Alasdair Allan on making Scotland's voice heard
Exclusive interview with International Development and Europe Minister Alasdair Allan
Alasdair Allan - image credit: Mark K Jackson
The mission spans Africa, Asia and Europe and the man with the £9m in the suitcase is a mild-mannered chorister with an ulterior motive to defy the US President destroy the British state.
No, it’s not the plot of an Ian Fleming novel – it’s Alasdair Allan’s day job.
Scotland’s Minister for International Development and Europe is more John Le Carré than James Bond, although he does occasionally rub shoulders with Sean Connery.
The softly-spoken, bespectacled polyglot wants to bring down the British government and forge closer alliances with foreign lands, in the politest possible sense of course.
As MSP for the Western Isles, based in Stornoway, he also shuns the politics of Lewis’s most infamous descendant who is currently occupying the White House.
But he recognises Scotland’s influence in the world is limited both by its relatively small £9m budget – international development comes out of the Scottish Government’s limited pot which is not funded by the UK block grant – and its constitution which reserves foreign affairs to Westminster.
As a result, its focus has recently narrowed from seven to four countries: Malawi, Rwanda, Zambia and Pakistan – omitting former partners, Bangladesh, Tanzania and the Indian states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa.
But it is the countries closer to home – the EU27 – which are occupying most of Dr Allan’s time these days.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon prompted outrage in hard-line unionist quarters when she embarked on a European charm offensive in the days after the Brexit referendum, holding informal meetings with top Brussels diplomats to point out that the vote was not in Scotland’s name.
“We don’t pretend to be something that we are not,” Dr Allan told Holyrood, dispelling any notion that Scottish ministers are overstepping their devolved remit to be secret pilgrims for the nationalist cause.
“We’ve always been clear as a government when we have been meeting with European governments that we don’t pretend to have a legal role and we don’t pretend that we are involved in parallel negotiations in any sense.
“Many people have asked why the Scottish Government has ministers with international responsibilities.
“It was actually the Labour Party’s idea – it wasn’t the SNP’s idea – but it is something that we agree with Labour on and it’s something that there is a consensus on across the parties that Scotland should be doing this.”
Dr Allan took over the international development role from Humza Yousaf in Sturgeon’s post-election reshuffle in 2016.
The two MSPs couldn’t be more different. Yousaf is the son of Kenyan and Pakistani immigrants who represent the urban concrete towers of Glasgow, while Dr Allan is more at home in the rural fringes of the Borders and the islands.
So what made this island dweller, who sings in a Gaelic choir and speaks a smattering of Norwegian, feel he had what it takes to be Our Man in Pakistan?
“People don’t pitch minister for jobs – this is a myth,” he said.
“It’s like the episode of Yes Minister where the MPs sit by the phone and wait to be told what job they’re getting. That’s exactly how it works.
“I think it would be counterproductive if you tried to pitch for a job, but I was more than delighted to get this job.
“It is two quite distinct jobs. Europe kind of speaks for itself – it’s not a quiet area of government.
“The other area, international development, has really allowed me to be involved in and to learn about a whole new area of activity in which Scotland is committed to an involvement in the developing world.
“Scotland is doing something really majorly important, and that is developing our relationship with – to pick the most obvious example – Malawi, a country that we have had a relationship with for 150 years and where Scotland is warmly received and we are able to do good things.
“It’s also a chance for Scotland and the Scottish Government, at a time when people sometimes question the value of international development, to make a positive case for doing work to help some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
“I visited Malawi in October last year and I would challenge anyone who has done that to come away and not be an advocate of international development.
“It is an unusual situation in that international development in Scotland isn’t actually funded through the Barnett formula, it’s not part of what was originally envisaged.
“But very soon after the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament, Jack McConnell and others in the Labour Party and across the parties realised that it is something that we should be doing.
“In Malawi, the pre-existing relationship was so strong that all of us thought we should make something of it.
“There was a real tradition of international development in Scotland that it was the right thing to do – and doing the right thing is very important.
“It’s not because we claim to have a diplomatic presence around the world – it’s simply because people in Scotland rightly expect the Scottish Government will speak out on international issues and set out Scotland’s priorities on them, whether it is on international development, Europe or anything.
“It is important that we explain our position to European governments.
“We do think that we are in a position now to draw upon that sympathy for Scotland that wasn’t there in the past because people didn’t understand what our political predicament was.”
The political predicament is, of course, the “democratic deficit” where nationalists perceive Scotland is regularly outvoted on issues of national importance and is often regarded as just another stakeholder in negotiations in which it has a major stake such as fisheries or nuclear weapons.
It has prompted Nicola Sturgeon to issue a series of demands for a seat at the Brexit negotiating table, an assurance that all devolved powers held by Brussels will transfer immediately to Holyrood, and the right to veto any post-Brexit reforms that impact on Scotland.
