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Fiona Hyslop: 'Scotland has never been narrow in its perspective' - exclusive interview

Fiona Hyslop: 'Scotland has never been narrow in its perspective' - exclusive interview

Fiona Hyslop - credit David Anderson/Holyrood

The first time Fiona Hyslop travelled abroad was on a family holiday to Austria. She had just turned eight, and was still reeling from the recent death of her father. As such, her memories of the trip are vague.

“It was the family, together. Apart from the fact I managed to ski down a slope on one ski and stay upright, and my knee has never been the same, that was it,” she remembers.

Hyslop’s career, however, has seen an upward trajectory. Playing a leading role in the SNP’s youth wing in the 1980s, by the 1990s, she was influential in policy direction and a member of the party’s executive committee. 

She became the SNP’s first-ever Education Secretary in 2007, a portfolio she had previously shadowed. In 2009, however, facing a Liberal Democrat motion of no confidence, Alex Salmond shuffled her to Minister for External Affairs and Culture in a straight swap with Mike Russell.

It was seen as a demotion at the time, but Hyslop has expanded the brief in the six and a half years since, returning to the cabinet in 2011 and adding the responsibility of tourism – one of Scotland’s biggest industries – in Nicola Sturgeon’s most recent reshuffle.


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The growth in status is partly down to Hyslop’s work in the role – there was a sense of relief among the cultural sector when she was reappointed – but it can also perhaps be ssen as representative of the Scottish Parliament’s journey to being more outward-facing since its inception. 

Hyslop tells Holyrood the idea of Scots looking abroad to find themselves is nothing new. “Scots always have. That’s the amazing thing, if you think about Scottish history. It’s an important dimension to it. If you look at Leith in the early 1900s, if you look at the destinations sailing out of the port of Leith, this idea it’s only the modern day when people are international and discover themselves through either pleasure or work overseas… Scots have done that for generations.”

Tourism, she insists, is a natural progression of her role. “My role in government, my role in Scotland and my role internationally is to promote Scotland. Who we are culturally, where we are in terms of our economic imprint across the world and where we want to be.”

Hyslop’s says her work on the recent opening of a new Scottish government office in Dublin, coinciding with the establishment and launch of the Irish Business Network Scotland, is an example of how closely culture and business is linked.

She also points to the story of Aberdeenshire industrialist Thomas Glover, dubbed ‘the Scottish Samurai’, who was a key figure in the industrialisation of Japan in the 1870s, helping to form the shipbuilding company which would become the Mitsubishi Corporation. “Our connections with Nagasaki, for example, are very strong now for lots of different reasons, not least his role.” 

As Japan looks to replace nuclear energy with renewables, the Nagasaki peninsula hosts three of the country’s six test sites for tidal and marine energy solutions. According to Hyslop, they are inspired by the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney.

The fifth site chosen for the ‘Scottish Ten’ project, a digital 3D documentation of international heritage sites, was a giant crane in Nagasaki, ordered by Glover himself in 1909. Designed and built in Scotland, it is still used by Mitsubishi today.

“In Thomas Glover’s house he’s got a picture on the wall that says ‘the ocean is a field’. He was doing that hundreds of years ago, looking at the ocean as a field for ships and trade, but we’re now looking at the ocean as a field in terms of renewable energy,” says Hyslop. 

Clearly, Hyslop’s focus has been to capitalise on historical and cultural connections to build links, but she says access to a European market has been a key element of conversations she’s had.

UKIP put the abolition of the external affairs brief at the heart of their Holyrood manifesto this year, arguing the parliament should focus solely on devolved responsibilities.
“They were serious, because they are narrow in their perspective, and Scotland’s never been narrow in its perspective,” responds Hyslop.

But while the UKIP announcement may have provoked some mirth among watching journalists, external relations have not always been an integral part of the Scottish Parliament’s work. Apart from a brief moment under Henry McLeish, the Scottish Parliament had no ministerial position for external affairs until 2007.

An SNP motion condemning the war in Iraq in 2003 attempted to embarrass 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 PM of the day on foreign affairs.

Hyslop argues the SNP’s approach has been far more than political opportunism.“You don’t do it by propaganda, you do it by practice. That’s what we’ve managed to do, to get reputation and reach,” she says. 

The SNP has had a strategy to be an “outward facing, accessible and engaged” government, according to Hyslop. 

Attempts have been made to link with Scandinavian nations to build renewable energy and connectivity across the North Sea to ensure energy security in the future, something Hyslop says the UK is “not cooperating with”.

Playing an active role in bilateral agreements can happen, she says, even when Scotland is not a nation state.

“That’s what diplomacy is. People talk, for example, about cultural diplomacy. Cultural diplomacy is something you do, not something you talk about.”

Part of the process of selling Scotland is about how it is perceived, and for Hyslop, an image of determination and integrity breeds confidence.

“Integrity matters in a whole range of things. Where does that come from? It can’t just come from goods and services. It also comes from how people perceive us, the imprint.”

The Edinburgh International Festival and the other festivals can provide that imprint, she says, pointing to the fact it is the festival’s 70th anniversary this year, “formed two years after the Second World War to bridge the flowering of the human spirit after, and immediately after they brought over a German orchestra. A German orchestra.”

The global impact of the festival and the reputation of Scotland’s national arts organisations overseas have been instrumental in making connections, according to Hyslop, citing a standing ovation in Tennessee for Scottish Ballet’s production of Streetcar Named Desire as an example.  

“That brings with it an understanding we are a confident country, a forward-looking place, we embrace diversity and you can see that in our culture.”

While the arts budget has been cut dramatically in England, Hyslop argues it has been largely protected north of the border. 

