On the world stage: an overview of the year in Culture, Tourism and External Affairs
Scotland doesn’t have a foreign policy, at least not on paper. But at a time when the differences between governments in Holyrood and Westminster have become glaringly apparent, more than ever, eyes are on the way Scotland deals with the world beyond its shores.
In July, to mark the 20th anniversary of devolution, Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, travelled to the Scottish Government’s headquarters in Brussels, where she sought to underscore Scotland’s status as “a distinct political community within Europe”.
She told MEPs and other officials at Scotland House that “we are as committed now, as we were 20 years ago, to building and cooperating together.”
Hyslop, who has been an MSP since the first Scottish elections in 1999, has spent much of her time this year promoting Scotland’s image as “an outward-looking and welcoming nation, open for business and cooperation with our European and international partners.”
Work along these lines has taken a range of forms, from hosting a St Andrew’s Day celebration in Belgium to continuing to expand the network of “Scottish development hubs” around the world, which Hyslop says are an “essential means of promoting Scotland’s increasing trade, diplomatic, cultural and policy interests”.
The First Minister flew the flag on several high-profile overseas trips this year, too, including a week in North America in February, visiting those hubs to promote trade links with the US and Canada.
Nicola Sturgeon took the opportunity while in Washington DC to make a speech at Georgetown University, emphasising the differences between Scotland and the UK on Brexit and discussing the case for another independence referendum.
Naturally, such moves inflame opposition MSPs who tend to see Sturgeon and Hyslop’s “jaunts” abroad as a jet-setting agenda to, in the words of Maurice Golden, “drive a wedge between Scotland and our largest trading partner – the rest of the UK.”
The build-up of resentment was displayed most plainly when the former Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt pulled consular support for the First Minister during a trip to Brussels in April. Threatening to go further during his bid for the Tory leadership in the summer, Hunt implied that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office would withhold future support, unless Sturgeon stopped using overseas trips as “a platform for independence”.
Scottish ministers understood the debacle as grandstanding on the part of a would-be prime minister and there’s been no suggestion, yet, that Boris Johnson’s government would curtail the FM’s trips in the same way.
But the tension felt towards Scotland’s overseas agenda still exists, and not without justification.
In the lingo of international relations, ‘soft power’ is an important concept. The British Council, when giving evidence this year to the Scottish Government’s Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee’s inquiry on external affairs, defined it as follows:
“… a nation’s ability to achieve its international objectives by gaining a more sympathetic appreciation of its policies and actions...through the international connections made by people and institutions who represent its most attractive resources, including culture, education, language and values.”
New research, soon to be published by the British Council, finds that around the world, Scotland is seen as highly adept at this game.
In an empirical study of the soft power influence of nine devolved administrations, including Hokkaido, Catalonia and Quebec, Scotland was ranked second most effective overall.
And in areas of education, enterprise and digital, Scotland comes out as the most influential.
So, while they may avoid using the language of foreign policy, when SNP figures make comments emphasising the warmth and goodwill our European partners increasingly feel toward Scotland post-Brexit, it sounds a lot like an unacknowledged strategy.
At a time when intergovernmental relations inside the UK are found wanting, as work by Westminster’s Scottish Affairs Committee highlights, the dissonant visions of international relations will continue to test the suppleness of the Union.
Beyond promoting different self-images on the world stage, however, there are material differences that Scottish ministers are keen to address.
As the UK’s post-Brexit immigration plans emerge, including the potential for a salary threshold, the work to create an immigration system that addresses Scotland’s economic and demographic needs has moved forward.
In July, Ben MacPherson, Minister for Europe and Migration, wrote to then immigration minister Caroline Nokes, urging her to consider implementing a distinct Scottish track that would allow easier access for migrants to Scotland.
His calls echoed recommendations made by the UK Government’s Migration Advisory Committee and the head of the CBI. Such a Scottish visa, MacPherson said, could work within the existing UK framework and be based on residency.
Meanwhile, the government launched its ‘Stay in Scotland’ pack to encourage and assist EU migrants to apply for settled status. In August, a full-time help service through Citizens Advice Scotland was launched to support people through the UK’s EU Settlement Status Scheme.
‘Over-tourism’ hasn’t been quite as big a story this year as last, but conversations on balancing the benefits of visitor numbers with the strain on infrastructure moved forward, with investment from the Rural Tourism Infrastructure Fund, and plans for a tourist tax in peak locations such as Edinburgh and the Highlands.
Despite busy visitor seasons, the National Tourism Strategy is set to end in 2020, having fallen well short of targets on visitor expenditure.
And on the culture aspect of the brief, the decision making at Creative Scotland over recent years still attracts criticism. While Fiona Hyslop maintains the quango enjoys independence from government, the cumulative impact of the actions and words of ministers over the years on the success of the arts funding body continues to make for debate.
Screen Scotland appears to have had a successful first year, with the next Bond and a Netflix production underway in the Highlands. But the last-minute loss of a £1bn Lord of the Rings project to New Zealand because of Brexit uncertainty was a frustration for all involved.
Scotland’s ability to project a cultural and political identity to the world has reached a new level, helped and hurt in equal measure by its differences with the UK.