A FORMER Labour First Minister and his LibDem deputy have come to the defence of Nicola Sturgeon after she was attacked by political opponents for undertaking two international visits this month.

Henry McLeish and Lord Wallace supported the First Minister for embarking on missions to North America and France saying her presence could help “open doors” for Scottish business as well as promote the country as Brexit looms.

“She is doing absolutely the right thing,” said McLeish. “Scotland has much to offer the outside world. It is important we have a more ambitious and more assertive international policy. The UK Government is doing very little for Scotland amid this Brexit crisis and I think it is vital that we move forward and we build up our already good international reputation.”

He added: “What I would like to see is all these other parties supporting this and the parliament also being more involved in this strategy. Regardless of what our final constitutional destination may be, Scotland has got to be more aggressive in terms of selling the country to the world. I am always trying to be an ambassador for Scotland and I believe what Nicola Sturgeon is doing is absolutely critical.”

There is a huge interest in Scotland from other countries with particular attention being paid to what the country is doing in terms of renewable energy policy and generation, he said, adding that from his own personal experience international visits from the First Minister and senior politicians were vital in promoting the country’s businesses, culture and education.

“We mustn’t be put off from this work by people on the sidelines saying we can’t afford to do this. I would say we can’t afford not to do it,” he added.

“The country grows in stature, the country grows in maturity. It is a natural attribute of progressive government and a vital path for Scotland to tread. 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 launched Scotland Week in the United States in the late 1990s when he was Scotland Office minister and he is also the only First Minister to meet a US President – George W Bush in the White House in 2001. He also travelled as First Minister to China, Hong Kong, Rome and visited Brussels many times.

Former deputy First Minister Lord Wallace, who travelled to the United States, China and Japan during his career in the Labour/LibDem coalition government, said international visits could help attract businesses to Scotland.

“The one thing that I was always aware of was that the First Minister could open doors that officials can’t,” he said. “It might be that, say, some of our agencies had been trying to get access to senior management who might be thinking of investing in Scotland.

“That is a lot easier if you bring the First Minister or as it was in my case the deputy First Minster. You might get the opportunity to speak to people you wouldn’t otherwise necessarily get.”

He added: “I think Brexit does give an added urgency to the issue. It’s interesting to note how often the Prime Minister is going abroad these days, and I wouldn’t for a minute see the Scottish Conservatives criticising that. Pre-devolution days Scotland Office ministers went on international visits. The Scottish Secretary still does so.”

Sturgeon yesterday accused critics of her international trips of “the worst possible parochialism and provincialism”.

Speaking in Paris where she opened a new Scottish Government office she defended herself from criticism that the trips were a “jaunt”. Her visit to Paris follows a five day mission to North America earlier this month.

“My opponents back home seen to have descended into the worst possible parochialism and provincialism,” she told BBC Scotland.

On Monday, Scottish Conservative chief whip Maurice Golden said: “Another week and another jaunt abroad for the First Minister.

“Meanwhile, back home, we have a health service on its knees, our schools are struggling, and councils are toiling to balance their budgets due to SNP cuts.”

But the First Minister hit back: “First ministers have always, as part of the job we’re elected to do, gone out to sell Scotland internationally.”

She added: “France is Scotland’s third biggest export partner – it’s really important that we underline the importance of that relationship.

“That’s why we have opened a new Scottish Government hub here in Paris. It’s never been more vital to get that message across.

“Notwithstanding Brexit, which we regret and which the EU regrets, there’s a real desire to strengthen those relationships.”