Wee fish, big pond

Written by Tom Freeman on 10 July 2014

Israel says militants have fired more than 365 rockets from Gaza since Tuesday and it has attacked about 780 targets over the same time. Yesterday the Scottish Government responded by writing to Foreign Secretary William Hague expressing their concern.

With Foreign affairs a reserved power, cynics might say the statement on Gaza is an SNP attempt to embolden Scotland’s voice on the world stage ahead of the referendum on independence. Even so, External Affairs Minister Humza Yousef’s request to William Hague to exert further pressure on the Israeli Government to bring the blockade to an end is a bold one, in that it puts more responsibility on Israel than perhaps world leaders would dare to. Indeed, David Cameron has said the UK ‘staunchly supports’ Israel.

It seems unlikely Hague will raise Yousef’s concerns at the UN Security council’s emergency meeting today. It is understandable, after all, when the immediate situation appears to be worsening by the hour. Air raids on Gaza have continued overnight, while militants are continuing to fire rockets into Israel, and the concern for the Security Council will be to attempt to broker a ceasefire as soon as possible before talking about the ongoing blockade.

Scotland’s global voice is a central argument in the referendum debate. After independence, would a Foreign Secretary rather than an External Affairs Minister have the same level of access to the UN Security Council? It seems unlikely, but nationalists would argue the UK Government doesn’t do enough to represent Scotland’s interests there anyway.

When it comes to exerting influence on global affairs such as the situation in Gaza, Scotland’s voice will always be a small one. That is not to say it has to be insignificant though. Nelson Mandela praised the citizens of Glasgow for offering him the freedom of the city at a time when many others were still condemning him as a terrorist.

The Scottish Parliament has not always been comfortable challenging a UK government position on international affairs. An SNP motion condemning the war in Iraq in 2003 attempted to embarrass the visiting Prime Minister Tony Blair. It was defeated by 16 votes, with Labour MSP Tom McCabe calling the SNP “opportunist and repugnant” for using an international situation to “illuminate their views of the constitution”. Conservative Phil Gallie said the country had to trust the prime minister of the day.

However the internationalist cat was out the bag, and only two years later Jack McConnell’s executive forged a partnership with Malawi, one of Africa’s poorest countries, and exerted pressure on the G8, who were meeting in Scotland. When the SNP came to power in 2007 it doubled the International Development budget to £9 million. By 2009 the Scottish Government made a controversial international statement by releasing convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds. The sight of a saltire being waved as the terminally ill man arrived in Tripoli appeared to put the SNP on the back foot, and they lost a vote at Holyrood which condemned the move.

Looking back at the moment now, a question will remain over whether it was an attempt to embolden Scotland’s independent global voice or to demonstrate Scots compassion on the world stage.

The same could be asked now, as the offer of opening Scottish hospitals to civilians affected by the continuing and increasing violence in Gaza is put on the table. It was reported in the Middle East media. Realistically though, how many casualties will be brought to Scotland? Will UK diplomats enable it if a different position is taken by William Hague?

The treatment in Scotland of three-month-old Mohammad Sudais who had suffered third degree burns in a gas explosion in Pakistan in February this year shows Scotland can play its part in humanitarian interventions, provided the diplomatic pathways are open.

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