Nation to nation book cover

A Debate on Scotland's Place in the World is Long Overdue

Published: 15 March 2021

In this guest blog, Stephen Gethins provides an overview of his new book 'Nation to Nation: Scotland's Place in the World' exploring Scotland's "foreign policy footprint". 

Throughout history, Scotland has been deeply affected by events that take place beyond its shores. Just as Scots have had an impact on the rest of the world so too has the rest of the world had an impact on Scotland. Scotland’s foreign and European affairs have been integral to domestic politics and our standing in the international community.

In 1296 one of the first acts of William Wallace as Guardian of Scotland, after the Battle of Stirling Bridge, was to write the Letter of Lübeck telling the Hanseatic League that Scotland was once again open for business. That Independence came to an end in 1707, in part because of Scotland’s disastrous efforts to build a colony in what is now Panama. Today Scotland stands at a crossroads over its future largely because of England and Wales’ decision to leave the European Union. EU affairs may not wholly be foreign policy but yet again our future is being defined over how we see our place in the world.

I have always felt that Scotland’s foreign policy footprint was understudied given the impact it has had on the development of the country and will have on any decisions about our future. The pandemic that has taken hold in every corner of the globe has brought those questions into sharp focus. In some ways it’s the fundamental cleavage that divides our politics between those who see Scotland’s place as an Independent EU Member State and fully part of the international community and others who think we are best served to remain as part of a larger more established entity in the UK.

During the months of lockdown, I was able to speak to dozens of diplomats, academics and other stakeholders as well as politicians from across the political spectrum in Scotland and elsewhere. My approach was simple: to ask about Scotland’s place in the world and its foreign policy footprint and listen to as wide a range of perspectives as possible. I was struck by the openness that I encountered in talking about Scotland’s place in the world and how thoughtful and informed the responses were.

There are some who have argued that Scotland does not have a foreign policy. From my discussions with officials from the White House, the European Parliament, Commonwealth, the Nordic states and beyond it is clear that close attention is being paid to the how Scotland’s place in the world develops. There is also a well-developed discussion to be continued domestically. Obviously, there were those, like me, who were thinking about Scotland’s place in the world as an independent country. However, I was struck by how much many of those who believe in the Union see benefits in the Scottish Government further developing its international engagement.

Scotland is far from alone in developing its international footprint without a fully sovereign foreign ministry. There is a lot we could learn from our near neighbours. Flanders has an extensive range of offices across the world developing trade and diplomatic links. There is no diplomatic hierarchy between officials representing the Belgian government, and those who represent Belgian’s regional governments in Flanders and Wallonia. Denmark is also very clear in setting out and facilitating a role for Faroese and Greenlandic authorities in international affairs. They regularly engage with international partners and sign international treaties. For example, Greenland is a signatory to a Defence Treaty over the Thule air base alongside the United States and the Danish government.

In recent years we have seen an increasing divergence between Holyrood and Westminster over international affairs. This can be seen in a range of policy areas such as climate change, the attitude to refugees and international development among others. That policy divergence is most acute in the divisions over how our relationship with the EU should evolve.

There is a political consensus in Scotland that is in favour of multilateralism where, even if independent, Scotland should look to pool and share its sovereignty with its neighbours. Countries like Ireland and Denmark take this approach and see it as a means of strengthening their independence and international clout. A very different perspective is held at Westminster by the current administration. The decision to leave the EU with a minimal deal with Brussels points to a unilateralist future being pursued in Whitehall.

Our place in the world is changing rapidly as a result of the ‘hard Brexit’ being pursued. The UK that elects its next Government in 2024 will be very different to the one that left the EU in January. Scotland sits at a crossroads and our future will be defined by how we see our place in the international community.

The debate over Scotland’s place in the world is long overdue. There are significant questions for both those who believe in Independence and the Union that can no longer be avoided. I hope this book will help encourage and facilitate that discussion. 

Stephen Gethins is Professor of Practice at the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews and Author of ‘Nation to Nation: Scotland’s Place in the World’ that will be published by Luath on Wednesday 17 March 2021. Stephen previously served as MP for North East Fife, and was SNP Spokesperson for International Affairs and Europe. 

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