Could an Independent Scotland Operate a Diplomatic Network?

In the long and intense debate over Scotland’s constitutional future, the most headline-grabbing stories have often related to the potential foreign policy role of an independent Scotland. Fierce arguments have raged over the prospective position of the country within the European Union and NATO, and the ambition of independence supporters to remove the UK’s unpopular Trident nuclear weapons system from Scottish territory.

Image courtesy of aur2899, © 2011, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of aur2899, © 2011, some rights reserved.

One aspect of the debate which attracts less attention, however, is the potential for an independent Scotland’s diplomatic network. Interestingly, Scotland’s interests have to some extent been represented under devolution by dedicated diplomats responsible to the Scottish Government – in fact, Susan Stewart, the woman dubbed ‘Scotland’s first ambassador’ at the British Embassy in Washington, DC, is now Director of Communications for the “Yes Scotland” campaign for independence.

The question remains, however, would Scotland be able to operate its own independent system of embassies and consulates, and would it be able to sustain a network of similar extent to that of the current United Kingdom?

The short answer is ‘no’ – not without great cost, at least. The Scottish Government, however, which advocates independence, has signalled that it would not seek to replicate the UK’s physical presence abroad, instead opting for a scaled down diplomatic network. Scotland’s Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has suggested that Scotland could operate around 100 missions overseas, compared with the UK’ current 270. This is in line with the examples set by states of a similar size, such as Norway, which has around 100 missions, and Ireland, which operates 97.

It is certainly true that diplomatic operations on the scale of the current UK would carry a hefty price tag, and one which an independent Scotland would likely be unable to maintain – in 2011-2012 the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office spent £2.2billion[1]. An operation of the scale Ms Sturgeon has indicated, whilst less expensive, would still be costly.

However, this figure masks the fact that Scottish taxpayers already contribute roughly £185million per annum to the running of the department. Scotland is currently in a healthier financial position than the UK, and contributes 9.6% of the United Kingdom’s total revenue, despite receiving only 9.3% of total expenditure[2]. The Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland figures, which detail Scotland’s annual bank balance, identify spending both in Scotland and on Scotland’s behalf by UK Government departments, by calculating an 8.4% population share of their budgets. The figures indicating Scotland’s relatively strong fiscal position therefore already take into account the contribution of Scottish taxpayers to the FCO. Whilst the Scottish Government acknowledges that set-up costs of a diplomatic network could be high, annual running costs would likely lie between £100million and £200million[3], an independent Scottish Exchequer would not be forced to start from scratch in finding the funds to implement it.

Further, advocates of independence argue, Scotland would be entitled to a share of the physical assets of the United Kingdom in areas applying to the whole of the UK. Such a division would of course be subject to negotiation, but the Scottish Government says Scotland might expect a population share of 8.4%, in line with the methods used to calculate Scotland’s fiscal balance under the Union.

The UK currently spends millions in order to maintain overseas properties linked to its diplomatic network – in fact, it has over 5,000 properties abroad for just 2,570 diplomatic staff stationed abroad[4]. It is possible that Scotland could have operate a more financially efficient and practical network of embassies. Indeed, as one might expect of a superpower, once the world’s richest state, much of the property network is grandiose and luxurious. The extravagant official mansion of the British ambassador to the United States is worth over £6.6million, while the worth of the artworks and antiques in the UK’s Paris Embassy alone totals £3million[5]. A population share of these buildings’ value would be around £170million[6], and whilst a division entailing an allocation of certain properties to Scotland would be highly complex and time-consuming, the Scottish Government has proposed a lump sum, which it might use to establish diplomatic missions in less expensive surroundings.

The leader of the “Better Together” campaign to retain the Union, Alistair Darling, has used the embassy issue to attack proponents of independence, highlighting the role of the UK’s extensive embassy network in supporting Britons overseas, claiming that “Scotland is far better represented abroad as part of the UK than we could ever hope to be as a separate state”. In terms of a physical consular presence, Mr Darling is likely correct. His implication, however, that Scots would find themselves stranded abroad without consular assistance following a Yes vote is somewhat misleading. Even without a physical presence in the country, Scotland might expect to pool resources with allies, delegating consular responsibilities to friendly nations and perhaps even sharing facilities.

To this proposal, opponents of independence are likely to cry foul, accusing the Scottish Government of wanting to have its cake and eat it by advocating political separation whilst relying on the assistance of other states, including the one from which it intends to become independent. To some extent, this is true, but it is a scenario which is commonplace in international relations. In fact, countries often work together to ensure diplomatic coverage for their citizens – indeed, the UK last year announced its intention to share embassies with Canada.

Further, under the Lisbon Treaty all European Union citizens travelling outside the EU are entitled to consular assistance from the missions of any other EU country when their nation does not have a diplomatic presence in the territory[7]. Therefore, far from ‘free-riding’, Scotland could apply the principle of diplomatic pooling which is in fact engrained in the cooperative mechanisms of the European Union. While there is debate over the process of Scotland’s status within the EU as an independent state, all sides agree that Scotland would be welcomed into the organisation, and could therefore expect to benefit from these measures.

Whilst the establishment of a diplomatic network would be costly, an independent Scotland would likely be in a financial position to fund its set-up and maintenance, as demonstrated by reference to the current contributions of the Scottish taxpayer to the running of the diplomatic service and the expected – although, admittedly, not guaranteed – share of Foreign Office assets. Consular pooling, a common practice worldwide and especially in Europe, also suggests that Scottish citizens would be unlikely to be significantly impacted by the loss of the physical overseas presence that the UK’s current – although shrinking – network provides.

For advocates of a Yes vote, however, the case for an independent foreign policy can only be won by persuading Scots that Scotland could better represent the interests of its people under independence. As the independent commentator Prof John McLaren notes, “independence could well affect the number of embassies representing Scotland around the world – there might be fewer than there are through the UK, but they could be more focussed on prosecuting Scotland’s case.”[8]

With Unionists emphasising the UK’s international influence and pointing to its ‘big boy’ permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and pro-independence campaigners emphasising divergences between Scottish and UK interests and promoting the vision of an independent Scotland with a more ‘positive’ foreign policy role, this is a question that is unlikely to be settled any time soon.

[1] In 2011-2012, the FCO’s total departmental expenditure was £2,209,000,000 (FCO Annual Reports and Accounts, 2011-2012, p 24. Available at:

[2] Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland, 2010-2011. Available at:

[5] The National Asset Register, January 2007. Available at:

[6] House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee oral evidence on FCO Performance and Finances notes FCO overseas property network of over £2billion  ( 8.4% of this would be £168million.

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