Scotland is an ancient European country and existed as such while much of the world was still to be explored and the map of the world was incomplete. Scots have always travelled for trade and adventure, and we went further as the world was unveiled and new societies encountered. As a nation, as Scots, we have a rich and diverse history of engagement globally. Much of this we can be proud of – it has been positive, leading to a deep and lasting bond of kinship and a thriving and passionate diaspora. Some of it, though, was dark and exploitative. Our involvement in the expansion of the British Empire and the conduct of notable Scots is often to be charitable, less than glorious, as is, for example, our connections to and collusion with the slave trade.
That darker history must serve as a lesson for how we build our future, and we must always strive to understand and be frank about our failings in history as much as celebrating our many achievements, which have, disproportionately for a nation of our size, benefitted humankind.
Indeed, in the case of slavery, the lessons in humanity were already being learnt by the time of the Scottish enlightenment, when a more progressive nation was developing due to the brilliance and advanced philosophy of some of the most famous minds in history. The Scottish History Association points out the numerous strands of thought put forward, at the time, for the abolition of slavery. Notably, it points to what it calls the first modern, mass political movement in Scottish or British history. The mobilisation of large numbers of people in a single-issue campaign involving petitions, sugar boycotts and campaign literature. Particularly successful was the famous image of a kneeling slave and the motto “Am I not a man and a brother?”
Views may vary on the influence of this campaign on the eventual abolition of slavery, but the popularity of this new, outspoken, and progressive action in Scotland is hard to ignore.
Contemporary figures pushed this progressive message further, not uniquely, but probably most famously and internationally through our poet Robert Burns. To this day a popular and much-admired global figure. Among his many works were the echoes of the anti-slavery campaigners, in saying that “a man’s a man for a’ that.”
This worldview is a precious legacy that Scots and Scotland still hold, with very few identifiable exceptions. Our international “soft power” is generally agreed to be in good credit worldwide. I discovered this first-hand while serving as Vice President of the Conference of Peripheral and Maritime Regions, an organisation representing local authorities across the EU and beyond. Everywhere I went, representatives from all nations wanted to engage and to know more about Scotland.
In the UK, Foreign Affairs are reserved to the UK Government, but the Scottish Government carries the responsibility of maintaining Scotland’s presence for trade, education, innovation, culture, and other vital aspects in many cities around the world. This is vital as otherwise, Scotland’s unique identity and the inward investment and other opportunities this engagement provides might be lost in the wider interests of Westminster-led policy. This is more crucial than ever in post-Brexit Scotland.
That outward-looking and progressive diplomacy is the bedrock of our ambitions to be a good global citizen. Constructive engagement never goes to waste, although neither does doing the right thing, such as giving full support to Ukraine over the horrendous, illegal war waged on them by Vladimir Putin’s forces. It is also essential to speak the truth to friends and allies. This must be done, even though famously in the case of Donald Trump’s America the UK Government failed to do so and, instead, tolerated and even pandered to him.
There are current and dangerous failures by the UK Government over, for example, British Council workers under threat in Afghanistan and over Chinese state interference-similar to the unchecked transgressions carried out by Putin prior to the Ukraine invasion.
That said, there will be much to agree on in foreign policy terms while maintaining the need to hold UK ministers to account.
There are growing tensions over China’s threats to Taiwan. As mentioned, support for Ukraine needs to be maintained. There are ongoing issues in Iran and human rights abuses in other parts of the world. Diplomacy is a tricky business, for sure, but the work will be to progress Scotland’s desire to be a positive global citizen, to work for the good agency for all the nations of the UK and, since Scotland aspires to re-join the EU, a close alignment to EU diplomacy.
All of this will be at the forefront of my mind in my role as the SNP’s Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs at Westminster. As possibly the only non-ministerial, card-carrying diplomat in the Parliament (I’m an honorary consul for the Highlands and Islands to Romania and was honoured with the rank of ‘Cavalier’, or knight, in 2016), I am experienced in engagement with neighbours near and far. With that in mind, I look forward to making a positive case for Scotland, both now, under our current arrangement, and in the near future, as a normal independent country, aiming to be the best global citizen we can be.