The devolution era has witnessed a marked growth in Scotland’s international activity. But Scotland’s status as an international actor is still overlooked, even dismissed, by many people in Scotland. In this article, John MacDonald asserts the need for a more mature discussion on Scotland’s international affairs, and greater recognition of what Scotland does in this sphere.

The launch of CABLE magazine in July – with its tagline ‘International Affairs from Scotland’ – has prompted some discussion on whether it’s appropriate to refer to a distinctive Scottish perspective on international affairs. I’ve been asked several times, on Twitter and in person, what characterises a ‘Scottish view’ on this issue, and what Scotland actually does as an international actor.

Based upon these discussions – and many I’ve had previously – it’s clear that some people think Scotland doesn’t do international affairs because it’s constitutionally barred from doing so. Others hold the opinion that what Scotland does do internationally is so low-level, it’s almost irrelevant. The term ‘Tartan Week’ (a reference to the Scottish festival in New York) is mentioned frequently. This issue also appears to set constitutional radars buzzing. Some people think there simply isn’t a ‘Scottish take’ on international affairs and that anyone who says otherwise is running to some kind of pro-independence agenda: that it’s nothing less than constitutional tub-thumping to suggest that Scotland can and should do more in this sphere.

For me, these attitudes reflect two curious truisms: Scotland’s international activity remains under-observed in Scotland; and the significance of international affairs to Scotland is poorly understood. We must do more to discuss, and appreciate, what Scotland does as an international actor.

First Minister Jack McConnell and Russian President Vladimir Putin share a podium during Mr Putin’s visit to Edinburgh in June 2003. Image: Scottish government [CC BY 4.0]

The act of analysing that activity, and examining how it might be expanded, certainly does not reflect any one side of the constitutional debate. It should be remembered that it was a Labour First Minister, Jack McConnell, who set in motion post-devolution Scotland’s international affairs agenda by promoting the Scotland-Malawi Partnership. The SNP took up this internationalist agenda in 2007 and has added considerably to what McConnell started.

Yet there remains great scope to do more. And Scotland should do more. Quite what should be prioritised requires a fuller discussion of Scotland’s place in the world, of what matters to Scotland, and of what we can learn from others to enhance Scotland’s international stance.


It is widely known that under the terms of devolution, UK foreign policy and defence are reserved to the UK government. Prohibited from feeding into UK policy in these areas, Scottish governments thus cannot involve themselves with ‘hard’ military and security issues; nor with strategic issues or territorial claims. They can’t pursue membership of the inter-governmental bodies most heavily involved in international rule-making. Nor can they ratify international treaties.

These conditions constrain the possible activities that Scottish governments can contemplate undertaking beyond the UK. They also make it difficult for the Scottish government to justify any great allocation of resources to international affairs. Consequently, the Scottish government’s External Affairs Directorate is modestly funded and staffed.

However, this doesn’t mean that Scotland is inactive or voiceless when it comes to international affairs. Scottish governments can and do articulate their position on big international issues, such as the status of Palestine. In recent years, the Scottish government has provided emergency humanitarian funding (having first secured permission from the UK Department for International Development) to a variety of international crises, including Syria, the Philippines and Gaza.

Scotland is represented overseas by the presence of Scottish officials within UK diplomatic missions; it currently has a formal presence – either through the Scottish government or Scottish Development International – in over 35 major cities across the world.

In 2008, the Scottish government created an ‘International Framework’ document which discussed both the aims and means of Scotland’s international relations. The latest updated version appeared in 2015. Scotland has an Action Plan for European engagement, a policy on International Development, and it has dedicated strategy papers on its aims concerning Canada, China, India, Pakistan and the United States of America. The Scottish government also has an International Development Strategy; its key partner countries are Malawi, Zambia, Rwanda, and Pakistan.

In response to Brexit, the Scottish government published, in December 2016, a paper entitled Scotland’s Place in Europe which set out proposals aimed at keeping Scotland and the UK in the European Single Market and Customs Union.

Whilst it is not sovereign, the Scottish government faces a pressure that all modern governments face: to enhance their nation’s profile, influence, and wealth through their international outreach.

Much of Scotland’s international activity involves trade and cultural promotion, and the general cultivation of partnerships through high-level visits and other exchanges. Scotland’s international visibility and influence is thus also tied to the activities of Scotland’s business, academic, and journalistic communities, and a substantial Scottish diaspora. Scottish-based NGOs such as Mercy Corps and Halo Trust – there are many others – collaborate with government and non-governmental partners the world over, with considerable success.

Officers from Police Scotland’s International Development and Innovation Unit have provided training in various countries, including Sri Lanka, the United Arab Emirates and South Sudan. The Unit has recently extended its work, providing specialist training for African police forces to tackle gender-based violence and improve child protection in Malawi, Rwanda, and Zambia.

When viewed within the grand theatre of international affairs, Scotland is a modest player. But the Scottish government oversees a diverse international affairs portfolio and it is ambitious to expand it. Indeed, it must demonstrate this ambition. Whilst it is not sovereign, the Scottish government faces a pressure that all modern governments face: to enhance their nation’s profile, influence and wealth through their international activity. This pressure impinges upon the governments of China, Australia, Sweden, and the UK. It also impinges upon the Scottish government in Edinburgh – it’s just that Scottish governments must address these challenges with less capacity and scope to act.


