Humza Yousaf and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan: We've a right to know why they met – Brian Wilson

The Scottish Parliament should be demanding to know what happened when the First Minister met Turkish president and other leaders at the COP28 summit

The formula for making devolution work was never rocket science. Do what is devolved competently, creatively, radically. At the same time, maintain respectful, constructive relationships with those who exercise reserved powers, including foreign policy.

I have no doubt that is the noble state of affairs envisaged by devolution’s architects. It was never likely to be delivered in perfect form but at least it was a model to aspire to in the interests of better government, more responsive to Scotland’s needs.

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There was always a fatal flaw around the corner. The model depended on devolution being in the hands of people who assented to its basic structure. The moment it passed to a political force whose motivation lay in discrediting the model, all such assumptions changed.

Humza Yousaf speaks on stage at the Sustainable Trade Summit during the COP28 climate change summit in Dubai (Picture: Christopher Pike/COP28 via Getty Images)Humza Yousaf speaks on stage at the Sustainable Trade Summit during the COP28 climate change summit in Dubai (Picture: Christopher Pike/COP28 via Getty Images)
Humza Yousaf speaks on stage at the Sustainable Trade Summit during the COP28 climate change summit in Dubai (Picture: Christopher Pike/COP28 via Getty Images)

Scotland has been caught in this limbo for 16 weary years and the founding model has crumbled. The exercise of devolved powers has, to put it kindly, been a disappointment wherever one looks. Competence is in short supply; wastefulness, rampant; creativity or radicalism, non-existent.

Years of cavalier spending come home to roost

At the same time, relations with the UK Government are at rock bottom. For our bravehearts, that might be a source of pride. However, the driving force of devolution, forged in the Thatcher years, was to ensure Scotland could do things differently when there are governments of different hues; not to promote perpetual conflict on that basis.

Each day brings another indictment of how devolved functions are struggling. Years of cavalier spending, on the principle that someone else could always be blamed when things went wrong, are coming home to roost. Higher taxes and deteriorating services are not what Holyrood was supposed to deliver.

Diversions lie in fights picked with Whitehall. Forget the Pisa tables on educational attainment and wax indignant instead about the Tories blocking the Gender Recognition Reform Bill. Think not of the A&E statistics but rejoice in Humza Yousaf giving the V-sign to Foreign Office protocol at COP28.

This replacement model for devolved government, 15 years in the making, becomes less attractive with each week that passes. Unlike his predecessors, Mr Yousaf cannot even maintain a progressive façade. Without these emperor’s clothes, the mediocrity of the whole show is in plain sight.

I find the First Minister’s performance in Dubai particularly concerning, as should anyone – regardless of political allegiance – who recognises that diplomacy matters and there are prices to be paid when basic rules are ignored.

Ostensibly there to talk about climate change, Mr Yousaf ends up in meetings with the president of Turkey, the Prime Minister of Lebanon and the acting Prime Minister of Pakistan. All of these were conducted without the presence of Foreign Office diplomats.

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Erdogan’s comments on Hamas

When the meeting with President Erdogan was questioned, Mr Yousaf’s reaction was that of a guilty schoolboy rather than aspirant statesman. His story kept changing. The man from the FCO knew but didn’t turn up. The Turks had rearranged the time. It was “petty” to challenge his right to meet whomsoever he pleased.

Oh no, it wasn’t. It was essential. Since the slaughter of October 7, Mr Erdogan’s comments on Hamas and Turkey’s relationship with the organisation have compounded this most delicate of diplomatic territories. Any meeting between a UK minister and Mr Erdogan would have been the subject of intelligence reports and heavy briefing on “lines to take”.

What briefing did Mr Yousaf seek or have access to before engaging in this encounter? What messages did he convey to Mr Erdogan about the Hamas relationship and the President’s comments? What notes were taken and to whom have they been made available? If Mr Yousaf purports to have been representing Scotland in his curious mix of high-level encounters, rather than his personal politics, will he provide a full and truthful account of their provenance, purpose and content?

It is the Scottish Parliament and its Presiding Officer who should be demanding that information. Even as a matter of routine, the least they should expect in return for Mr Yousaf’s presence with accompanying retinue in Dubai is a statement on what emerged from it, if anything other than the polishing of his own ego.

It is MSPs who should be insisting on the release of information surrounding Mr Yousaf’s extra-curricular meetings – how they were arranged, and why; what was discussed and to what purpose. And those who care about the devolution settlement should be demanding answers on why he ignored the necessary protocol which it entails.

Cameron should recognise devolution

The Foreign Secretary, even if he is the newly minted Lord Cameron, was obliged to challenge Mr Yousaf’s behaviour and to tell him that “further breaches” will result in withdrawal of “facilitation of meetings or logistical support”. A closer eye will be kept on the guilty schoolboy and greater care taken over information shared.

However, Lord Cameron too was obliged to recognise the devolution settlement and should have qualified the threat to “consider the presence of Scottish Government offices in UK Government posts” – in other words, kick them out of embassies.

This is wrong. The Scottish Government is entitled to promote trade and investment opportunities abroad just as the Scottish Office did long before devolution was heard of. It makes far more sense to do so from within embassies than from up a side-street in the same cities.

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A decade ago, I wrote a review of Scottish trade and investment for the Scotland Office and one of its recommendations was that there should be more co-location within embassies, not less, and this has since been acted upon to the benefit of Scottish businesses and trade.

Our embassies are a major asset for Scotland, as for the rest of the UK. That’s how it should be and while clipping Mr Yousaf’s wings is entirely justified, care should also be taken not to play into the hands of those whose aims are division and diversion.



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