It’s Westminster that calls the shots when it comes to the UK’s foreign policy, but can Scotland’s distinct identity warrant its own place in the world? Brussels Morning reviews Stephen Griffith’s Nation to Nation — Scotland’s Place in the World from Luath Press.
London (Brussels Morning) Schedule 5, Section 7(1) of the Scotland Act 1998 is resounding: international affairs are reserved for Westminster, not devolved administrations. This legislative dictate denies Scotland, part of the UK since 1707, a foreign ministry, a foreign secretary or any mandate to formally devise a foreign policy that oft defines states’ role overseas.
However, this statutory inconvenience hasn’t stopped Scotland from having an external relations policy or getting involved in foreign affairs. That’s evident from the Scottish National Party’s (SNP)(although not in leadership at the time) objection to the Iraq War in 2003 and its relatively more welcoming stance towards refugees.
The divergences in outlook on foreign relations are in fact many between Westminster and Holyrood, as detailed in the book Nation to Nation — Scotland’s Place in the World by former SNP MP for North East Fife, Stephen Gethins, who served on the Foreign Affairs Committee and also acted as the shadow spokesperson for the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.
With an increasing appetite for Scottish independence now, Gethins’ book is a timely account of Scotland’s potential place in the world, drawing on history, cultural ties, Scotland’s brand and its existing efforts in forging international relations and exerting soft power.
As the Foreword by Mark Muller Stuart QC of Doughty Street Chambers and an adviser to Beyond Borders Scotland notes:
“Gethins reveals a distinct history of Scotland’s own unique international relations with other countries. A set of international relations that not only came to influence the development of its own legal, educational and religious institutions but which also led to a set of separate strategic alliances distinct from those enjoyed by England, many of which still carry resonance to this day”.
The book starts by looking at Scotland’s distinct international footprint and signs of its earliest diplomacy when in 809, Achaius made an alliance with Emperor Charlemagne to establish the Order of the Thistle.
Ongoing engagement with different nations translated into trade links and international support for Scottish affairs and with the spreading of Scots throughout the world, it bought clout with various actors. Interestingly, education links forged in the 15th century persist today — James IV himself, the late King of Scotland, was taught by the Dutch scholar Erasmus who inspired the lauded EU student exchange programme that has become a Brexit casualty.
That history also highlights how Scotland’s might is not defined by its military prowess, a point that circles back to the usefulness of bodies like the EU for protection under its umbrella.
The book also rightly acknowledges the scourge of colonisation and that while Scottish diasporas have served the country well, other actors may not see their role as mutually beneficial.
Gethins quotes Neil MacKay in The Herald, June 2020:
“Our ancestors sailed the seas and then they pioneered and colonised. Our ancestors wiped out Native Americans to make room for farms and cities as they spread across the continent. Our ancestors took to slavery like ducks to water. They ran the plantations, they wielded the whip, they raped the women, they lynched the men.”
In more recent history, Scotland’s participation in the EU as part of the UK shaped how it saw itself in the world. But it’s not only Europe where a Scottish voice can be heard; Gethins notes the 40-50-strong Scottish Caucus in the US Congress. US links reflect the Scottish influence through its diaspora and those who hold an affinity with the Scots.
Those associations stretch further, to Canada for example, leaving it to the diplomats to build on those links. Chapter two is dedicated to exploring this reach and potential with such diaspora diplomacy, Gethins argues, bearing a huge role in foreign policy as seen through precedent via the Irish and Armenians.
Seat at the table
Through subsequent chapters, Gethins also illustrates how Scotland used its global presence and its distinct cultural identity to contribute to international decision-making, progress on global development initiatives and exercise good leadership on climate change, despite being excluded from official UK delegations.
With knowledge of this track record and potential, the now-governing SNP’s external affairs directorate maintains a mandate that involves: enhancing Scotland’s international relationships, promoting Scotland’s ambition to be a good global citizen, protecting its place and interests in Europe and influencing migration policies for Scotland’s distinct needs.
How it does that does not need to marry up to the Westminster model of foreign policy or its traditional alliances, says Gethins.
Scotland can make its own novel associations with the Nordic Council, for instance, and build cross-country cultural ties like other sub-states have done — Flanders, the Faroe Islands and Bavaria are a few examples.
Moving forward, MEPS across the bloc anticipate a future independent Scotland and consequently a 28th addition to the current 27-member union.
Gethins recognises that Scotland doesn’t hold as firm grip on the idea of sovereignty as the UK does — as evident from Brexit negotiations — rather, it sees the benefit of pooled sovereignty and multilateralism; hence why the EU as an idea appeals to Scotland.
No hard power
Scotland understands, writes Gethins, that “it is not a global power backed by military might but rather one that works with other countries and respects the international rules-based system”.
That idea was also verbalised by Alex Salmond, former First Minister of Scotland, in a speech at Trinity College Dublin on 13 February 2008, where he said:
“Small, peaceful countries can exercise major global influence… based not on military power and alliances, but on values and ideals”.
The looming prospect of an independent Scotland perhaps makes this book an intriguing read. Still, even without a foreign ministry, the country’s path to its current status in the world is a fascinating and under-reflected part of the UK’s story. Gethins helpfully lays out how England’s neighbour built its soft power in seven chapters and how it now remains an under-tapped resource by Westminster politicians.
The book includes anecdotes of the author’s own experience serving on the Foreign Affairs Committee and as an MP with stints in the EU and the former Soviet Union.
It is a story of how, in lieu of a formal mandate over foreign affairs, Scotland has used its creativity to carve out a place in the world. In that way, it is a story of all small states, sub-states and non-states that now battle to engage on the world stage.
Stephen Gethins’ Nation to Nation: Scotland’s Place in the World is available from Luath Press.