Martyn McLaughlin: Scotland’s woman in Washington will have her work cut out

Joni Smith is the latest to travel to Washington to be Scottish Affairs Counsellor, the Scottish Governments diplomatic  and economic  voice in the US capital
Joni Smith is the latest to travel to Washington to be Scottish Affairs Counsellor, the Scottish Governments diplomatic  and economic  voice in the US capital
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Donald Trump’s grip on power means the Scottish Government’s soft diplomacy faces an uphill task, writes Martyn McLaughlin

The address of 3100 Massachusetts Avenue may not be well known among members of the US public, let alone Edinburgh’s civil servants, but it is inarguably one of the most coveted postings for anyone wishing to serve in Scotland’s interests.

From its wrought iron gates and porte cochère through to the grand double staircase which sweeps visitors inside, its architecture is more befitting a stately home than a place of work. Factor in its location in the heart of Washington DC – opposite the official residence of the vice-president, no less – and it makes Saughton House look like an abandoned storage unit.

It is in such rarefied surroundings that Joni Smith is to take up her new role as Scottish Affairs Counsellor. Her position has gone by many names over the years – among them First Secretary (Scottish Affairs) and the somewhat haughty sounding Counsellor for the Americas – but its function has remained fundamentally unchanged: to beat the drum for Scotland stateside.

Some 16 years have passed since the appointment of the first incumbent, the estimable Susan Stewart. The creation of the job coincided with the formation of Scottish Development International. The synchronicity was not by accident. As the then First Minister, Henry McLeish, put it, Ms Stewart’s appointment was a reflection of “Scotland’s position in post-devolution Britain”.

That position has teetered and shifted in the time since, but Ms Stewart and her successors have done their best to uphold it, batting for Scotland while wearing the jerseys of Team GB. 3100 Massachusetts Avenue, you see, is the address of the British Embassy, and the Scottish Affairs Office is based within it – a bit like the Costa Coffee stalls you see inside Tesco superstores.

It is a delicate arrangement, one which satisfies a mutual interest when it clicks, yet gives rise to occasional spats and power plays. For the most part, the situation is met with a certain playfulness – visitors with a keen eye will notice that while all the clocks in the embassy are set to British Summer Time, it is only those in the Scottish Affairs Office that label it “Edinburgh time”.

Humour is the most important weapon in a diplomat’s arsenal, and a resource Scotland’s representatives abroad need call on more than most.

From the inception of the office through to the current day, it has been attacked by those who regard it as a vanity project.

Since the SNP came to power, the frothing at the mouth has quickened among those who view it as a Trojan horse with which to charm Washington’s powerbrokers over the idea of Scottish independence.

Such excitable rabble-rousing forgets it was Mr McLeish who wanted to establish a “network” of Scottish diplomats at British embassies around the world. In any case, it drastically overestimates the resources at the department’s disposal. During her settling in period, Ms Smith will draw on the expertise of Kate Perkins, the second secretary, and Shannon Hall, a communications co-ordinator.

It barely constitutes a gathering, let alone a clandestine operation, and a recent vacancy for an office administrator makes clear the office’s modest means. The post is for 24 hours a week but applicants are advised that it has “the potential to become full-time”. In the meantime, the successful candidate will take home $20.74 an hour, nearly four dollars less than the average US worker’s hourly rate.

Against such challenges, the office has played its part in strengthening relations with Scotland’s biggest overseas trading partner. The number of US foreign direct investment projects has more than doubled from 20 to 43 over the past seven years; is that all down to the Scottish Affairs Office? Of course not, but having a friendly presence in Washington, ready to exercise soft power and set up timely meetings with the right people, has been advantageous.

The problem facing Ms Smith is that the rules have changed now that DC is under the grip of a swivel-eyed liar and his chaotic administration. President Trump’s incompetence is a problem for America, but it is petulance that will do for Scotland’s woman in Washington.

Mr Trump will not forget how his romance with the Scottish Government soured, and it is already having an impact on how its outpost and visiting delegations are treated.

During her whirlwind US trip in 2015, Nicola Sturgeon met Antony Blinken, the then deputy secretary of state, as well as an official from President Barack Obama’s national security team. Both engagements involved heavyweight topics of discussion, such as Trident, the economy, and the EU. Fast forward to April this year, and Ms Sturgeon’s US itinerary revolved around senior business figures and NGOs; it was a fruitful visit, but one in which the doors to Washington were kept firmly shut.

Scotland should never meekly roll over in an attempt to curry favour with Trump’s people, but here is an idea for Ms Smith that might kill two birds with one stone. Inaugurate an official Trump tourism trail here in Scotland, a route through Lewis, Balmedie and Turnberry, for the right-wing elements of the diaspora to retrace the steps of their commander-in-chief.

It would appeal to Trump’s insatiable ego and enlighten the punters as to how his innumerable character flaws are not the fault of genetics, all the while ushering in a tourism windfall for some of the country’s most rural communities. I can see the gift shop now: $29.99 T-shirts bearing the legend, “Tong Ya Bass”.