“A vote to leave would diminish Britain on the world stage”
“This referendum could determine the UK’s future role in international affairs”
These headlines bring to mind the run-up to the 2016 EU referendum, but it is easy to forget that the same fears and concerns were being expressed before the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. There were warnings that the UK should fight independence because Scotland was crucial to formulating the UK’s foreign policy agenda. On the other side of the debate, Scots were cautioned that its influence was greater as part of the UK than it would be as a small independent nation. Despite the international attention the referendum received and the spotlight it placed on Scotland, there has been little attention paid to the role that Scotland plays itself. Part of this is down to the assumption that Scotland’s position in the UK means that it has no role in global affairs, but this is far from the case. As part of the United Kingdom Scotland already exercises a considerably independent foreign policy.
Scotland relies heavily on public diplomacy as its official capacity falls largely under the purview of the Foreign Office. This has been utilised to craft an international image of Scotland as a prime destination for tourism and foreign investment. The image relies heavily on Scotland’s traditions and culture paired with the country’s growing creativity and innovation. This is created through strong cooperation between tourism and economic and cultural bodies. It can be argued that this has been the most important part of the Scottish government’s international strategy since the inception of the Scottish parliament in 1999. Since 2007, the Scottish National Party has continued to press civic nationalism in line with this, as part of its broader pro-independence stance.
The USA is Scotland’s most important economic partner outside of the UK, but the relationship is also significant because of the cultural and educational aspects driven by a diaspora of Scottish talent. Public diplomacy and international image play a big part in maintaining this relationship, drawing greater levels of investment but also encouraging more and more Americans to discover the ‘mystical land of their ancestors’, a connection forged in the vast migrations that came with Britain’s overseas empire. Along with the USA, Scotland maintains relations with Canada, China, India and Pakistan with special attention also paid to Japan, including valuable academic exchanges. There is also considerable investment in Scotland’s relationship with the Arctic region including Iceland, the Nordic countries, and the Baltic states. It is not commonly known that Scotland has offices across the world in Brussels, Beijing, Toronto, Washington DC, Dublin and London. These offices advance Scotland’s interests and forge meaningful global relationships.
It is apparent that the Scottish people are more pro-European Union than the rest of the UK and Holyrood’s foreign policy reflects this. Scotland stands with Northern Ireland as pro-Remain regions of the UK carried out of the body by the nationwide Brexit referendum. Prior to this, the UK government rejected a proposal by the SNP to make the EU referendum conditional on the assent of each part of the UK. Scotland is arguably more pro-immigration than the rest of the UK and wants to continue encouraging foreign investment, students, and workers to boost its economy. The SNP have prioritised European migrants in Britain in the wake of Brexit, aiming to maintain the influx of European migration that has proved beneficial to Scotland’s economy. In response to the Brexit vote, Scotland is planning to expand its Scottish Development International offices across Europe. The range of devolved powers from Westminster to Holyrood grew after the referendum in 2014 and is again under review as the UK leaves the European Union. There is fierce debate as to where the areas that are currently under EU jurisdiction should return to – London or Edinburgh, with the devolved government fighting hard for control over fishing and agriculture. Since 2016, the Scottish government has aimed for a more independent stance towards Europe in an attempt to maintain economic advantages on a local scale.
Scotland takes great pride in its reputation as a ‘global citizen’, taking what the Scottish government describes as ‘ethical leadership on global issues’. There is a strong commitment to promoting human rights internationally along with public stands on a number of specific issues such as poverty and inequality reduction, sustainable development, climate change and Fairtrade. This is not merely empty rhetoric and is supported by policy. Scotland considers international development a vital part of this effort to reduce global poverty and its International Development Fund has partnerships with Malawi, Rwanda, Zambia, and Pakistan. Scotland is one of the global leaders in renewable energy usage and development and advocates scrapping the Trident nuclear deterrent (kept in Scotland). This voice on international issues is needed more than ever as a perspective emerges that the UK is turning away from the world.
There are currently fundamental differences in foreign policy between the UK and Scotland. You do not have to agree with the current Scottish government’s policies to see that both Scotland and the world benefits from Scottish foreign policy efforts. This is by no means to advocate for Scottish independence but in some ways the opposite. Scotland can do, and does do, a great deal as part of the UK. Scotland has its own voice, advocates for its values and forges its own strong ties with the rest of the world.
Print sources: Regional Sub-State Diplomacy from a Comparative Perspective: Quebec, Scotland, Bavaria, Catalonia, Wallonia and Flanders, David Criekemans, The Hague Journal of Diplomacy, Volume 5, Issue 1-2, pages 37 – 64 Publication Year: 2010
Banner image: Image courtesy of Kim Traynor, © 2014, some rights reserved.