“We didn’t do that, because we actually realise your country has a soul, and it is expressed through how it explores ideas through culture, how it tells its stories, how it connects to the world. These things are all connected.” 

But isn’t it the case many local authorities in Scotland have borne the brunt of budget cuts, and therefore arts funding at a local level has been sliced? Hyslop says any cuts haven’t been “disproportionate” and “we’ve kept a close eye on that” for any cuts in the future.

This year’s third world cultural summit, the only one of its kind that brings culture ministers from all continents together, shows how the Government’s approach to the arts is respected globally, she argues.

The 2014 referendum on independence was also an “empowering process”, she says. 

“Other people [now] see us as an example of how you could conduct constitutional democratic change that is peaceful, constitutional and legal and encourages political engagement.”

The current constitutional debate over Britain’s membership of the EU has none of the “energising positive engagement” of the independence referendum, she suggests.

Aren’t there common themes, though? Economic scaremongering and British identity are the two which spring to mind.  

“There is an argument about British nationalism which is ostensibly about how some English Conservative members see their place, even within a UK context, let alone in a world context,” Hyslop suggests.

This ignores the younger generation who are more concerned with the future, she says, pointing to opinion polls which show younger voters are much more likely to vote to remain in the EU.

“It’s almost like you’re seeing English civil wars of the past being revisited, as opposed to ‘what are our prospects?’, ‘what about the future?’.

“Actually, identity issues are never helpful in terms of that political context. It’s very important to have that rational reasonable argument.”

If it has been SNP strategy to avoid identity politics, it is clearly still in place. “Our view on Europe is not from a narrow prism, it’s from that broad prism. It’s about solidarity. It’s about social protections in terms of workers’ rights, and it’s also about mutual support,” she says. “You have to look at Europe as an opportunity for the future, as opposed to replaying old wounds within the Conservative Party of the past.”

But with much talk in the referendum campaign about how a Brexit might lead to a re-run of the independence referendum, isn’t there a temptation for some of the more hard-line 45ers to secretly wish for a leave vote? 

Nicola Sturgeon herself indicated that if the UK votes to leave the UK while Scots vote to stay in, it would represent a “material change” in circumstance which would justify holding another referendum, while former PMs, Tony Blair and John Major have suggested the Union would be endangered by a Brexit.

In more recent weeks, however, senior SNP figures have played down a prospect of a quick-fire rerun of the independence referendum in the event of a leave vote. While this could be a reflection of a lack of appetite for it in the polls, could there be concern some SNP activists might wish for a Brexit to quicken the onset of Scottish independence? 

Hyslop dismisses the idea. “Well, they weren’t active during my recent Scottish Parliament election campaign, and we got the second biggest vote in Scotland.” 

The SNP is not exclusively pro-European, though. Former deputy leader Jim Sillars has been a vocal leave campaigner, for example. Hyslop says all views on Europe are part of a spectrum, not just within the SNP.

“It’s a binary question: Do you want to remain, or stay, it’s a very stark question and actually, there is a spectrum across not just Scotland but also the rest of the UK. I think on the independence referendum, for example, it was more stark. There was a battle for the undecideds, a movement in the last period. But there are far more nuanced and differentiated views about Europe.”

During the Scottish Parliament debate on Europe, which Hyslop led just before the purdah period, she said the EU was “not perfect” but had been “a remarkable achievement” in fostering peace and cooperation. What then, is “not perfect” about it?

“We published, two years past, our proposals for what we thought the improvements can be. Europe is always changing. You see with the Juncker presidency far more focus on jobs, which is important, tackling youth unemployment far better than the previous president.”

Hyslop remembers being in Italy in 2013 when a boat went down off the Italian island of Lampedusa, killing 366 migrants. 

“I was in the room when the then Prime Minister of Italy said ‘these are all Italians now’. You cannot look at the biggest dislocations, the impact and causes of which will be longstanding, without looking at the impact on the Middle East, and in particular looking at climate change. These are big issues, right? You can’t stand and look away.”

Hyslop says she has pushed the UK Government to “think differently” on climate change and its impact on migration ever since.

“People’s movement because of climate change will be extensive in the future, so therefore making sure we’re thinking ahead [is important]. The role of Europe to think strategically is really important, and the whole of Europe to act operationally.”

Would Brexit impact culture and tourism? Hyslop says she won’t be a “doom merchant” but anything that might put additional costs on tourism wouldn’t help.

What about the proposed tourist bed tax, then, mooted by politicians and local authorities of all colours ahead of the election? The idea has been supported by voices in the cultural sector looking to recoup budget cuts, but strongly opposed by the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland.

“If you tie it back to the UK and perhaps the European argument, just because the UK would have powers over things doesn’t automatically mean the UK will make good decisions. One of the things they haven’t made good decisions on is in terms of VAT on the tourism industries. It means Scotland has the second highest VAT payable for the tourism industry. 

“In that context, trying to put extra taxation on them doesn’t make sense. I agree with the cultural sector, we need more investment to help support the infrastructure in our cities, of course we do, but there are smart ways of doing it. That’s what I want to do as part of my brief, to look at smart ways of getting the investment we need, but to do it in a way which doesn’t hammer the tourism industry.”

Presumably keeping these two key allies in selling Scotland happy will be a challenge for Hyslop, but in the meantime all focus will be on the EU referendum.

“Part of the reason people come here is the warmth of our welcome. It’s hard to promote a warm welcome when you’ve just said no, we don’t want to be part of cooperating with you,” she suggests.

And will she have time to enjoy a trip abroad for pleasure rather than business this summer?

“It depends what the result is! I’m hoping we’ll have a remain vote both in Scotland and in the UK, and therefore I can have a reasonably peaceful summer, and I won’t have to write it off.”  

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