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28 April 2022

Scotland looks small on the world stage

In the middle of the Ukraine war, the SNP’s foreign policy seems lightweight and tokenistic.

By Chris Deerin

Is Scotland entitled to its own voice in the world? As the nation lingers within the skirts of the United Kingdom, is there any point to a foreign policy stance that is discrete from, and sometimes opposed to, Westminster?

In a way, the question has already been comprehensively answered. From the thousands who marched against the Iraq War, to the glum refusal to be persuaded of the case for Brexit, to Nicola Sturgeon’s recent freelancing on Ukraine and her argument for a no-fly zone, Scotland and Scots have their views and will happily, loudly express them. The ability to act upon those views in any meaningful sense may be limited, but the contours of a distinct national majority opinion, of a posture shaped by a particular politics and history, are plainly visible.

Like every other indicator of voters’ unhappiness with Westminster’s conduct, foreign policy and its discontents have been a useful tool for the SNP. The party prospered from its opposition to the Iraq War, which proved the final straw for many Labour supporters north of the border, who switched to the nationalists and the independence cause. Brexit made a fool of unionists who had warned in 2014 that leaving the UK would dump Scotland outside the EU. The Conservative Party’s insistence that a prime minister as wretched as Boris Johnson must be maintained in office due to the Ukraine conflict only emphasises the infuriating self-interest and power-lust of that party.

On these calculations alone, one could make an argument for independence. In the world, but not in charge, Scots must toe the London line, at times feeling overlooked or, perhaps worse, heard but blithely dismissed as a peripheral, safely ignorable rump. The SNP is not shy of making such a claim but there is, of course, much more to making irreversible choices about nation and nationhood than fury at Brexit and Boris.

The nationalists have long understood the importance to their cause of institution-building, both domestically and internationally. Scotland now has overseas offices covering Washington, Berlin, Brussels, Paris, Beijing, Dublin and Ottawa, costing just under £10m a year, with plans for more. There is a place in UK embassies for diplomats to sell Scotland’s advantages as a target for inward investment. The tartan diaspora is much spoken of, much coveted, much wooed, but with limited success. Jealous eyes are cast on Ireland and the enduring loyalty of its exuberant expats.

Sturgeon and her ministers portray Scotland as geopolitically mischaracterised owing to the Union. It is, they argue, Scandi-lite, a member of Northern Europe in waiting. It should be allied with Finland, Norway, Sweden — countries seen to take a hygienic, fastidious approach to global affairs — and de-aligned from its historical role in the messy Anglo-American axis that involves the burdens of world leadership and repeated catastrophies. 

No chance is missed to drive home the point. The devolved government’s annual report on overseas trade, published in late March, includes an entertaining section on the difficulties with Whitehall when pursuing a Scottish trade policy that has at its heart such well-meaning apple pies as inclusive growth and wellbeing. The “current constitutional arrangements”, says Ivan McKee, the trade minister, “and the reluctance of the UK government to meaningfully engage with the Scottish government on trade policy, notably the negotiation of new Free Trade Agreements, limits what we can do.”

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Since leaving the EU “against Scotland’s wishes”, the British government has pursued free trade agreements with countries such as Australia, New Zealand and India. “While presented as a benefit of leaving the EU, the reality is that the expected GDP increase as a result of these FTAs is tiny, and will in no way compensate for the loss in trade as a result of Brexit,” says the report. “The UK government has offered little meaningful involvement in the development of… trade agreements, a position which is increasingly untenable.”

It is hard not to have sympathy for anyone trying to hook into the ramshackle, ever-shifting policies of Johnson’s administration, but equally these kinds of comments in official documents have something of the Pooterish pea-shooter about them. This is particularly the case in the middle of the Ukraine crisis, where inclusive growth and wellbeing seem a luxurious indulgence. It is in moments such as these that the SNP struggles for relevance and that its approach to foreign and defence policy can look lightweight and even tokenistic.

As Andrew Marr writes in his cover story for this week’s magazine, “the war and Putin’s nuclear threats have made Nato more popular right across Europe — and British nuclear weapons more relevant to much middle-ground opinion of the kind the SNP needs to convert to nationalism”. The Nats are fanatically anti-Trident, and have only recently come round to the idea of an independent Scotland remaining under the Nato umbrella. Thanks to the work of its defence spokesman Stewart McDonald and foreign affairs spokesman Alyn Smith, the party’s policy in these areas is more detailed and more robust than it has ever been, but Trident would still have to go, leaving the UK desperately seeking a less suitable new home for its nuclear deterrent. The suggestion of an independent Scotland offering Nato its expertise in battlefield medicines instead may be an improvement on the SNP’s previous position, but it has the taste of both having and consuming cake to it.

When it comes to the crunch, to falling bombs and councils of war and crisis calls to the White House, most Scots continue to look to Westminster for leadership. There is a sense of safety in numbers and well-worn historical channels, perhaps even a British lineage of warfare and a reliably principled, united stand against totalitarianism. And if few are happy that Boris Johnson presents a clownish national figurehead, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they want to replace him with Nicola Sturgeon anytime soon.

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