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Angus Robertson: Activist Tory Scotland Office tried to undermine Scottish Government abroad

Angus Robertson in the Scottish Parliament | PA

Angus Robertson: Activist Tory Scotland Office tried to undermine Scottish Government abroad

The dream is now over, but as much as he was supporting Scotland at Euro 2024, Angus Robertson was also cheering on the Tartan Army. Because the kilted masses were garnering the kind of positive international PR you can’t pay for.

While the campaign was still going strong, the Scotland team’s vocal travelling supporters were praised by authorities in Germany for their conduct. In Cologne, where crowds gathered to watch them being piped in by the Tartan Army Pipe Band, mayor Henriette Reker called their presence in her city a “wonderful couple of days”. “I could not be a happier mayor,” she wrote on social media. “You are always welcome back to Cologne!” Meanwhile, a clip of two sodden Scotland fans holding an umbrella over the head of an elderly woman who is slowly crossing a square in a downpour has been shared by local side FC Cologne and viewed millions of times.

“The Tartan Army are one of the best ambassadors, one of the best adverts for Scotland. They win friends and leave very positive impressions wherever they go,” says Robertson, whose role as the Cabinet Secretary for Constitution, External Affairs and Culture involves selling Scotland on the world stage. “They have won so many admirers in Germany and amongst the wider footballing community.

“By its very nature, international promotion is intangible. How do you measure good impressions? When an image goes viral in Germany of two Scottish football fans holding an umbrella over an elderly German person walking through the rain, it leaves a hugely positive impression about Scotland. 

“Being in people’s thoughts, being in their positive books, contributes to Scotland being known and liked, and that’s why we find doors open wide internationally, from government or companies, agencies and organisations who are delighted to work with Scotland in a wide range of interests.

“How do we capture the value of such positive impressions? The important thing is we seek to engage with people who have that goodwill. That’s what we are doing.”

Indeed, Robertson was in Munich himself for the opening game against Germany, which he watched with good friend David McAllister, Germany’s half-Scottish MEP and vice-president of the transnational European People’s Party in Brussels.

The men share similar heritage, with Scottish fathers and German mothers, and Robertson was raised speaking German as his first language. He’s now passing it down to his young daughters, Saoirse and Flora, aged five and three. It’s to her beloved German songbook that Flora directs Robertson when she wakes during the night, and they use German-language recordings on the storytelling Toniebox system to soothe the youngster.

Robertson’s language skills also come in handy when it comes to one of his next big goals: making Scotland a dominant player in the burgeoning European hydrogen market.

Angus Robertson and David McAllister

It’s thought that global demand for hydrogen for a range of domestic and commercial uses will grow to 115 metric tonnes (Mt) by 2030 as part of the journey to net zero, and the European Union alone aims to import 10Mt of the clean fuel by then. The Scottish Government hopes to make this country a leading supplier of green hydrogen created with renewable electricity, exporting 2.5Mt to the UK and other European markets every year by 2045. 

Developing an export-focused renewable hydrogen sector could bring in anything from £5bn to £25bn per annum depending on the scale of production, it is forecast. One of the key European markets for hydrogen? Germany. Research for the Scottish Government suggests Scotland could deliver 22 per cent to 100 per cent of Germany’s hydrogen imports by 2045. “The German economy is transforming before our eyes, moving from dependence on Russian gas to using hydrogen, particularly for its engineering sector,” says Robertson. “Scotland is one of the most significant exporters of hydrogen to Germany.”

He recently held talks on the matter in Berlin, where the Scottish team impressed local decision-makers and officials by conducting the entire meeting in the language of their hosts. “They said it was the first time ever a delegation had undertaken a technical discussion on hydrogen in German,” Robertson says. “Connections matter.”

The issue of connections and how to use them has been a thorny one during this parliamentary term, during which the Scottish Government was accused of overstepping the mark on foreign affairs. Guidance went out to Foreign Office diplomats from then-foreign secretary James Cleverly, saying that Scottish ministers should not hold unsupervised talks with other countries, and that these must not stray into reserved areas. In the furore that followed, Scottish Secretary Alister Jack listed occasions when he said Scottish ministers had stepped out of line. Then-business minister Ivan McKee had been heard in Poland saying Brexit had been a mistake, Jack said, while former first minister Nicola Sturgeon had talked about the constitution with a US official and Robertson himself covered the Erasmus and Turing schemes on a visit to France.

The row ran for weeks in spring 2023 and in December of that year, when Tory peer David Cameron, who had by then replaced Cleverly as foreign secretary, threatened to pull out of all overseas cooperation with Scottish ministers. He also cancelled a meeting requested by Robertson to discuss the situation, and though there have been no developments since, neither did the men establish any kind of common ground on the matter. “I was keen to speak about it,” Robertson says. “Hopefully the negative and confrontational approach of the Tory-run Scotland Office and, through them, occasionally unnecessary missives from UK foreign secretaries will be a thing of the past.

“I asked him to give me examples of the Scottish Government operating beyond the limitations, which would include signing international treaties and impersonating the UK Government,” he says of Cleverly. “He was unable to give me any examples, full stop.”