“It’s curious that Theresa May never talks about the veto that the UK Government exercises over many aspects of life in Scotland,” said Dr Allan.
“Theresa May is leading a government that is struggling to have any kind of authority, either in the House of Commons or in the Brexit negotiations, so I’ve got no doubt that she will at times turn on Scotland and make her views known.
“But from our point of view, not just from the Scottish Government’s point of view but I think the point of view of most people in Scotland, the people who should have a veto on what should happen in Scotland are the people that live in Scotland.
“We’ve sought to make a very strong argument about Scotland’s place in Europe...and that it is in the process of being taken out of the EU against our express will.
“I think all these things, in time, will build into a real picture of how Scotland’s voice needs to be heard.
“I think we’re also beginning to realise that Brexit hasn’t yet happened, so when people see over the next two years what Brexit actually means I think they will see Brexit in a different context.”
Of course, unionists and Brexiteers question the logic of forsaking a union with your closest neighbours to maintain a more distant and diverse union which also demands that nations surrender some of their sovereignty.
“The EU treaties currently require all accession countries to join the euro currency, and the Common Fisheries Policy which Scottish fishermen and most of the SNP hate with a passion.
Europe has become increasingly bullish that there will be “no more Europe a la carte” with the “awkward squad” opt-outs secured by Britain over the decades.
Dr Allan said: “We’re not unique in the position of being a country coming into the EU and not going for the euro.
“Sweden has essentially put forward the same position and pursued the same policy when they became a member.
“As regards the CFP, I think it’s widely understood that in its present form that has been a failure, but one of the reasons it has been a failure of course is that, unlike most normal fishing nations, we haven’t had the kind of direct representation and decision-making power in the EU that most normal countries with a big fishing industry would expect to have.
“So I think those are both big issues, but I do sense in Europe an awareness now of Scotland’s position, of Scotland’s political stance, in a way that simply didn’t exist in the past.
“I have no doubt in the future Scotland will be warmly welcomed into Europe.”
He added: “People know where we are now — and that wasn’t always the case. I think people have a sense that Scotland exists in the modern world, that Scotland isn’t just somewhere that exists as a tourist destination or something that exists at some point in history but that Scotland exists in the modern world, that it has a view and that it will say it.
“I recently met people from the European Committee of the Regions, who are all well informed now about Scotland’s stance on Europe and on Brexit in a way that they simply wouldn’t have been 10 years ago.
“You can even see the difference between the lead-up to the 2014 referendum and now in the way that Europe is more informed about, and more sympathetic, frankly, about Scotland’s position.
“That is partly down to the existence of the Scottish Parliament, but also the fact that we now have a government in Scotland which is unapologetic in seeing our role as standing up for Scotland.”
Standing up for Scotland now also means occasionally going toe-to-toe with the most powerful man in the world.
Donald Trump’s mother emigrated to the US from Lewis at the age of 17, and her brash and outspoken son has had a love-hate relationship with her homeland throughout his business and political career.
He was appointed a Global Scot business ambassador by Labour first minister Jack McConnell and was later greeted with open arms by Alex Salmond when he offered to build a luxury golf resort in his backyard.
But relations soon soured when Trump mounted a concerted campaign to scrap a nearby wind farm which he feared would throw his well-heeled golfers off their game, and reached their nadir when Sturgeon rescinded Trump’s Global Scot title following his outspoken attacks on Muslims during the 2016 presidential election campaign.
“It’s difficult to think of a president who could be less Hebridean,” said Dr Allan, contrasting Trump’s brash self-promotion with the quiet reserve of his island cousins.
“People are polite in the Western Isles, and particularly in Lewis.
“The serious point, though, is that the Scottish Government has to be clear about the things that we believe and, to be honest, things that most people on this side of the Atlantic and many people in America believe too.
“Human rights, equality and politics should be conducted in a certain way, and the First Minister has made her views on that clear.”
He added: “Certainly, we have tried very consistently to make sure that the message that Scotland sends out is one about tolerance, is one about a kind of politics which is inclusive and rejects the language of extremism and hostility, particularly of hostility towards people from different races and faiths.
“It’s a message that we continually repeat because we think it is important, and because we think it is a message that Scotland is keen to be recognised for.”
Dr Allan has been a nationalist since the age of 12 – when most kids of his generation were probably still playing with their He-Man toys.
“I’ve always been involved in some form with the SNP,” he said.
“I believed in Scottish independence so there wasn’t really a choice, and I was more than happy to join the SNP when I turned 18.
“What attracted me to get involved in politics, and to get involved in the SNP, was that I couldn’t quite work out why Scotland didn’t have a parliament.
