An independent Scotland would have about 100 embassies and consular offices around the world, compared with the UK’s 270, Nicola Sturgeon has revealed.
The Deputy First Minister also said the country would have its own internal security service, similar to MI5, if Scots voted next year to leave the UK. She told the Commons foreign affairs committee that the prospect of an external MI6-style service was “an option”.
However, she faced immediate criticism over a lack of detail, and concerns were raised that a small country such as Scotland could not match the lobbying clout of UK’s diplomatic network in promoting Scottish industries around the world.
Critics also said the cost of a new internal security service could run into “billions of pounds”, and warned that United States agencies might not let Scotland see sensitive intelligence reports.
At a special session of the foreign affairs committee in Edinburgh to discuss the prospect of independence, Ms Sturgeon cited countries such as Norway, which has about 100 consular offices around the world, and Ireland, with 97.
“Our presence would be, in terms of physical presence on the ground, comparable to other small independent countries,” she said.
The cost of running such a service could range from £100 million to £200m, but “set-up” costs could be significantly higher. The prospect of sharing consular offices with the UK was also a possibility, Ms Sturgeon said.
“Already, Scotland, as a devolved country, has 22 offices across the world. Clearly, as an independent country, we would build that presence,” she said. “The FCO [Foreign and Commonwealth Office] has a very large network of embassies around the world, to some extent – not entirely – but to some extent a legacy of empire, that is focused not just on trade, but on military objectives as well.
“It would certainly be the objective of an independent Scottish government to replicate the quality of the representation that is provided, not necessarily doing it in exactly the same way with exactly the same property footprint.”
She told MPs Scotland already contributed to the cost of running the UK’s consular network.
“I am not suggesting simply dividing physical assets into respective shares,” she said. “But clearly there would be a share of the UK’s assets that Scotland would have an entitlement to in order to contribute to the cost of our own organisation.”
She pointed to the recent memorandum of understanding agreed between the UK and Canada on shared premises, services and the possibility of shared consular activity. “That’s the direction of travel these things are going,” she said.
The system of “flying ambassadors” in Sweden, who are despatched to other capitals on diplomatic issues, is another example that Scotland may follow, she said.
The Deputy First Minister said Scotland would have its own security service to fight international threats such as terrorism, cyber attacks and serious organised crime.
“I would envisage Scotland having independent domestic intelligence machinery sitting alongside its police service but working very closely, given our sharing of an island with the rest of the UK, with the UK, making sure that we are sharing intelligence and making sure we are sharing our response to some of these threats,” she said.
Asked whether Scotland would attempt to set up an “external security service”, she said that was “one option available to Scotland”.
She said the Scottish Government was carrying out a “substantial piece of work into this”, which would be published in the run-up to the referendum and cover issues such as cost and future co-operation with the UK.
Asked whether an independent Scotland would expect to be able to read the UK’s secret intelligence, Ms Sturgeon replied: “There are arrangements with other countries … I think there would be a very close relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK.
“Scotland and the rest of the UK share an island. It would be not just in Scotland’s interest for there to be very close intelligence sharing with the rest of the UK – it would clearly be in the interest of the rest of the UK as well.”
Foreign Office minister David Lidington told the committee the UK diplomatic service had 270 offices in 170 countries, with 14,000 staff.
“An independent Scotland would not replicate that sort of network,” he warned. “We need to know what sort of network they envisage.”
There has been no approach so far from Scottish ministers to Westminster indicating they would like to share services in the future, Mr Lidington said, but he warned ministers from other countries were charged for using their information.
Mr Lidington said: “I’m very far from clear how an independent Scotland would provide the diplomatic network and have to protect the Scotch Whisky Association, Scottish financial services and the defence companies from Scotland, particularly given their positions on defence.”
Conservative MP and former Foreign Office diplomat Rory Stewart said ministers putting the communications infrastructure in place to “protect the identity of agents” and reports from US agencies would require probably “billions of pounds of investment in setting up the appropriate communications and security infrastructure”.
This would have to happen before “your allies would be happy to share information on that kind of basis”, Mr Stewart added.