MP for Edinburgh North and Leith
A Strengthened Approach
When Edward I initially removed the Stone of Destiny from Scone Abbey in 1296, he did so to make a statement about the status of a rival kingdom and make clear his contempt for Scotland’s sovereignty.
The symbolism of using the ancient stone in this month’s royal coronation still resonates and there’s been a stooshie about whether we should be allowing even its temporary return to London.
However, while that story was distracting us, the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) was quietly making moves which were most definitely meant to undermine Scotland’s standing and interests.
In a recent letter, the Foreign Secretary instructed UK Heads of Missions abroad to take a ‘strengthened approach’ to supervising meetings between Scottish ministers and international counterparts.
The FCDO will now decide who Scottish ministers can and can’t meet with, and all communication with foreign countries will go through the UK. British diplomats will be required to “gather information” on these visits and closely monitor what’s discussed. The Foreign Secretary insisted that this was “in line with handling for visits from Ministers across Her Majesty’s Government”, as if the Scottish government was just a branch office.
Now, most international relations powers are still reserved to Westminster, but the Scotland Act clearly allows the Scottish government and its agencies to meet with other countries, regions, and international institutions, as long as they don’t ‘purport to speak for the United Kingdom’ or make commitments on its behalf.
Angus Robertson MSP, the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for External Affairs, wrote to the Foreign Secretary insisting he withdraw the guidance, describing it as yet another attempt by the UK government to undermine devolution.
Scotland has international responsibilities in devolved areas, and our businesses, educational institutions, arts and culture and many other sectors depend heavily on these connections and partnerships, developed over several years.
We’ve heard from a range of organisations at the Scottish Affairs Committee that the most active and successful backers of our interests abroad have been the Scottish government and its partnerships with agencies like Creative Scotland and Universities Scotland.
Reducing their influence will unquestionably damage our efforts in promoting Scotland as an attractive place to live, visit, work, study and invest. I asked the Foreign Secretary directly about this recently - why hamper Scottish ministers in their work when Scotland’s foreign direct investment rose by 14% last year, compared to 1.8% in the rest of the UK? Why cut that nose off to spite your face?
There’s also the impact the FCDO’s position could have on our positive contribution to tackling global issues like the climate crisis, international development and human rights. The Scottish government was one of the first in the world to adopt the new UN sustainable development goals, for instance, and has set an example globally in pledging “loss and damage” climate funds for countries in the Global South. Might this new guidance be used to prevent us from pursuing similar action in future?
Perhaps given the ongoing calamity of Brexit, Scottish ministers and agencies successful promotion of our interests abroad is reflecting poorly on the UK’s already faltering reputation. Or maybe the FCDO simply fears overseas visits are being used, to quote the Foreign Secretary’s letter, ‘to promote Scottish separatism’.
It certainly leaves no doubt about the interests served by ‘muscular unionism’ that they want to hold back this success even while Brexit is having such a damaging impact on Scotland’s economy. This also overlooks the fact that devolved and federal state governments across the world have their own foreign representations in areas such as trade, investment and tourism. It’s normal and generally uncontroversial for countries, regions and cities to cooperate internationally to promote business and share policy ideas, regardless of whether they aspire to greater autonomy.
Scotland has had an international political profile going back long before devolution, with representation in multiple EU bodies since the UK joined in the 1970s and the opening of the Scotland Europa office in Brussels in 1992. It suggests a deep insecurity in the FCDO if they are so concerned about Scottish ministers leaving a positive impression abroad.
The UK government is backed by Britain’s right-wing press, which likes to lampoon anything the Scottish government does overseas as nothing more than a big jolly.
In reality, direct discussions with global partners result in deals like the £300 million manufacturing investment in subsea cables for renewables, which Neil Gray MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Energy, along with Scottish Development International and Highlands & Islands Enterprise, secured with Japanese company Sumitomo.
When this was put to the Foreign Secretary, he responded (with a straight face) that Scotland’s biggest advocate overseas was himself, neatly illustrating the disregard for reality that characterises his government.
You could almost laugh if it wasn’t so potentially damaging, and it’s important that other parties speak up against such arrogance and disrespect.
The newly created Scottish Council on Global Affairs, which provides a hub for expert research on international issues, was unanimously supported at Holyrood, so it seems there is a recognition there an internationalist Scotland is vital, whatever view you or your party might have on the constitution. It’s even more crucial as Brexit pulls us further away from the rest of Europe, against the wishes of the vast majority of the people of this constituency and the rest of Scotland. ■
The Coronation Chair without the Stone of Destiny