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Scotland’s growing influence on UK foreign policy

Kirsty Hughes talks to Scottish National Party and Scottish Green politicians on foreign policy, the EU and the tectonic shift in Scottish politics.

Kirsty Hughes
27 April 2015
Humza Yousaf

Expect Scotland's influence to grow. Flickr/Scottish Government. Some rights reserved.

Scotland’s policy stances on the EU and on global foreign policy, even in the absence of independence, are set to be of growing importance and influence – but have received remarkably little attention during the election campaign. 

And while the outcome of the 2015 general election could transform the UK’s EU and wider foreign policy, one of the few similarities in the different campaigns in England and Scotland is that the focus of debate in both has been primarily domestic.

The probable greater impact of Scotland on UK foreign policy is in part due to the increased devolution of powers to Scotland, promised by the Unionist camp at the time of the referendum campaign and set out further through the Smith Commission Report. It means Scottish views on a raft of EU policies – from agriculture to finance to renewable energy – are going to need to be represented more in Brussels. And there is likely to be growing, quite likely controversial, demands from the Scottish government for a greater role and influence over key UK EU policies.

At the same time, if the SNP ends up with 50 or so MPs at Westminster as the polls predict – a seismic shift in Scottish and UK politics – they would certainly have some important influence over the EU and foreign policies of a minority Labour government. Even a minority Tory government might find that winning some foreign policy votes on sensitive issues that might split their own party could be won or lost depending on the SNP’s stance.

One reason Scottish foreign policy views have received little attention is that there is a general but mistaken view that devolution covers domestic issues only, and that even under ‘devo-max’, foreign policy and security would be excluded from Scottish influence. Yet with the UK part of the EU this domestic-foreign distinction makes little sense. With the EU passing laws from health and safety, age discrimination, competition and trade policy to sanctions, renewables targets and so on, what is domestic or ‘foreign’ is blurred and overlapping, and many of the EU policy areas lie within Scotland’s devolved areas of policy.

There is in fact already a certain amount of UK-Scotland coordination on EU policies necessitated by the existing devolution of powers, but it is limited. And with the SNP now not only in power as the Scottish government  but also likely at the same time to be the third biggest party at Westminister, the foreign and EU policy impact of Scottish devolution, and Scottish politics, is about to become noticeable.

Scotland and the EU

Catching up on the campaign trail with rising young Scottish politician, Humza Yousaf, Minister for Europe and International Development in the Scottish government, and a SNP Member of the Scottish Parliament for Glasgow, Yousaf is clear about the important role the SNP has in promoting Scotland’s interests in the world.

It’s a campaign that Yousaf says is going “phenomenally well in Scotland as the polls and our own canvass results reflect.” He sees the “tectonic plates of Scottish politics shifting” and says he’s never seen anything like it not even during the referendum campaign.

But he admits readily that Europe and foreign policy are not coming up often on the doorstep during this campaign. This is in contrast to Scottish Green candidate for Edinburgh East, Peter McColl who says he has been asked about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) at all the hustings.

Yousaf thinks there is a general strong interest in Scotland – beyond the election campaign –in Europe and the wider world. Without exaggerating differences in Scottish and English opinion, he says “there is a more pro-European stance here.” There is also now much more outside interest in Scotland and its views on Europe and the world, says Yousaf, with ambassadors and other visitors coming in much greater numbers since the referendum, despite the ‘no’ vote, or asking when SNP politicians are next in London.

But does Scotland at present have enough influence on British positions regarding key EU policies? “No, definitely not enough” says Yousaf. He explains there are quarterly joint ministerial meetings between the UK and Scotland but “there isn’t enough discussion on policy formation…Smith left the door open a bit and said we would need to discuss more how to represent Scotland’s views on the global stage.” It’s a big issue that has been left hanging.

The SNP according to Yousaf will definitely be looking for more influence over EU policies and on wider foreign policy. He complains strongly that even where Scotland has the most competent and experienced minister – for instance on fisheries – London will not let Scottish ministers speak for the UK in Brussels’ councils, pulling in unelected Lords or British diplomats in Brussels instead when UK ministers are absent. It’s a long way for now from the Belgian approach where both Flemish and Walloon ministers regularly step in at EU meetings, and pressure for a more fair and rational approach for Scotland and the UK is likely to grow.

Asked about Greece’s struggles to escape austerity, something the SNP might be expected to agree with, Yousaf is sympathetic but cautious: “I don’t believe it is necessary for Greece to leave [the euro] for stability, any member leaving would be a disaster for the EU… I have faith they will find a manageable compromise.” He talks about Syriza having to “navigate” the promises they made to their voters to find a way to a compromise.

Scotland produces about 25% of total EU wind energy, and has the most ambitious renewables targets in the EU – a critical policy area where Scotland may well differ from English approaches or levels of ambition. Peter McColl thinks 100% of electricity (though not all energy) in Scotland will be from renewables by 2030. The Scottish Greens see future benefits from independence in Scotland being able to lead on such issues in the EU and to defend its own interests more effectively than as part of the UK. Some tough questions though on combining the shift to a low carbon economy in Scotland with policy on North Sea oil reserves remain to be answered by both the SNP and the Scottish Greens.

EU Referendum and ‘Brexit’ - only for England?

Humza Yousaf sees ‘Brexit’ as still not beyond the realms of possibility, if the Tories put together an informal coalition with two or three other parties, depending on their final share of the vote on May 7. Yousaf says “it [a referendum] is playing with fire, exit could have devastating consequences for the whole of the UK.” He sees no groundswell of public opinion for having a referendum on the EU, in contrast to what he says was there for the Scottish independence referendum.