“Mrs Thatcher was prime minister at the time — and that’s probably enough of an explanation why any decent 18-year-old would do the decent thing.
“The experience of many people in my generation was things like the poll tax, Mrs Thatcher’s economic policy in Scotland, and the fact that Scotland really seemed at that point to be totally overlooked, forgotten and without any forum to make its views clear.
“I got involved in politics at a time when there was an awakening of this idea that there should be a Scottish Parliament and it was beginning to reach out across the parties.
“There was a consensus that we really couldn’t go on without a democratic forum in Scotland.”
Born in Ashkirk, near Selkirk in the Scottish Borders, the young Alasdair attended Glasgow and Aberdeen universities, gaining a degree in Scottish literature and a PhD in Scots language and linguistics.
He went on to work in Salmond’s office shortly after the 1997 election which returned six SNP MPs, but it was the Labour landslide that paved the way for the next chapter in Scotland’s evolving journey of self-determination.
“It’s healthy to be able to look back and realise the small beginnings from which the SNP came,” said Dr Allan.
“I think we had three offices around the country, most of which were only one room.
“I remember there were great celebrations when our Christmas party reached double digits and the SNP was able to say that it had 10 members of staff.
“Although we see the SNP now as this big machine, it actually came from a voluntary organisation from quite humble roots.”
The devolved Scottish Parliament was supposed to kill nationalism “stone dead” – in the words of Labour’s shadow Scottish Secretary, George Robertson – but nobody told young Alasdair or his suave date for the day of the official opening.
“I managed to get myself the job of being the person who got Sean Connery out of his car to come to the procession,” he said.
“My main recollection of the day is making small talk with Sean Connery.
“I also remember the day that the parliament first sat a few weeks earlier, when somehow or other I managed to wangle a ticket to get into the gallery when Winnie Ewing made her famous remark that the parliament that had been adjourned in 1707 had been reconvened.
“There was a lot of things happening around that time that suggested that something big was happening in Scotland.”
Dr Allan stood unsuccessfully in 2003 in the Gordon constituency won by Salmond four years later, after he returned from the Westminster wilderness to lead the SNP to a narrow victory which handed him the keys to Bute House as first minister of a minority government and secured Alasdair his first term as MSP for the Western Isles .
“There was a sense of unreality that the SNP had actually won a national election,” he recalls.
“We had been trying since 1934 and we had never done that so I think there was a sense of amazement that we had done it.
“Although 2007 was a watermark, I think 2011 was an even bigger watermark when it became clear that there was going to be an independence referendum.”
Dr Allan’s recollection of the moment the SNP had been awaiting for the best part of a century is distinctly unglamorous – climbing ladder to tie Yes banners to lampposts and knocking on thousands of doors.
But his campaigning days revealed that independence was by then about more than just the SNP, so when Scotland voted by 55 per cent to remain in the UK, Dr Allan felt a sense of “disappointment, to put it mildly”.
“It was a disappointment that very quickly turned into a sense of amazement that 100,000 people had just joined the SNP,” he said.
“You go through rollercoasters of emotions in a movement like the SNP over the years but there is a common trajectory that we are now talking seriously about more powers and independence for Scotland in a way that would have been laughed at even 10 or 15 years ago.
“When I started knocking on doors in 2011, support for independence might have been 30 per cent, at best.
“So to get to 45 per cent, without taking away from the fact that it wasn’t 50 per cent, represented a higher level of support than had ever really been expressed in the country for independence before.
“I wouldn’t have put it in those terms in the depths of my disappointment in the referendum, but looking back again, I think it was part of a process, part of progress towards Scotland taking greater charge of its own affairs.”
It remains to be seen if, or when, the nationalists will get another chance to put their prospectus to the country, but the political winds are currently against them following some punishing losses at the recent snap general election – including Dr Allan’s former boss Alex Salmond – and a firm commitment by May and her cadre that “now is not the time” for a rerun.
“The Scottish Government’s views, and 62 per cent of people in Scotland’s views about the situation that we are in, are well known,” he said.
“We are more than anxious that Scotland finds itself in a position that we haven’t chosen, and I think Europe understands the message that we have been putting out.
“Whether the UK Government will see sense in that remains to be seen.”
The student of the Scots tongue has a typically homespun assessment of the humbled UK Government’s prospects for succeeding with their hard-line European stance.
“Theresa May has a much shooglier mandate for anything that might be called a ‘hard Brexit’,” he said.
“I know they’ve asked people to move away from language like ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ Brexit but I hope that wiser counsel will prevail in the UK Government and they will realise that they don’t have any kind of democratic mandate to pursue the kind of extreme Brexit that they are pursing right now.
“Whether they have the wisdom to do that, who knows?”
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