But what of those cited by Jack? “Nothing wrong with that,” Robertson says of the comments made by himself and others. “Scottish Government ministers can say whatever they like about whatever subject they like” because “nowhere, but nowhere” in the official guidance for ministers on external affairs “is there a restriction on Scottish ministers holding views about anything”. “Alister Jack can say what he wants,” Robertson goes on. “This is what we are having to deal with as an activist Tory Scotland Office seeking to undermine the works of the Scottish Government internationally. The bottom line is they hated the fact that the Scottish Government is run by a pro-independence party that has good international relations.”

But the Scottish Government’s international engagement is frequently scrutinised, with questions asked over the size and scope of the nine international teams which are spread from Washington to Beijing to Brussels, and about Robertson’s regular travels abroad. Detractors have dubbed him “Airmiles Angus”, so frequent are his trips away, which is something he says he “can live with”. “That’s my job,” he says. “I’m Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Constitution, External Affairs and Culture and I take that responsibility very seriously. I’m doing everything I can to make sure that [the country] has the best profile that it can,” he says, and he points out that the first Scottish Government international office was opened under Jack McConnell’s Labour administration, with the UK Conservative government setting up in Brussels even earlier than that. 

He’s “proud” to follow on from that work, Robertson says, but he’s critical of Labour’s general election manifesto pledge to “promote ‘Brand Scotland’” if it wins the keys to Downing Street. “Brand Scotland has existed since 2018, which seems to have missed the attention of the Labour Party,” he says of the cross-sector partnership which includes agencies like Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Creative Scotland. “They do their job very well.

“It would be a good thing if other political parties were to support Brand Scotland and everything that it already does,” he adds.

A wealth of agencies are involved in Tartan Week, the annual North American celebration of all things Scottish. It was there this year that Robertson met city security guard Jameel Lee. Lee was on shift at the World Bank premises in New York when Robertson and the Scottish delegation arrived for a meeting, and the men struck up a conversation. When the MSP explained his mission to spread the word about Scotland and connect with the diaspora, he was struck by Lee’s response. “Do you know what he said to me? ‘That’s me, man’,” says Robertson. “He went on to tell me that he had done a swab [DNA] test the previous year and was informed that he was 55 per cent Nigerian, 35 per cent Ghanian, and Scottish, and he had no idea that he had a Scottish connection, and he was so enthused about the prospect of being able to visit Scotland, and loved the fact that we had met.

“It was so moving. I was with all these officials, and they just couldn’t believe it, and there he was, talking about how amazing it all is.”

Angus Robertson and Jameel Lee

It’s exactly that kind of connection that Robertson was looking for during Tartan Week as the Scottish Government seeks to extend the focus of its work on the Scottish diaspora to African-Americans and other people of colour. The emphasis comes as the country’s historic institutions continue work to reassess their place in the darker aspects of our past, including the international slave trade and the damage wrought by the British empire. 

We have a “historical obligation to recognise and understand these connections” as well as “to offer an outstretched hand to everybody” who wants to explore such links, Robertson says, and he praises the work of the 1,200-strong Globalscot ambassadorial network in driving forward conversations in places like the US, New Zealand and Australia, where Scottish immigration during European colonisation has created a lasting, if complex, legacy. 

“I’m hugely encouraged by the work we’ve been undertaking with the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society” which is researching the roots of US citizens descended from victims of slavery, says Robertson, and “recognising the responsibility of many Scots as part of the slave trade… does not diminish our wish to let African-Americans with Scottish heritage know how welcome they are to be connected with the Scotland of the 21st century.”

And like the security guard, Robertson has had a go at a DNA genealogy kit himself. So what did he find out? “Nothing I didn’t already know,” he says, adding that more stringent German data protection laws meant little came back about that side, but there was proof of roots in Central Europe, Scandinavia, and the north of Scotland. But he is, he says, “an international Scot”, and insists this country has “incredibly strong soft power” through things like its cultural endeavours.

And it’s about this that Robertson is currently exercised, after the 20-year partnership between investment firm Baillie Gifford and the Edinburgh International Book Festival was severed under pressure from the Fossil Free Books group, which aims to stop sponsors making money from polluting industries from putting their branding over literary events. Festival chairman Alan Little said threatened disruption from activists had forced organisers’ hand. “Funding for the arts is now in a perilous position and we should all be clear that without the support of our partners and donors, the future of festivals like ours – and all of the benefits these bring to authors and readers alike – is in jeopardy,” he said.

Robertson, whose Edinburgh Central constituency makes him the local MSP for the festival, has said such disinvestment campaigns are “fundamentally undermining the arts sector, causing immediate financial challenges”. Choking off the sponsorship that allows arts events to take place, to reduce prices and to appeal to lower-income households mean those audiences become the “victims”, he said, and while the Scottish Government has committed another £100m for the culture sector, it “cannot do everything”. “We have a mix of public and private support for culture. That is the international norm,” he says. 

“At the same time, satisfying the concerns of people around international events, whether that’s the climate emergency or the war in Gaza, what we can’t have is the fundamental undermining of our festivals and cultural organisations without any thought of the impact that this actually has on the arts in this country. Our cultural institutions and our philanthropists deserve every effort is made to try and make sure that we can balance these interests.

“I’m keen to look at all workable models of being able to do that,” he says. “We’re right at the start of this.”

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