[iii] See
[iv] For a comparative study of these papers see Alyson JK Bailes and Lassi Heininen, ‘Strategy papers on the Arctic or High North: a comparative analysis’, Icelandic Institute of International Affairs, 2012, available at
[v] See the present author’s ‘The Faroe Islands and the Arctic: messages for Scotland?’, at
[vi] Aside from being anathema to Russia, the idea of a specific new Arctic policy for NATO is opposed by Canada.
[vii] The recent protest by Greenpeace Activists (including UK citizens) at a site in Russia’s Arctic waters, followed by their arrest, has shown how contentious this issue can be.
[viii] The German paper also sees the EU as an important general actor in developing Arctic solutions, while the UK paper only refers to a couple of its more technical roles.  While the EU angle is touchy in some Arctic states, notably Canada, and with the indigenous peoples, UK politics surely have something to do with this choice.
[ix] See Rachael Lorna Johnstone, ‘An Arctic Strategy for Scotland?’  Arctic Yearbook 2012, available at
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 is a Research Fellow for the Scottish Global Forum and she also sits on its Advisory Board.