Sunday National, 7th November 2021.
“Show, don’t tell” storytellers say. The maxim applies in politics too. That’s why photos of the First Minister meeting various international dignitaries at the COP26 summit caused the staunchest of the staunch to experience a collective aneurism this week. You can imagine the chat in Tory central office: “devolution created a monster, now we’ve given it a global platform.”
An international event which was supposed to be a triumph for the UK government and a union united has become a global photo opportunity for Scottish separatism. In holding himself aloof from the climate negotiations, Boris Johnson has allowed himself to seem absent – allowing the First Minister to look present – even without a formal role in the negotiations. Why didn’t we propose the conference be held in Manchester instead? Then we’d only have to wrestle Andy Burnham away from the cameras.
It is one of the paradoxes of the case for constitutional change. For Scotland to become an independent country – for independence to be imaginable – a majority of the population need to be convinced that Scotland already the capacity to go confidently into these settings, to be at ease at the top table. Every one of those photographs helps make the idea of an independent Scotland making its way in the world easier to imagine. Even if Nicola Sturgeon didn’t say a word about independence, this looks dangerously like international diplomacy with a confident Scottish face. We haven’t seen anything quite like it before. No wonder the gammons are boiling.
When confronted with images of this kind, the more easily triggered Scottish Tory is inclined to turn puce, fold themselves into the foetal position and begin chanting “international relations is a reserved matter.” Which is true enough. But there’s nothing in the Scotland Act which says who the First Minister can and cannot speak to. There’s no rule that visiting Presidents and Prime Ministers – or consuls and ambassadors – are required to ignore the existence of the Scottish Government.
There’s a technical term for this. It is called paradiplomacy, and examples of it are blossoming over the world, as sub-state actors and regions use their access to the international sphere to promote their own interests. And it is a growth industry in Scotland.
Take, for example, one of the less high profile commitments in the government deal struck between the Greens and the SNP earlier this year. The agreement commits the parties to “establish Scottish Government offices in Copenhagen and Warsaw to promote Scotland’s interests and reputation in the Nordic and Central European regions,” with a view to strengthening our “international relationships, presence and voice” overall. These new outposts will join the Scottish Government’s existing hubs in Brussels, Toronto, Ottawa, Beijing, Paris, Berlin, Dublin, Washington and London.
So how did those doughty free traders in the Scottish Tories respond to these developments? Did they welcome these efforts to promote Scotland abroad? Did they recognise the upsides of the Scottish Government having international toeholds dotted strategically around the world to promote the country, its products, and its people?
Well, what do you think? “When they go big, we go small” might as well be scratched into the party’s logo. The response from the party’s chief whip in Holyrood sums up in a few acid sentences the sneering small-mindedness to which his party now seems entirely committed.
“The SNP are now stooping so low they want to pretend they’re independent, spending an extra £1.6 million with their lapdogs, the Greens. And they are quite willing to let the taxpayer foot the bill” Stephen Kerr huffed. The solution, as always, is for you to put more faith in the UK government –because the evidence suggests Boris Johnson and his colleagues have a real knack of winning sympathy for the UK internationally at the moment. “There is an excellent UK Government mission to the EU in Brussels,” Kerr sniffed “which is very capable of representing Scottish interests” thank you very much.
Kerr even penned a moan to the Foreign Secretary about the offices, scratching the Gaelic off of his Scottish Parliamentary note paper in the process. I suppose it is a small mercy he isn’t calling for Nicola Sturgeon to be taken into custody by the Metropolitan Police for treason, sedition and conspiring with Her Majesty’s enemies abroad.
Stunted, niggling, peewee – I don’t know whether this outlook deserves more to be pitied or despised. Nor is it limited to the Tory benches in Holyrood. While the worthies of the world descending on Glasgow last week, Anas Sarwar was attracting headlines by suggesting that the “real VIPs are the people of Glasgow.” This is a sweetheart line in local pandering, but one, you might think, which misses the gravity of the moment and the importance of screwing a climate deal out of the world presidents and prime ministers who attended the summit on the Clyde this week.
As one of the plain people of Glasgow who Sarwar was presumably hoping to butter up – my ability to stop half the globe being drowned in water and the other half catching fire is, unstunningly, somewhat limited. I’ll do my best to recycle my cardboard and take my bottles to the bank, but being one of Sarwar’s “real VIPs” doesn’t leave me many opportunities to convince the Americans to disinvest in fossil fuels or persuade the Chinese government to prioritise ecological survival as well as economic growth. I think we all know that if the opportunity presented itself for the Scottish Labour leader to hobnob with the great and good in the United Nations blue zone, it would be selfies galore. Making a virtue of necessity is good politics, I suppose, but as John Le Carre said – you do like your perfidy to be subtle.
It is London, not Edinburgh, which has driven dawning recognition in world capitals about the motive force for Scottish independence. Talking to friends and colleagues from other countries in the lead up to the 2014 vote, reactions tended to be dominated by a mixture of curiosity, puzzlement, and sometimes suspicion too. With a little imagination, you can understand why. From the outside looking in, independence seems like a drastic step. Is the United Kingdom’s political system really so dysfunctional? Why can’t your issues be resolved within the confines of the existing state?
Some international observers also assumed – wrongly – that Scottish nationalism shared its outlook with right-wing ethnic nationalisms they knew and disliked in their home countries. The modern, left-of-centre, civic case for independence was not one many Europeans expected to hear. Thanks to the EU referendum and the conduct of the Tory administration in its aftermath, I generally find I have much less explaining to do these days about why a future for Scotland outside the constraints of the union, unencumbered by Tory governments, might seem like an attractive prospect.
If Stephen Kerr wants to understand why there is increased international sympathy for the idea of Scottish independence and increased leeriness about how the UK is being led, all he need do is look in the mirror. It is thanks to you Stephen, and all your fellow travellers, that the world can see why the prospect of being governed by you lads is something independent-minded people baulk at.
They’ve seen Boris Johnson snoring his way through international conferences while the world burns. They’ve listened to his desperately unfunny speeches, a spray of word-salad. They’ve observed his government’s attitude to international law. They’ve heard his dog-whistle slurs about their citizens. They see MPs like your colleagues – Mundell, Bowie, Duguid, Lamont – tripping through the lobbies to excuse “egregious” violations of basic parliamentary rules separating private profit from public office because it was their chum who was coining it in and abusing his privileges.
We don’t need to tell the rest of the world what the UK government is like. Every day, it shows everyone its true colours.