Scotland’s voice in the world

A common argument against Scottish independence is that Scotland would be swapping the United Kingdom’s extensive diplomatic presence, through its network of embassies around the world, for something much smaller. How could Scotland, critics argue, sustain a diplomatic network as a much smaller country? Surely Scotland’s voice in the world would be weaker without the powerful togetherness that the UK’s diplomatic representation commands?

Such questions presuppose two things.

1. That the current arrangement serves us well and is geared to Scotland’s interests. Yes the UK passport is one of the most valuable things global travellers can have, and yes there are few parts of the world where British diplomatic representation won’t be a reasonable distance away. But what does this diplomatic network represent? What’s the foreign policy behind it? Well, it’s one driven by interests that are often contrary to Scottish public and political will, as many of the UK’s foreign activities, such as Iraq, would demonstrate, and which make the UK an unpopular country in many parts of the world. What’s the point of this supposedly vast array of embassies representing the UK’s interests, when they’re (quite rightly) not working primarily for Scotland?

2. That there is some magic bar of size, population or wealth above which a country becomes good at representing its own interests, and below which a voice in the international community becomes unsustainable. Just ask the countries that have become independent of the UK over the last couple of centuries or so – most of whom are smaller than the UK and many of whom are even smaller than Scotland. They manage just fine representing their own interests diplomatically. I wonder whether New Zealand or Ireland feel they’re managing to represent themselves on the world stage, or if they’d prefer London to do it for them. Yes there’d be some economies of scale, but at what price?

Well, if you follow the fascinating and enlightening Asset Scotland on Twitter, you’d realise that, actually, Scotland could quite easily sustain a good level of international diplomatic representation. Asset Scotland is a project that, by drawing on official documents about the UK’s resources, highlights Scotland’s proportional share by population of various state assets – including embassies. You can read the stream for yourself, but there are surprisingly large shares of assets in some surprisingly obscure parts of the world. It’s quite a network, and Scotland’s share should be more than enough to ensure adequate diplomatic representation around the world.

Although, if you believe the news, the UK itself is in danger of not being able to afford its own embassy network. The other day there was a story (here it is on the BBC and Guardian websites) about the UK and Canada proposing joint embassy facilities where each country might not be able to sustain separate premises.

The UK! Supposedly one of the great world powers, this behemoth of international influence… resorting to one of its former colonies as a means of sustaining a diplomatic presence! Ah, the irony.

Actually, let’s not mock the UK. It’s quite a reasonable move, and quite common too. The European Union, for instance, undertakes a number of diplomatic representations. The Visegrad Four (Poland, Hungary and the Czech and Slovak Republics) often share embassy facilities to save money. I’m sure I’ve heard of Australia and Canada doing the same in the past. And note that this is not a shared foreign policy or pooled political power – it’s just sharing facilities. Each country’s own rules on how they engage with the host country and support their own citizens in trouble remain, presumably, quite separate.

And so if the UK is using this perfectly acceptable model, then how dare unionists complain that Scotland couldn’t survive on its own on the world stage? If you regard absolute independence on the world stage as impossible – and the UK requiring to share embassy space in certain cases demonstrates this – then no country, strictly speaking, is sustainable.

That’s not a problem though. It’s an opportunity for cooperation, and you can well imagine Scotland reaching similar deals with close allies and neighbours like, say, the remnant UK, Ireland, or perhaps Scandinavian countries.

To illustrate this point, read what UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said as he announced the joint UK-Canada plans:

“As David Cameron said when addressing the Canadian parliament last year: ‘We are two nations, but under one Queen and united by one set of values’.”

“We have stood shoulder to shoulder from the great wars of the last century to fighting terrorists in Afghanistan and supporting Arab Spring Nations like Libya and Syria. We are first cousins.

“So it is natural that we look to link up our embassies with Canada’s in places where that suits both countries. It will give us a bigger reach abroad for our businesses and people for less cost.”

Now I don’t often agree with William Hague, or David Cameron who he quotes, but he’s quite right. Leaving aside the fact that action in Afghanistan and Libya might have been of debatable merit, it’s certainly the case that the two governments have had many a common cause and have fought alongside each other over the centuries.

Take out any references to controversial policies, though, and the general principles behind Hague’s words are marvellous: common values, common heritage, common aims. I particularly like the phrase “first cousins”. But this does not necessitate political union, but rather cooperation.

Add the UK and Scotland into the speech, and you’ve almost defined what the relationship between the two countries as independent equals could be: and I’m surprised none of his advisers saw the political consequences for the Scottish independence debate when the idea was first batted around in the Foreign Office.

In fact, Hague’s words are a good blueprint for any two friendly countries, not just Scotland and the remnant UK. As a result of what he says, many of the foreign policy arguments against Scottish independence are seriously damaged, and the diplomatic viability of an independent Scotland is made all the clearer.

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