Brian Wilson: Why we’ll miss our man in Havana

Turning our back on one of the best trade, diplomatic and consular networks will cost Scotland dear, writes Brian Wilson

In the future, Scots tourists in Cuba might have to rely  as the Irish do  on Mexico. Picture: Creative Commons
In the future, Scots tourists in Cuba might have to rely  as the Irish do  on Mexico. Picture: Creative Commons
In the future, Scots tourists in Cuba might have to rely  as the Irish do  on Mexico. Picture: Creative Commons

I have spent the last few days in Taiwan which you might describe as a cheerier, wealthier version of mainland China. It is also surprisingly important to the Scottish economy.

The Taiwanese are the world’s third biggest consumers of single malt Scotch whisky, which represents an impressive collective effort on their part since there are only 22 million of them.

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In the recent past, they have also been big investors in Scottish manufacturing. I went there a few times in my ministerial days when 90 per cent of Taiwanese investment into the EU was coming to the UK and a similar proportion of that to Scotland. They like to cluster.

Much of it has subsequently departed. I was always uncomfortably aware that the inward investment boom which we hit the tailstream of in 1997 owed much to the flexible, lower-cost labour market the Tories had created compared to the rest of the EU. In other words, it was easier to sack people.

But the inevitable happened and, with EU expansion, even cheaper options emerged and the inward investment circus moved on. In the case of Taiwan, they stopped investing very much anywhere in Europe as relations with “the mainland” thawed. Chinese economic growth is now substantially funded by Taiwanese money.

But they are still significant trade partners as well as an excellent springboard for British companies into mainland China. There are big opportunities in sectors like energy, railways and infrastructure. Not to mention Scotch whisky, for which Taiwan is, remarkably, the biggest market by value in Asia. And trade translates into jobs at home.

Taiwan was one of the places where I learned to have huge respect for Britain’s overseas representation. It isn’t actually called an Embassy in Tapei, because of the political sensitivities, but back in the halcyon days of inward investment it gave huge support to this almost entirely Scotland-focused effort to attract Taiwanese companies to the UK.

The same principle still applies. Scottish companies benefit from the work of a 30-strong trade team. Specialist diplomats work closely with the Scotch Whisky Association to strengthen trade mark protection and combat counterfeiting. Over in the consular section, they look after imprisoned Scots of whom there are always a few.

At present, there is a complex case involving an Edinburgh man who exited the country while awaiting trial. I have no idea of the rights and wrongs, but in that position I would be very grateful for the fact that, as a British citizen, I could claim the right to such a service.

Then there’s the British Council, which promotes our creative industries and plays a crucial part in bringing overseas students to the UK which hosts 30 per cent of all Taiwanese studying overseas. Several Scottish universities, particularly Edinburgh and Glasgow, have strong Taiwanese links – and collect the fees accordingly.

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The same kind of picture could be painted in every corner of the world. We are a ubiquitous people, turning up in every jurisdiction from Azerbeijan to Zambia, especially where there is oil and gas. We try to sell things, need help to understand local markets, work in remote and hazardous places, sometimes get into trouble, we even lose our passports. And we have one of the world’s biggest and most effective trade, diplomatic and consular networks to support us.

Take another example – Cuba, with which I have a long-standing affinity and am involved in a very interesting project which started as renewable energy but has grown arms and legs, most of them Scottish. We have had excellent help from Scottish Development International and this will be reciprocated in due course through economic benefits for Scotland.

At the other end, we have had the equally valued support of the British Embassy. It is a perfect fit which gives us the best of both worlds. There is not the slightest likelihood of there being a Scottish Embassy in Havana in the event of independence, any more than there is an Irish one. Like much of that region, Irish interests are looked after from Mexico.

Yet, apart from the commercial potential, Cuba is a country in which tens of thousands of Scots holiday each year and some of them, inevitably, require the services which embassies exist to provide. The same story can be told around the world. Neither opportunities nor problems obligingly occur only in the most convenient places.

World trade patterns are changing fast and the BRIC countries of rapid economic growth – Brazil, Russia, India and China – are already key markets. But beyond that, the UK is now targeting half a dozen rapidly growing African economies as well as countries in Latin America which have been relatively neglected in the past.

The Scottish Government’s White Paper on independence envisages Scottish representation in 50 countries, and they don’t include Taiwan, far less Cuba. South Africa, Malawi and Brazil get a mention but that’s it for Africa and South America. We are apparently to depend on other EU countries to provide services to our businesses and citizens where Scotland is not itself present. This is, I suppose, feasible. But on what rational grounds is it desirable? Why replace a global reach with a scatter-gun?

I am not naïve enough to suppose that this will concern fundamentalist Nationalists who do not give a toss what happens after independence so long as it is achieved. Many regard it as anathema to be represented as part of the United Kingdom in the first place.

They may even be disappointed by the White Paper’s straight-faced contention that “Scotland will be willing to co-locate with the UK in current premises”. Once again, the paradox of the independence case is that it is largely constructed upon assumptions about the goodwill of the state that they are so desperate to depart from.

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In reality, the UK would continue to represent the commercial, diplomatic and consular interests of what was left of the UK. We would, instead, have turned our biggest commercial partner into our biggest competitor. We would have contracted out commercial, diplomatic and consular representation in three-quarters of the world’s countries.

All quite possible. But it really comes back to the question – why on earth would we want to do that?