Pat Kane: We have the (soft) power

A wave energy converter off the coast at the Pentland Firth
A wave energy converter off the coast at the Pentland Firth
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Scotland holds a positive image in the world, through the strength of its culture and values, writes Pat Kane, but an acrimonious referendum build-up might change that

Look up “Scottish soft power” on Google, and you find a fascinating little vignette. A British diplomat in the Ukraine tells a story of a local Burns night – Macsween’s haggis flown over, schoolchildren in Pechersk reciting Burns in kilts, tickets to Gleneagles sold in a business-networking raffle.

“It’s great to see Scottish soft power spreading its benign influence across Kiev”, says the evidently decent Leigh Turner.

Soft power – meaning, in Joseph Nye’s classic definition, “the ability to influence others through culture, values and ideology rather than threat, violence or other forms of coercion” (otherwise known as “hard power”) – is one of the new tools in the kit of 21st century statecraft. Every geo-politician, from China to Chile, is attempting to become literate in “public diplomacy” – as soft power is otherwise known – of one kind or another.

Attending to the global impact of our “national brand” has been an explicit target of the Scottish Parliament for a decade now, even before the SNP’s ascendancy. But what will the coming independence referendum do for Scotland’s global reputation? Does Scotland’s soft power depend on the actual result of the eventual vote, or as much on how that result was conducted and debated?

Since 2009, the Scottish Government has been buying into Simon Anholt’s Nation Brand Index – a well-recognised measurement of the “competitive identity” of 50 nations across the five continents, as perceived globally. Even in its devolved state, Scotland does extraordinarily well – the 15th best-regarded country in the world, alongside other small nations such as Finland, Denmark, New Zealand and Ireland. On its six dimensions of its global perception, Scotland scores highest on “governance”, “tourism”, and “people” and lowest on “exports”.

Available on the Scottish Government’s website, there’s much to dig into in Anholt’s report, but the least that it delivers is a sense of Scotland’s existing global impact. Anholt describes his recipe for successful, soft-powered national brand as “a three-legged stool”. One leg is strategy (a clear sense of national ambition and values), another substance (policies which exemplify those), and the last what he calls “symbolic actions” – particular events which bring the world’s attention to that nation’s direction and achievements. There’s no doubt that the independence referendum qualifies perfectly as one of Anholt’s “symbolic actions”. The question is: will it transmit as a positive, inspiring story of progress and empowerment, recognizable as such by citizens throughout the world? Or will it be seen as a snarling, resentful divorce, clouded in endless dispute?

My partner, Indra Adnan, runs a consultancy called Soft Power Network, which advises companies and governments on strategy in this area. She notes that Scotland at the moment “has a huge stock of soft power” globally. Because it is somewhat distanced from Westminster, it has all the positive points of British soft power – its English language, its richness of customs, culture, values – but few of the negative ones. As Anholt’s nation-brand index suggests, we are esteemed for the quality of our people, the educational and entertainment value of our traditions and cultures, and an aspiration towards good governance. The political argument for independence also distances us from the “old story of British Empire”: nuclear missiles and adventuring armies, a rapacious City of London, an exploiter of others’ resources.

Yet the manner in which the debate leading to an independence vote is conducted, Adnan says, will be vital as to whether Scotland’s global soft power is enriched or depleted post-election.

As the globe sees a Scottish government arguing for independence over these next two years, says Adnan, there has to be a consistency about its higher aims. “Humiliation of the former partner and destruction of what was partly seen as a global success will not transmit well as soft power”, she notes. “But if Scotland can tell a story of greater efficiency and more creative interaction across the islands – aiming at the increased general happiness of all parties – it will look like a country ready to do global business.

“Hard power is a zero sum game – everyone takes sides and someone will lose. Soft power is a win-win – more difficult to achieve but worth the game.”

Perhaps unavoidably, the SNP would seem to be trying to deploy both hard-power and soft-power strategies at the moment. Calling BBC editors “gauleiters”; making legalistic claims over territorial energy resources and deriding Westminster talk of border posts represent tension between nations.

But equally, the Scottish Government is cascading love-bombs of soft power everywhere. Take Salmond’s ideas-campaign across the English cities recently, offering Scotland as a “progressive beacon” to inspire other electorates on the island. Also consider promotions like the Gathering, the Commonwealth Games and the Year of Creative Scotland, which build upon the continuing global cultural impact of Edinburgh festivals and golfing spectaculars. And take Salmond’s journeying into Qatar and China – invoking Al-Jazeera and renewable energy with the former, and receiving both pandas and Adam-Smith-olatry from the latter.

The most interesting question in terms of global perceptions of Scotland’s independence-power comes from two areas: the green “reindustrialisation” of Scotland, and the removal of Trident missiles (and consequent redefinition of our military-industrial complex). Anholt’s nation-brand index shows that, in terms of global perception, Scotland scores high on “governance” – how our national government is “judged on competency and fairness, as well as its perceived commitment to global issues such as peace, poverty and the environment”. There could be no more globally-significant contribution to that reputation than a non-proliferating, nuclear-free, and UN-compliant Scottish state military.

However, we are judged low on “exports” – “the image of products and services from each country, their contribution to innovation in science and technology and the degree to which a country is recognised as a creative place”. Yet there’s one obvious way that rating could be organically improved. The discourse of Scotland as a “green energy powerhouse” could build upon that already positive “governance” rating, as an environmentally-conscious nation. So we should be relaxed about kilts in Kiev. For all the angsting of the designer classes, there’s nothing much we can do about a’ that Tartanry. But what a “Yes” vote to independence does present is an opportunity to amplify and broaden Scotland’s story about our democratic processes, our social welcome and the beauty of our culture and environment.

And from a soft power and nation-brand perspective, a positive and constructive discourse running up to the referendum would still seem to be the best way to go. What’s fascinating, from David Cameron’s most recent speech, is that the defenders of the Union are beginning to wake up to this too. Expect more love-bombs carpeting us all the way up to the vote – but for external as well as internal audiences.

Pat Kane is one half of Hue And Cry, and hosts the Scottish ideas-blog Thoughtland (