Scottish independence: Why international affairs play a key role in the constitutional debate – Professor Stephen Gethins

Throughout Scotland’s history, international affairs have been at the heart of our national story just as we in turn have had an impact on the world around us.
German foreign minister Heiko Maas gives a hammer to his Irish counterpart Simon Coveney to mark the Irish presidency of the United Nations Security Council (Picture: Fabrizio Bensch/pool/AFP via Getty Images)German foreign minister Heiko Maas gives a hammer to his Irish counterpart Simon Coveney to mark the Irish presidency of the United Nations Security Council (Picture: Fabrizio Bensch/pool/AFP via Getty Images)
German foreign minister Heiko Maas gives a hammer to his Irish counterpart Simon Coveney to mark the Irish presidency of the United Nations Security Council (Picture: Fabrizio Bensch/pool/AFP via Getty Images)

The only surviving letter written by William Wallace, the letter of Lübeck, dates from just after the re-establishment of independence in 1297, telling Scotland’s trading partners across the Hanseatic League that the country was once again open for business.

That independence came to an end over four centuries later with the Treaty of Union, caused in part by a failed foreign policy venture in what is now Panama, the Darien scheme.

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Like our Irish, English and Welsh neighbours, Scots played a major role in subsequent foreign policy including the building of the British Empire. That is reflected in a Scottish diaspora that now spans the globe. In recent decades, we have continued to see Scots playing a role in UK international affairs at the same time as Scotland’s own foreign policy footprint has developed.

Building Scotland’s international and foreign policy footprint has not been the exclusive domain of the SNP or those who believe in independence. Prior to devolution Conservative ministers played an active role in developing Scotland’s international outreach through trade and policy influence including the opening of Scotland House in Brussels.

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This was strengthened after 1999 by Labour and Liberal Democrat administrations who opened further offices in Beijing, Washington DC and elsewhere, as well as establishing Scotland’s own International Development Fund.

Our domestic politics were also heavily influenced by international affairs with the intervention in Kosovo playing a role in the first devolved election in 1999 and support for Labour being badly affected by intervention in Iraq.

More recently, the EU referendum and the subsequent fallout has been one the biggest driving forces in our politics. Scotland’s leading psephologist Professor John Curtice has argued that Brexit has been a major factor in increasing support for succession. If Scotland is to achieve independence in the coming years, one of the biggest factors will be how Scots see themselves in a pan-European context.

Scotland’s place in the world and international affairs have therefore returned to the heart of our political discourse. The country is wedged between an increasingly unilateralist Westminster, intent on diverging from our European partners and a Holyrood where the majority have embraced multilateralism and a desire to return to the European fold as soon as possible. There are clear international waters between Scotland’s choice of futures.

Unsurprisingly international affairs are taken seriously at Holyrood. The deal that put the Greens into government with the SNP was influenced by foreign policy. It included opening new Scottish government offices overseas, a commitment to the Global South and of course the climate emergency.

That deal underlined the recognition by pro-independence politicians who understand the need for a credible foreign policy. At Holyrood, Green politicians have relationships with other green parties and in Angus Robertson we have an External Affairs Secretary with a firm grasp of his brief.

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That seriousness is reflected at Westminster where the SNP group has tackled major international issues head on, such as the threat posed by disinformation, the challenge posed by Russia and a weighty response to the UK government's integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy.

The SNP is comfortable in its approach to foreign policy embracing the EU and the realities of multilateralism. Compare that to the UK in crisis. The decision to leave the EU has left the UK more isolated than ever before.

The Economist argued this week that the UK government’s foreign policy is floundering and its habit of picking fights with our European allies runs “counter to the national interest”. Dominic Raab’s appearance at the Foreign Affairs Committee this week did little to reassure anyone that the UK had a credible vision for the challenges that lie ahead. The latest debacle in Afghanistan follows on from a series of UK foreign policy failures in Iraq, Libya, Yemen and closer to home with Brexit.

The UK is an increasing outlier internationally with Boris Johnson’s administration winning few friends around the world. It is easy to see where Scotland could potentially fit into the international community, rejoining the European mainstream as an EU member state.

On the same day as Dominic Raab was failing to convince MPs that he had a grip on his brief in Parliament, Ireland assumed the presidency of the UN Security Council. Irish diplomatic clout has been an important aspect of Irish politics in recent years especially under the stewardship of the impressive Foreign Minister Simon Coveney.

The country had the diplomatic upper hand during Brexit negotiations in capitals across Europe as well as Washington DC. Our near neighbour is now tasked with chairing the Security Council at a vital moment.

With Scots increasingly turning towards independence in part due to the UK’s foreign policy failures there is a challenge for unionists. Simply asserting that Scotland has no role in foreign policy is for the birds. This is a discussion that unionists too must embrace.

Writing in Westminster’s magazine, House, earlier this year, former Foreign Office minister Lord Howell reflected: “Far-sighted unionists in London should be working out how to offer Scotland not just the appearance but the genuine substance of this form of partnership and properly integrated involvement in the UK’s overall international relations.”

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Centuries on from Lübeck and Darien, international affairs will once again play a pivotal role in deciding the future of the country. Neither side in the constitutional debate can afford to ignore the debate over Scotland’s place in the world.

Stephen Gethins is a professor of practice in international relations at the University of St Andrews and author of Nation to Nation: Scotland’s Place in the World, published by Luath Press

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