What can the Scottish government do to enhance Scotland’s international profile and outreach? The most obvious issue on the agenda at this point is trying to secure as solid a relationship as possible with the European Union ahead of the intended March 2019 Brexit deadline. Thus far, the Scottish government’s efforts on this front have attracted considerable praise from the continent. But it remains to be seen whether rhetorical support for Scotland will manifest itself in tangible action which might facilitate continuing closeness between Brussels and Edinburgh. What might be possible for Scotland vis-à-vis Europe is anyone’s guess, especially when the UK’s own position on Brexit remains so incoherent.

But this period should not prompt the Scottish government to focus its attention solely on Brussels. Indeed, the sense of vulnerability prompted by the UK’s 2016 Brexit vote may demonstrate why Scotland really needs to expand and deepen its international relationships where it can. Perhaps the EU is not the only bloc where Scotland should look to build a common front on key policy issues?

One rather obvious option is to strengthen Scotland’s ‘northern alliances’, and to engage more with the various developments associated with Arctic climate change. The need for greater Scottish engagement on this front has been expressed many times by Arctic-focused scholars – indeed, chapters detailing why Scotland should develop its own Arctic Strategy have appeared twice in the highly respected Arctic Yearbook since it began publication in 2012.

In 2016, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was invited to speak at the annual Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavik. Her speech was received extremely positively. It may mark the starting point for more serious – and long overdue – Scottish engagement with what is happening to its north.

The Scottish government has already published a Nordic Baltic Policy Statement (2014), which focused on various areas where Scotland can work with the northern nations, based upon its devolved competences. In 2016, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was invited to speak at the annual Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavik. Her speech was received extremely positively. It may mark the starting point for more serious – and long overdue – Scottish engagement with what is happening to its north.

Looking more widely, the very process by which Scotland earmarks its international priorities, and develops strategies for pursuing them, merits further attention. Scotland could better coordinate its international agenda by creating its own independent research institution to inform and guide the Scottish parliament and government. A possible model to look to is the Flemish Peace Institute. Founded in 2004 and funded by the Flemish parliament, the Institute conducts research for the Flemish parliament and presents recommendations published in advice notes on the arms trade, foreign policy and peace-building. A similar institution could vastly enhance Scotland’s international outlook, informing Scotland’s stance on key policy areas such as human rights, climate justice, conflict resolution, and nuclear disarmament. Depending on how expansively it was configured (and funded), it could also deliver expert regional advice to civil servants and parliamentarians.

More could be written here about how Scotland might enhance its international outlook and activity. There is considerable scope. But moving the debate forward on this issue requires a wider acknowledgement that Scotland is an international actor, and that international activity is important to Scotland.


An example of how Scotland needs to wake up to the new realities of international affairs lies in how we regard First Ministers’ visits overseas. These para-diplomatic trips are still regarded – if they are acknowledged at all – with a mixture of suspicion and scorn.

For example, the First Minister’s trip to the United States States earlier this year – a five-day visit based around an invitation to speak at Stanford University and a meeting with the Governor of California on climate change – received a drearily familiar range of criticisms. Political opponents sniped that Ms Sturgeon should “get back to the day job”. Sections of the Scottish media pursued the story of how much car hire costs were for the First Minister’s trip.

It’s important to make the point that such criticisms are not simply aimed at independence-seeking SNP First Ministers. Labour’s Jack McConnell, who did much to enhance Scotland’s international ambitions during his time as First Minister, was also subject to criticisms over his international travels: accusations of ‘Junket Jack’ were bandied around with relish by the Scottish media when Mr McConnell had the temerity to travel overseas on Scotland’s behalf.

An example of how Scotland needs to wake up to the new realities of international affairs lies in how we regard First Ministers’ visits overseas. These para-diplomatic trips are still regarded – if they are acknowledged at all – with a mixture of suspicion and scorn.

I’m not suggesting for one moment that the Scottish government’s spending should be ignored. Government expenditure should always be scrutinised – and if a government transgresses, it should have its feet held to the flames. But the travel cost issue is a non-winner for the Scottish government, so long as elements of the media choose to make cost the story. It is equally likely that criticisms would abound if a Scottish para-diplomatic trip had clearly been planned on a tight budget: media critics would doubtless accuse the First Minster of ‘lacking class’ and ‘making Scotland look bad’.

Those who understand the norms and rituals of international diplomacy understand fully what is expected of foreign leaders as they represent their nation overseas. Such visits are expensive – but maybe we should just accept that fact. The cost of the First Minster’s trips certainly should be scrutinised. But don’t make that the beginning and end of the story.

What would be very welcome is a more outward-looking, less partisan, approach to this and other political issues. As far as Scotland’s international affairs are concerned, recognising that foreign visits by First Ministers are vital to enhancing Scotland’s profile, outreach, and wealth, would be a good start.


Is there a distinctive Scottish take on international affairs? Of course there is. The Scottish government’s capacity for action in this sphere is distinctive by virtue of the constitutional parameters it works within, and the specific areas it chooses to focus upon.

Some will view the Scottish government’s international affairs portfolio as being less significant – and less interesting – than that of the UK government. And there is nothing wrong with this view: the affairs of non-sovereign nations like Scotland will often be overshadowed by the issues – military activity, transnational alliances, high-level diplomacy – which are the staple of the major sovereign nations.

But the point being addressed here is this: Scotland’s international affairs are important. They are important to numerous people and organisations in Scotland. They are also important to the many communities overseas who benefit from what Scotland does internationally. We in Scotland need to do more to recognise this. And the Scottish government must do more to lead the conversation.

John MacDonald is Editor of CABLE.

Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, former President of Iceland, with Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at the 2016 Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik, Iceland. Image: Tbkaji [CC BY-SA 4.0]