Where would Scottish businesses be without Nicola Sturgeon?
Well, there might be more of them and none would be currently trying to flog their car park on eBay. But I am a dreadful cynic, for our First Minister is a champion of commerce.
She is too modest to tell us this herself so the information had to be coaxed out of her by Kenny Gibson, whose own achievement of 12 years on the government backbenches without a whiff of ministerial office is not inconsiderable. At First Minister’s Questions on Thursday, the Nationalist MSP bid his leader to update parliament on her recent excursions overseas.
Two weeks ago, Sturgeon spent five days in North America then last week nipped over to France for a flying visit. She informed Holyrood: ‘I visited the US, Canada and France, which are markets that are worth more than £8 billion to Scotland’s economy, to promote our country as an attractive place to invest, visit, work and live.’
Who could object to that? No one, if the First Minister had achieved anything substantive on her winter break. Instead, she held a few receptions, met some mid-level functionaries, and, in Canada, launched a campaign called ‘Scotland is Now’, when Scotland was actually five time zones ahead and learning that it would soon cost £500 a year to take the car to work.
Of course, that wasn’t all Nicola got up to on her holidays. She concurred with the Governor of New Jersey that climate change was bad, so bad that they wrote it down and called it a ‘joint agreement’. In addition, she ‘hosted events to promote Scottish food and drink’, bringing news of whisky and shortbread to a continent where half the populace is descended from Scots and the other half just claims to be.
Plus, she conveyed to MSPs with a peacock’s pride, ‘I also spoke at an event at the United Nations that was hosted by the assistant secretary general for human rights to discuss Scotland’s commitment to gender equality and human rights.’ They speak of little else down the local business park.
When she jetted off on her first tour of North America in 2015, the First Minister made sure to have a jobs announcement to make while Stateside. The 212-staff investment by Jabil in Livingston had been agreed well in advance of Sturgeon’s plane landing in New York but it meant she could spin herself as a deal-making trade maven. This time, there wasn’t even the pretence of a jobs package.
That’s because these latest jaunts are less about industry than independence. Of course, to point this out is to expose oneself as a troglodyte who wishes ill for Scotland’s economy.
When the Tories wondered what good any of these taxpayer-funded antics were doing the taxpayers who were funding them, Sturgeon accused them of ‘the worst possible parochialism and provincialism’. Insularism is a bold charge from a woman whose life’s work is making sure people living in Canonbie are issued different passports from people living in Carwinley.
Besides, her own words gave the game away. Sturgeon’s speech to France’s Assemblée nationale was much-touted and it did not disappoint. They came in their twos and threes to hear the First Minister speak, not to the National Assembly as such, but to the foreign affairs committee of the lower house.
The grand address took place in a glorified broom closet sparsely populated by French lawmakers with the glum, listless demeanour of sixth-formers forced to attend school on the last day of term. Fame is a fickle friend. One minute you’re yukking it up on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the next you can’t even get the French interested in ridiculing les rosbifs.
And ridicule is what she was aiming for. These, in part, are the remarks Sturgeon delivered to ‘promote our country as an attractive place to invest’: ‘I will start by addressing the issue of Brexit. It is, after all, the dominant issue in the UK at present. The first point I want to stress is that the Scottish Government is committed to the European Union.’
She then condemned the UK Government as ‘unwilling to recognise the complexity of the vote across the UK’ and added that ‘when there is greater clarity about the terms of Brexit, Scotland must have the option to choose a different course, by opting to become an independent country.’ ‘Independence,’ she explained, ‘is not about the isolationism that characterises Brexit’.
Yes, it was just your regular, apolitical speech about selling mussels to Marseilles. If the French weren’t convinced to invest in Scotland by this helpful sketch of the Brexit bùrach, they’ll be lining up with their euros at the mention of yet more political upheaval.
That is what Sturgeon’s recent jollies were about, driving an even deeper wedge between Scotland and the rest of the UK in the minds of the international community. They were about advancing the independent foreign policy the Scottish Government has been pursuing for some time now, despite international affairs being wholly reserved to the UK Parliament. The theory is that if you differentiate Holyrood and Westminster enough and dealign their global objectives, you make the transition to separation more like a step than a leap.
The devolution industry, which created the circumstances the SNP now exploits, pushes back hard when it is pointed out what is going on here. Fortunately for Sturgeon, a former first minister came to her defence last week. Unfortunately for her, it was Henry McLeish, whose undistinguished term in office history has been kind enough to forget.
He told the National: ‘People should stop being so small minded. Scotland within the United Kingdom or outwith the United Kingdom has a presence and has got to make the best of it.’
McLeish, the devocrat’s devocrat, is to blame for much of this anyway. Sturgeon’s opening of Scottish Government ‘hubs’ in Canada and France owes much to his 2001 decision to post a Scottish Executive trade representative to Washington DC. This built on the pre-existing Brussels office opened in 1999 and handed the SNP the crowbar it now uses to prise Scotland and England apart internationally.
Don’t take my word for it, though. When McLeish unveiled his ambassador to Washington, the move was enthusiastically welcomed by John Swinney.
Swinney, then SNP leader, gushed: ‘For years, Labour have attacked the very idea of a Scottish diplomatic presence in the world, but now we have yet another SNP policy that is being implemented. This shows that Scotland is moving beyond devolution. It is a significant step in the process of independence. Now that we are to have a distinctive presence in Washington, Scotland has crossed a line from which there can be no going back.’
How right he was. Around the same time as he was despatching an emissary to DC, McLeish managed to score himself a meeting in the Oval Office with President George W Bush. Images from the occasion show the first minister in his element while the expression on Bush’s face says it all. How had he gone from fireside chats with Henry Kissinger and late-night phone calls from Ariel Sharon to a photo-op with someone who would struggle to be recognised in the photographs by half the country he was meant to govern?
The Nationalists have only followed where McLeish pioneered. Their innovation has been to use official visits as part of their stepping stone strategy to separation. This is the devolution paradox. Reserve powers at Westminster and you are making the case for independence. Devolve powers to Holyrood and the SNP uses them to make the case for independence.
Scotland has a great story to sell the world — in food and drink, tourism, digital innovation, financial services and much more besides. We should be proud of this and want to spread the message and reap the investment, jobs and economic opportunity our potential can bring. But when Nicola Sturgeon goes abroad, she is not representing Scotland — she’s the ambassador for independence.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact Stephen at email@example.com. Feature image © Scottish Government by Creative Commons 2.0, cropped.