SNP foreign forays are about selling independence, not Irn-Bru to Indians

It might have escaped your attention but we appointed a new ambassador to the United States last week. 

Fans of the incumbent Sir Kim Darroch needn’t fear; he remains in post. By ‘we’ I mean Scotland. Joni Smith was announced as the Scottish Affairs Counsellor to North America at the same time as Martin McDermott was promoted to First Secretary for China.

Ms Smith, a former aide to Nicola Sturgeon, and Mr McDermott, head of public engagement during the independence referendum, are being dispatched to Washington DC and Beijing, respectively, to promote Scotland’s interests in the Americas and Asia.

They join a burgeoning network of Scottish legations in cities including Brussels and Toronto. If you’re wondering why the Scottish Government is posting diplomats overseas, rest assured you didn’t miss another referendum. We’re still part of the United Kingdom.

It’s just that the Scottish Government likes to feel important by pretending to be a big-boy government. Alas, it never occurs to them that there are alternative ways of modelling themselves on other governments, such as teaching children to read or employing nurses in hospitals.

No, they prefer to stick pins in maps and send some more mandarins abroad, like a taxpayer-funded game of Risk. The Scotland Act doesn’t empower SNP ministers to engage in foreign relations. By branding these diplomatic missions ‘international offices’, the Scottish Government can pass them off as nothing more than hubs for supporting trade and investment.

It’s important to promote Scottish products to the world, if for no other reason than SNP supporters are boycotting so many of them at home. Our new diplomat can throw grand parties, swapping the Ferrero Rocher for trays elegantly piled with Tunnock’s Tea Cakes. ‘Madame Ambassador, with zis quisling cookie you are really spoiling us.’ 

All this takes place under the aegis of Fiona Hyslop, the Scottish culture secretary who doubles as a pretend foreign minister. No doubt her time as minister for River City has equipped her with acute insight into the complexities of international disputes. If Sheildinch’s warring Murdoch and Kennedy clans can get along, there’s hope yet for the Israelis and Palestinians.

Candidates for future ambassadorships could include celebrity Nationalists like Sean Connery, Alan Cumming and Brian Cox. They understand the challenges of attracting international jet-setters to Scotland since we have yet to convince them of the merits of living here.

On paper, this all might look terribly benign. What kind of cringing, self-loathing, genuflector-to-Westminster could object to Scotland building up its global clout?

[raises hand sheepishly]

Scotland already has a network of organisations promoting its interests overseas, including the Foreign Office and the British Council. There is also Scottish Development International which has offices in dozens of cities around the world, from Rio de Janeiro to Tokyo, and is charged with boosting exports and attracting outside investment. The Americans imported £854m of whisky from us last year. Are we to believe they would forgo our Bruichladdich 16s and revert to slurping moonshine out of a jug if there were no Scottish Affairs Office in Washington DC?

Then again, the aim is not to enhance Scotland’s trading opportunities — it’s to normalise the idea of independence. The Scottish Government all but admits this itself. The US Engagement Strategy sets an ambition ‘to be a good global citizen, making distinctive contributions to addressing global challenges such as climate change, tackling inequality and promoting human rights’.

The Canadian version lists as one of its aims: ‘Foster[ing] stronger governmental and legislative links between Scotland and Canada, promoting relations between the Canadian federal and provincial government and parliaments on topics of common interest and promot[ing] an exchange of best practice in policy development.’

These may be worthy ideals but are they really the business of a devolved administration in a country where foreign relations are wholly reserved to the national parliament? A semi-embassy here and a quasi-ambassador there might seem like small potatoes but every indulgence of these forays into reserved matters only emboldens the Scottish Government.

Because Westminster failed to put its foot down over ‘international offices’, Nicola Sturgeon felt confident enough to embark on an official tour of the United States in a vain (very vain) attempt to pass herself off as Scotland’s head of state. Over the past 12 months, she has sought to trip up the UK Government over Brexit, holding meetings with European officials in hopes of securing a separate deal.

Regular readers will know that this column isn’t exactly hanging out the Union Flag bunting over Brexit but it is the policy of the UK Government and only the UK Government can initiate and conduct foreign policy. That was until now because, as its diplomatic appointments and meddling in reserved issues confirm, the Scottish Government is gradually developing its own foreign policy and the apparatus to deliver it.

Setting up ‘international offices’ in world capitals is not about selling Irn-Bru to India or haggis to Honduras; it is about embedding a nascent complex of personnel and relationships in anticipation of eventual independence. During the 2014 referendum, Scotland was not seen as a global player and that hampered the Nationalists’ efforts to sell separation to the international community. A growing diplomatic footprint, however, removes that obstacle from any future constitutional vote.

The Scottish Government is empire-building but, far from standing up for the Union, UK ministers are lending a helping hand. These unofficial embassies are located within actual British Embassies and, far from starting with the SNP’s arrival in power, this racket was well under way thanks to both the old Lib- Lab Executive and the UK Government.

Like its acquiescence to other symbolic power grabs — think Alex Salmond’s renaming of the Scottish Executive — Whitehall believes being seen to be ‘heavy handed’ could risk a backlash and gift the Nationalists another grievance totem. Yet the laidback approach has not undercut but encouraged the Scottish Government’s overreach.

Scots have voted repeatedly and begged endlessly for the SNP to stop grandstanding and get on with governing. The UK Government should help out by reminding St Andrew’s House who is in charge of what. That can be done without a row. The Prime Minister could send an ambassador to Edinburgh to do it diplomatically.


The Nattering classes, those pro-SNP culture warriors who dominate Scottish public life, are heralding a report on the teaching of Scots in schools.

‘There is clear evidence,’ the paper decrees, ‘to confirm the educational benefits of including Scots in Curriculum for Excellence.’ Mebbes aye, mebbes naw.

This ‘research’ was carried out by a single ‘Scots language practitioner’ and involved sitting in on lessons in six schools. The final report runs to a robust 11 pages. In one school, ‘young people were translating newspaper articles, originally written in English, into Scots’. Other than putting them in good stead for a column in the National, what is the point of this?

The advantages of bilingualism are well-known. That’s why resources should be spent on useful tongues such as Mandarin or Spanish instead of teaching children English with a Glaswegian accent and calling it a modern language.

‘Parlez-vous Rab C Nesbitt?’ is unlikely to come up in a job interview.


Staff at McDonald’s in London go on strike today in the first walkout by the fast food giant’s UK workforce. The burger-flippers want fairer pay and more job security. Multinational corporations treat customers with contempt and employees even worse. Finally, someone is standing up to them and I’m lovin’ it.

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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at image © Scottish Government by Creative Commons 2.0.

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