Each year, Edinburgh’s Scottish Parliament building is thrown open to the public as Holyrood plays host to the Festival of Politics, a programme of political discussion boasting big names and big debates. The 2013 edition of the Festival focussed on issues regarding “Scotland’s place in the world”, allowing for the exploration of a range of topics surrounding culture, international and European affairs and, of course, the upcoming referendum on an independent Scotland.

Image courtesy of Angus Millar, © 2013, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of the Scottish Parliament, © 2013, some rights reserved.

The first day of the Festival kicked off with a panel discussion on “the Power of Cultural Diplomacy” with panellists discussing the value of culture in international relations.

Cynthia Schneider, former US Ambassador to the Netherlands, stressed the value of using culture in diplomacy, explaining that “the best way to understand a person is through their culture…Culture can help build societies…shape identities and unify.” The use of culture in diplomacy, argued Ms Schneider, better facilitates an exchange of ideas between parties and can contextualise a diplomatic position in the wider norms, values and historic specificities of a society.

The panel agreed that such an integration of elements of culture into the diplomatic process can be extremely effective for achieving mutually favourable outcomes.

Ambassador Schneider also challenged the often-made assertion that the Arab Spring was unpredictable, saying that the widespread anger and frustration at the lack of opportunities and inability to make progress in life which contributed to the revolutions were evident in the films, books, music and television of the region well before the outbreak of protests. Had policy-makers and analysts looked more closely at the culture of the region, she argued, they would have been better able to foresee and respond to events.

Another highlight of the weekend was a panel discussion on the “Future of Europe and Small Nations”, examining  the evolving role of the European Union and the ability of small countries to exert influence within the EU and on the global stage. Panellists included Fabian Zuleeg of the European Policy Centre and Sir David Edward, a former Judge of the Court of Justice and a Professor Emeritus at Edinburgh University.

Mr Zuleeg discussed the power relations within the European Union, saying that although big EU players like Germany and France may dominate certain discussions, smaller nations have an extremely important and influential role to play in the institutions as well, with small nations given a disproportionate amount of seats and votes in the institutions.

 Mr Zuleeg argued that the enlargements of the EU which have taken place since 2004 have been crucially important to shifting the balance of power within the organisation. While the dominance of France and Germany was previously virtually absolute, the inclusion of a raft of countries in Central and Eastern Europe has seen a “dilution of the grip of the Franco-German axis”.

Fellow panellist Sir David Edward turned the audience’s attention to the twin referenda facing Scotland and the United Kingdom in the coming years – 2014’s vote on Scottish independence and UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s proposed referendum on exiting the EU.

Sir David cast doubt on Mr Cameron’s claim that he would renegotiate the terms of the UK’s membership of the EU before promoting the new settlement in an in/out vote on membership, saying that “the idea that the other 27 member states are going to sit down and renegotiate those hundreds and thousands of issues [which surround a state’s EU membership] is fairy tales”.

His comments echo those of many other experts who have said that it is highly unlikely that the other nations of the EU would be willing to undergo a lengthy process of diplomatic wrangling just to suit the UK’s desire for à la carte membership.

Turning to next year’s referendum on Scottish independence, Sir David suggested that as a small, European state, Scotland would be able to build alliances and partnerships with other like-minded European countries. The panel discussed the potential for an independent Scotland to build closer ties with the Nordic nations, with a common social democratic political culture and mutual interests as resource-rich and geopolitically strategically-positioned Northern European states forming the basis of such a relationship.

Sir David also proposed that Scotland’s biggest allies could be found in nations like Austria and the Baltic states, with the European Union bringing together the countries of Europe and making alliance-building much easier than in the past.

The final day of the Festival continued the theme of Scottish independence, with a roundtable looking at “Scotland’s Defence Capability”, although the panel, chaired by St Andrews University’s Principal, Prof Louise Richardson, essentially became a head-to-head between UK Labour’s Jim Murphy MP and Angus Robertson MP of the SNP.

Mr Murphy decried the “lack of certainty”, saying that a Yes vote in 2014 could threaten the future of Scotland’s fragile shipbuilding industry. Labour’s Shadow Defence Secretary doubted that the rest of the UK would continue to build warships in what would become a “foreign country”, arguing that this could cost jobs for workers at the ship yards.

In the “dangerous” modern age, said Mr Murphy, it made sense for countries to come together and pool defence resources rather than “separating”. He also questioned the Scottish Government’s logic in wanting to leave the UK, which he characterised as a “defence alliance”, while desiring to maintain membership of NATO.

Mr Robertson outlined his case for independent Scottish armed forces, arguing that Scotland’s defence arrangements should be based on the priorities of the people who live here. He suggested that with independence, Scotland would be able to “look North” with a new defence posture to the Arctic arena, a region which is emerging as a geopolitically crucial zone but which Westminster has so far largely ignored.

The SNP’s defence spokesperson also attacked the continued presence of Trident nuclear weapons in Scottish waters, saying that they were opposed by a majority of the Scottish public and their elected representatives – independence, he said, was the only way to rid Scotland of weapons of mass destruction.

The panel largely agreed that Scotland would also be develop its own niche defence role, following the lead of other small European nation like Ireland in focussing its armed forces on making contributions to UN peacekeeping missions, although there were questions over whether this would be appealing to member of the armed forces and whether this might harm recruitment.

The weekend’s programme of events touched on a wide variety of political issues and provoked many a thoughtful conversation amongst audience members in the Scottish Parliament’s bar, which was also open to the public for the duration. And with 2014’s instalment due to be held just weeks before the referendum on Scotland’s future, the discussion and debate next year promises to be as interesting as ever.