Auld Alliance between Scotland and France is helping to turbocharge UK trade relations in the post-Brexit era – Alister Jack

For centuries, Scotland and France have enjoyed a uniquely close relationship through our historic Auld Alliance.

France is a vitally important trading partner of the UK (Picture: Kiran Ridley/Getty Images)
France is a vitally important trading partner of the UK (Picture: Kiran Ridley/Getty Images)

Forged in 1295, the bond linking our two countries was originally a military and diplomatic arrangement. Over the years it has flourished as it has evolved. But there are still aspects of today’s incarnation of the Auld Alliance which can be traced to its origins.

In much the same way that claret landed in Leith during the Middle Ages, today we enjoy a thriving trading relationship with France. From a Scottish viewpoint, the modern Auld Alliance is lubricated by wine imports and whisky exports. But our relationship is also garnished by a hefty dose of the Entente Cordiale: the 1904 ‘cordial agreement’ between France and the UK which cemented the close links between our two countries.

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It was in the spirit of both the Auld Alliance and the Entente Cordiale that I visited Paris on a trade mission last week. There, I experienced the deep and enduring nature of Scottish-French friendship while promoting the enormous post-Brexit economic opportunities that result from our long-standing association.

Given the UK Government’s responsibility for representing the whole of the UK abroad, I see promoting Scotland overseas as one of my key roles as Scottish Secretary. And when you consider that France is the UK’s fifth-largest trade partner, with the fifth-biggest export and import markets, it’s easy to see why I was so keen to fly the flag for Scotland in Paris.

The UK Government is determined to nurture the already substantial UK-French trading relationship. Goods exported from Scotland to France were worth £2.2 billion in 2021, accounting for over ten per cent of the UK’s total goods exported to France.

The positive fostering of UK-French relations can be seen in the constructive partnership Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has established with President Emmanuel Macron. The warmth between our countries was also in evidence when I met Olivier Becht, France’s international trade minister.

Like so many French people, Monsieur Becht has a real fondness for our country as a result of numerous family holidays in Scotland. Together we acknowledged the close economic ties between France and Scotland with particular reference to the 160 French companies operating north of the Border, the investment they bring and the thousands of jobs they support.

As the UK looks outwards towards building trade links across the world, I was pleased to report that business had been higher between the UK and EU in the first two quarters of 2022 than any previous year.

Europe is, of course, a vital export destination for British businesses, which exported £344 billion worth of goods and services in the 12 months up to the end of June. Indeed, goods exported to the EU increased by 22.4 per cent in the 12 months prior to the end of August. Post-Covid, there has been a clear rebound in UK-France bilateral trade in goods and services. Worth £78.3 billion a year, from the third quarter of 2021 to the second quarter of 2022, this was an increase of 21 per cent, or £13.6 billion, on the same period the previous year.

These are encouraging signs for the post-Brexit era, and much of this can be attributed to the UK’s extensive reach across Europe and beyond, something from which Scottish businesses benefit enormously.

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We also discussed the potential to collaborate on offshore energy, and the huge potential of hydrogen power as we aim for net-zero. I would like to encourage ambitious collaborations, and explored some of these during a ‘green lunch’ with business leaders, representing key players in the French energy sector. The feedback from them was that Scotland and the rest of the UK lead the world in wind energy and there is much others can learn from us.

As France is Scotland’s second-biggest export market and our biggest European one, I’m always keen to promote Scottish produce. Scotland punches above its weight when it comes to exporting to France. Scotland accounts for 11.4 per cent of UK exports across the Channel, more than any other part of the UK except south-east England.

Salmon and whisky are two of our most popular French exports. Perhaps it is unsurprising that Scottish food and drink have proved so popular across the Channel, given the French love of haute cuisine. But it doesn’t stop there, and, perhaps surprisingly, haute cuisine takes us to haute couture, and I was lucky enough to visit Coco Chanel’s original workshop on Paris’s Rue Cambon.

Devotees of the famous designer will know that she was introduced to Scottish textiles on holidays to her lover’s hunting estate in the Highlands. This fascinating connection inspired many classic tweed clothing ranges and led to Coco Chanel sourcing fabric from the Borders. That Scottish-French link survives to this day through Barrie Knitwear, the Hawick-based cashmere manufacturer which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Chanel. All told, Chanel has 20,000 staff working in the UK in more than 150 locations, including Scotland, and is a fine example of the UK and France working together.

Another opportunity to promote Scottish, UK and French links came at a St Andrews Day dinner I hosted at the British Ambassador’s Residence in Paris. To the strains of a Scottish singer and piper playing with a French harpist, it was a true celebration of our cultural ties. The gathering of people from the political and business world saw lively discussion of post-Brexit opportunities and our shared defence interests as Nato members.

On my return to Scotland, I reflected on a productive trip which underlined just how much we can achieve as a result of the UK Government’s unrivalled reach across France and Europe through the Department for International Trade, the Foreign Office and the Scotland Office. It showed how Scotland’s close and historic links to France can act as a powerful catalyst to turbocharge trade relations for the benefit of all.

Alister Jack is Secretary of State for Scotland

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