Analysis: outward looking – the year in external affairs

Written by Mark McLaughlin on 9 September 2017 in Inside Politics

Scotland's external affairs directorate was once considered dispensable, but now has its hands full

Union Jack and EU flag - Image credit: PA Images

Scotland’s External Affairs directorate has always been one of the most controversial of Scottish Government ministries, but its work has never been more important following the Brexit referendum in June 2016.

It was originally devised by former Labour first minister Henry McLeish in 2000, with the outward-looking Jack McConnell at the helm pledging to use his position “to engage constructively and thoroughly with the European Union”.

But it was abolished in under a year, ironically, by McConnell himself when he became FM in apparent deference to the UK Government’s insistence that European relations is a reserved matter.

There was no such deference when Alex Salmond took charge in 2007 and revived the position, originally as a junior ministerial role with Linda Fabiani and then, crucially, Mike Russell heading the directorate.


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External Affairs was elevated to a cabinet post following the SNP landslide in 2011, amid ongoing unionist allegations that Salmond was trying to establish a rival Foreign Office at St Andrew’s House, but with Scotland about to take centre stage in the world with its independence referendum, arguably, there was a need for a high-profile figure to engage with the international community that Scotland was seeking to join.

Fiona Hyslop has been Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for External Affairs since 2011, and one of her key tasks in her early years was building a credible case for Scotland’s continuing membership of the EU if it became independent.

It was a tough gig, with everyone from David Cameron to the then European Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, warning that there would be no free pass for an independent Scotland in the EU.

A week before the independence referendum, Ruth Davidson said voting no to independence “means we stay in… the European Union” – in the full knowledge that a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU was looming in the very near future.

Nicola Sturgeon cried foul on 24 June 2016 when it emerged that 62 per cent of Scots had voted to remain in the EU, but were outvoted by the more populous regions of England.

“The supposed guarantee of remaining in the EU” was a driver for many people’s decision to vote No in 2014, so Brexit was “a material change of the circumstances in which Scotland voted against independence in 2014”, so another independence referendum was required, she said.

Her critics pointed out that the looming Brexit referendum was no secret in September 2014 – the nationalists’ own independence manifesto, ‘Scotland’s Future’, explicitly warned that “Scotland faces the possibility of leaving the EU because of Westminster’s planned in/out European referendum”.

But Sturgeon continued to pin her nationalist hopes on convincing Scots that they were hoodwinked and that the only way to keep Scotland in the EU was to revisit the decision on independence.

Mike Russell was returned to government with another European brief as Minister for UK Negotiations on Scotland’s Place in Europe, reporting directly to the First Minister and apparently relegating Hyslop and her junior Minister for Europe, Alasdair Allan, to supporting roles.

But there were rumblings from another SNP veteran, Alex Neil, that tying a vote for independence to membership of the EU might be a mistake.

In November, Neil admitted he voted for Brexit and insisted other SNP MSPs had done likewise, alongside a sizeable number of SNP voters and members of the wider Scottish nationalist movement.

Over a third of SNP voters told Survation pollsters in December that they voted to leave the EU – and the most recent opinion polls have shown support for independence has softened, with around a fifth of SNP voters now rejecting independence.

Nevertheless, Sturgeon pressed on with her European ambitions, publishing a widely-praised manifesto called ‘Scotland’s Place in Europe’ which called on Theresa May to keep the UK in the single market, allow Scotland to pursue its own single market membership, or clear the way for a second independence referendum.

May rejected all three options and announced a snap general election to silence “Remoaners” in Scotland and elsewhere who were trying to frustrate her plan to forge a new relationship with Europe outside the single market.

The election was a humbling experience for all concerned, with the Conservatives relegated to a minority government and forced into a politically and financially costly alliance with Ireland’s austere Democratic Unionist Party, the SNP ranks at Westminster slashed by a third, and Labour finishing an admirable second only to return to party infighting over Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to reject single market membership.

The SNP secured 50 per cent more seats than all the other parties combined in Scotland allowing Sturgeon to claim a mandate for her ‘Scotland’s Place in Europe’ paper, but her severely reduced ranks – including the loss of big beasts Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson – have given her pause for thought.

She shelved her plans to launch a second independence campaign this summer, pledging instead to “redouble our efforts and put our shoulder to the wheel in seeking to influence the Brexit talks in a way that protects Scotland’s interests”.

Scotland’s interests are firmly within the EU, she insists, but this ambition carries with it all of the difficult questions Sturgeon failed to answer convincingly during the independence referendum.

How will Scotland secure EU membership without ditching the SNP’s opposition to the euro currency?

How will she break it to fishermen that she wants to rejoin the unpopular common fisheries policy?

How will Scotland pursue a more liberal immigration policy without stringent border controls with the rest of the British Isles?

Many predicted Brexit would cause the EU to unravel but if anything, it has hardened the resolve of those pursuing closer European integration, with leaders pledging an end to “Europe a la carte” concessions and “awkward squad” opt-outs.

Questions also remain about Scotland’s place in the wider world, particularly as the nuclear standoff between the USA and North Korea unfolds.

The SNP remains firm in its opposition to the UK’s nuclear arsenal off Scotland’s shores, but with the nation’s most infamous descendant, Donald Trump, already riling North Korea’s significantly more militarily advanced allies with his ‘fire and fury’ sabre-rattling – the need for a UK nuclear ‘deterrent’ may be at its most acute since the height of the Cold War.

Scotland’s External Affairs directorate – once regarded as a dispensable arm of the Scottish Executive – will certainly have its hands full as Holyrood reconvenes in an increasingly uncertain world.

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