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Comment: Nicola Sturgeon's Message to America

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon meets Antony Blinken on a 2015 trip to Washington

Comment: Nicola Sturgeon's Message to America

When football teams go abroad, should first ministers really stay at home?

It was debunked as quickly as it spread – a tweet supposedly by Spanish authorities referring to Rangers fans as “Onion Bears”.

The post was made in reference to members of the Ibrox loyal, the Union Bears, who’d travelled to Spain ahead of the Glasgow club’s Europa League Final against Eintracht Frankfurt.

It’s not known who really runs the “Junta Municipal de Sevilla” account that posted the fabricated report of Scottish arrests, but reports suggested it belonged to a Celtic fan who’d started posting in Spanish only a day earlier. But it goes to show that in our globalised and digital age, just about anyone can claim to speak for a country and its authorities. 

In reality, one could forgive Spanish officialdom for wanting to sidestep any mention of the Union in relation to Scotland. Forays into this have been fraught, as when consul Migel Angel Vecino Quintana was dismissed in 2019 for telling The Herald that Madrid would not block the accession of an indy Scotland to the EU, something the Spanish foreign ministry said was “not appropriate” for the diplomat.

There’s always a great deal of interest in Scotland in where other governments stand on the independence issue, and on who they are listening to. It’s doubtful that any of the Rangers fans travelling to Seville had arranged high-powered meetings on the constitution with Spain’s politicos, but you never know. Certainly, Gers figurehead Graeme Souness had asked them to be “good ambassadors” for the club, so there’s that.

The one person we do know has been taking the Yes/No argument abroad of late is Nicola Sturgeon. The First Minister’s been in the USA speaking to Nancy Pelosi about Ukraine, the Northern Ireland protocol, women’s rights and “Scotland’s future”. She also addressed a think tank about Nato, energy policy and climate change, and her meeting with deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman included “the constitutional future of the UK”.

Ahead of the visit, the Scottish Government had said it was working to beef-up the country’s “international relationships, presence and voice” and “become more active internationally”. When the government’s raison d’etre is independence, I doubt we can be surprised that it would crop up in conversation with the worthies in Washington – expecting otherwise would be like expecting Rangers fans not to bring up the club’s 55 domestic league titles.

But the kneejerk condemnation of the FM’s trip and its subject matter was as predictable as a Celtic fan saying “newco”. “As foreign policy and the constitution are reserved matters anyway, the trip is little more than grandstanding by the First Minister,” Conservative MSP Donald Cameron said, accusing Sturgeon of pursuing an indy “obsession”.

Whether you like the meat of the FM’s message or not, it’s hard to argue that it’s somehow illegitimate for the leader of a democratically-elected government to represent their country and its interests abroad. And it’s very difficult to do this without appearing parochial. When the UK Government is reaching out, post-Brexit, to Japan, India and elsewhere with its “global Britain” strategy to keep itself on the diplomatic map, are devolved governments – unlike football teams – supposed to stay at home and stay quiet? That, surely, would be an own goal.

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