Scottish Parliament flags

"There is a more pro-European stance here", according to Yousaf. Flickr/Gregg. Some rights reserved.

But Yousaf is cautious about the impact of a possible ‘no’ vote if there is an EU in-out referendum – something that his party leader Nicola Sturgeon has said could lead to a case for a new independence referendum in Scotland: This election is not about another [independence] referendum….If Scotland voted to stay in the EU and the rest of the UK to leave and we were about to be dragged out against our will that might be a trigger, and people would say we would rather be an independent country and in Europe.” For the Scottish Greens, McColl is more emphatic “If there is a ‘no’ in an EU referendum, there would be a very strong case for a new referendum [in Scotland]. I think it would be a very easy referendum to win.”

Yousaf refers to Irish anxieties about a possible Brexit (given shared borders and other common interests) and obviously sees similar concerns potentially for Scotland. He thinks it is better for the whole of the UK to stay in the EU. There is a conundrum here since while an EU referendum with an English ‘no’ vote might be a positive catalyst for Scottish independence, it would in fact in many ways be better for an independent Scotland, if England too remained in the EU. Nicola Sturgeon has demanded a ‘double-lock’ on any EU referendum – so that all four countries of the UK should say ‘no’ not just the majority of votes, for Brexit to happen. This proposal has already been slapped down by David Cameron – and in the absence of a UK federal constitution spelling out such issues and powers, the answer is likely to remain ‘no’ should a referendum go ahead.

Asked who might be the main allies of a one-day independent Scotland in the EU, Yousaf says “primarily the [rest of the] UK would be a natural ally in the EU and Ireland, first and foremost, we would work closely with them, and yes with some of the Nordics – Sweden, Finland and Denmark.” In fact, he says, Scotland already has a Nordic and Baltics strategy – not least due to all these countries being of similar size, geographical position, sharing a number of common security and other policy concerns.

Yousaf says he is sure if they had won the Scottish referendum, Scotland would have stayed in the EU: “Brussels would have found a way, there is no doubt in my mind. The EU is a pragmatic organisation as it was when East Germany joined. We have been in for 40 years and our laws reflect the acquis, we have 100,000 EU citizens here in Scotland, 25% of EU wind energy….so you could imagine the practical problems if we weren’t in the EU for a day, the disruption.” 

Asked about planning that is said to have been done ahead of the referendum vote on how to establish a Foreign Office for an independent Scotland, Yousaf explains that they wouldn’t have had to start from scratch. There are, he says, existing Scottish trade and investment offices around the world that could have become embassies, with priority given to the most important partners – the EU and US.  A newly independent Scotland might have asked for help in the transition years to a fully diplomatic network from the EU’s own pan-European offices around the world, from other EU member states, including even the UK, and UN advice would have been available to Scotland as a newly independent country.

Wider foreign policy

Most attention on SNP foreign policies has been on their aim of getting rid of Trident. Trident, says Yousaf, has no moral, political or economic purpose. But he goes on to emphasise “we are not a party of pacifists” and attacks the current government for giving soldiers on the frontline their P45s and not investing enough in conventional forces. How SNP MPs vote on defence spending could be an interesting issue to watch in the new UK parliament.

Yousaf also emphasises the SNP’s commitment to UK development aid spending, something that would fit well with Labour’s commitment to maintain aid spending too. Yousaf describes with enthusiasm the particular focus Scotland already has on aid to Malawi, involving “lots of churches, faith groups… schools, there’s probably not a school in the country that has not had a link.”

Amidst the chaos and conflict surrounding Europe – from Ukraine to Syria to Libya – Yousaf emphasises in particular the SNP’s commitment to recognising Palestine as a state: “We said we would push to recognise the state of Palestine, if you believe in a two state solution…it is a very vocal issue [for us].”

Migration is another issue where the SNP has positioned itself in a progressive position compared to the UK’s main parties. Yousaf talks of needing a ‘tier and points’ system for migration and insists migration is positive and necessary for Scotland given its aging population. He admits it is an issue where people can feel strong concerns but says it has not damaged them at the polls: “it is a policy that doesn’t always get the most positive reception but I hope being positive can also help to shape attitudes.”

The SNP foreign policy role at Westminster - plenty to discuss

A minority Labour government looking for voting support in the House of Commons on foreign policy issues is likely to find the SNP a partner they will need to discuss and compromise with – amongst the myriad of international challenges facing any UK government, the SNP is more progressive than Labour on migration, and on Palestine, might possibly even be more cautious on defence cuts (outside of Trident), more ambitious on climate change and renewables, and a straightforward partner on international aid.

What sort of attacks any foreign policy cooperation between a minority Labour government and SNP MPs would come under from the Tories can be seen from Cameron’s onslaught during the election campaign. These Tory attacks on the legitimacy of SNP MPs at Westminister – voting as Cameron would put it on ‘English issues’ – have angered Scottish voters: “The anger” says Yousaf “is tangible.” “From six or seven months ago, when Cameron was saying ‘you should not leave the UK’ to saying ‘your voice is illegitimate and you should have no say in a future government’….people are apoplectic, very angry.”

From domestic policies to foreign and EU policy, it is clear that the SNP have policies and views that will be expressed and voted on at Westminster, and by the devolved Scottish government, whatever the Tories say, and whatever approach any eventual Labour minority government might take.

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