A SCOTTISH diplomat, perhaps until relatively recently, has been a biographical description, not a professional one. The passing of Paul Scott earlier this week – who nursed a lifetime commitment to independence, alongside a glittering career in UK diplomacy – is a case in point.

When I engaged with him in the late 80s and early 90s, as a fellow university rector (alongside Muriel Gray) and as a commentator on arts radio, Paul still embodied the calm, stern authority of an international negotiator. Except, in retirement, he was punctiliously scaring the life out of university administrators, and fighting for the right of Scottish arts and artists.

He was an immensely capable and learned man: the demands of the diplomatic service seems to invite them, allowing latitude for maverick behaviour in various outpostings. We heard this week of Paul’s friendship with Fidel Castro, enabling him to brief the US on the Russians’ withdrawal from Cuba, and thus de-escalating the potentially apocalyptic missile crisis.

But I also think of Craig Murray’s adventures in Uzbekistan, blowing the whistle on how CIA testimony was extracted by torture in that country, and since then devoting himself to indy activism.

I also count as a friend Graham Leicester, who was at the core of the diplomatic team that handed Hong Kong over to the Chinese, and then started the International Futures Forum in St Andrews in the 2000s, with its aspirations towards a “Second Scottish Enlightenment”.

A 2018 obituary of John Thompson, a Scottish career diplomat who helped to broker peace in the first Iran-Iraq war, displays an enviable lifestyle: “Thompson held meetings in 1987 with the other four permament members of the UN Security Council – the US, the Soviet Union, France and China – over Earl Grey tea at his Manhattan apartment or over martinis, Barolo and grappa in a discreet backroom of the Italian restaurant The Leopard on the Upper West Side.”

Yet that’s the thing about diplomacy, in general. All the best tales come from backstage, and are told retrospectively. The diplomats would argue it has to be this way; otherwise, how could any statecraft get done? The charming polymaths of diplomatic stardom don’t get to shine publicly until they’re out of the game. And in their opinion, it has to be that way.

However, in the age of Assange, Snowden, Manning, Wylie and others, the assumption that diplomacy should be conducted in full gloom (preferably over martinis and Earl Grey) has been robustly challenged.

Any under-redacted data dump from some national state archive reveals the diplomatic anthills scurrying away, none too alluringly. In their memos, everyone mints one-liners and ad hominem judgements, wrapping themselves in clouds of self-importance.

It’s one more display of unaccountable power, gazed upon by a generation who now simply expect that systems will, out of naked self-interest, shield themselves from transparency.

No matter how attractive and Le-Carre-like the diplomatic lifestyle, and no matter the centuries-long history of Scots in foreign affairs (the Wikipedia page counts 110 notables), wouldn’t we want our diplomats to be a lot less covert in an indy Scotland? Particularly in a world in which citizens are implicitly more empowered and connected?

It’s why I welcome it when journalistic colleagues turf up examples of when any Scottish Government – but especially the paragon that should be a indy-majority government – behaves somewhat like the old regimes.

The point of Scotland attaining national independence, at this very late stage of the process, is precisely that we do power differently and better. Yet old habits die hard.

So it’s good to finally know – well before it looked likely that we were ever going to be officially told – that Scotland seems to have struck a new diplomatic relationship with the United States.

The Herald broke the story that “the Scottish Government in North America” registered earlier this year in the US as a “foreign principal”. This is a declaration that a power or government seeks to influence Americans about the value of Scottish interests, and will employ a PR agency (in this case the Clyde Group) to do so.

OF course, a ding-dong has ensued. Unionists howled that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon should stay at home and fix public services, drop her incessant indy campaigning, or (even worse) cease featherbedding for her post-FM gig with the UN.

Nationalists duly defended their duty to prosecute the Scottish national interest by any appropriate means, including pushing attractive narratives to target audiences, about our “progressive, fair and innovative” society.

All very predictable. But I think we should know about such measures, in any case. Responsible citizens don’t deactivate their vigilance at their own borders.

Go to the list at the FARA site (which stands for Foreign Agents Registration Act) and there, between Saudi Arabia and Singapore in the “countries/locations” list, sits Scotland. What’s immediately worth noting is that we’re already been on this list.

Poignantly, the first time was six weeks after the first failed devolution referendum: “Scottish Development International” (now Scottish Enterprise) was registered on April 17, 1979.

The other major point is that this is hardly a singular, vainglorious act of pseudo-independence by a jumped-up province. There seems to be quite a few of those aiming to be “foreign principals”.

For regions, I counted Flanders (Belgium), Saskatchewan and Ontario (Canada), Bavaria and Rheinland Platz (Germany), South Tyrol (Italy), Okinawa and Kanagawa (Japan). Catalonia has three registrations, Wales and Northern Ireland one each. And let’s not forget the City of Sunderland, let alone the Dalai Lama. (And weirdly and entirely on her own, Emily Thornberry MP).

So is this an item to put back on the shelf, alongside similar “Scottish development” bumph? Is there nothing more to see here? Not quite.

Sturgeon’s global beat is inarguably about making connections that might smooth the way for any potential second indy moment. Securing more friendly voices when the next global conversation about Scottish independence comes around is, at the very least, good preparation.

But to submit your operations explicitly to the regulations of FARA, at this precise moment, signals quite a clear Scottish intent. The origins of FARA are hardly bland. The law was passed in the late 1930s, when it was feared that fascist powers were setting up organisations to subvert American democracy.

In the past few years, FARA laws have been tightened up, and deployed by the US Justice Department, to identify foreign influence over media front organisations. The cable channel RT America was forced to “register as an agent of the Russian government” (some Chinese news outlets have suffered the same fate).

Robert Mueller used FARA’s prescriptions to lay covert-influence charges at the feet of Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort, the disgraced Trump associates.

So to be under the gaze of FARA, nowadays, is to be subject to a highly scrupulous watchdog. Full reporting is expected: all activities and expenditures that their PR companies make on behalf of the “foreign principal” must be registered with the US authorities.

Let those more expert correct me, but it seems that to submit to FARA actually reinforces the Scottish Government’s reputation for probity and fair-dealing, rather than compromises it.

Yet one wonders if those old-fashioned diplomatic instincts – to sort things out in an elegant back-room, rather than account for actions before citizens – are still the default mode. Maybe a Scottish civil service can’t quite change its spots.

This perhaps allows for “scoops” and “exclusives” like this to be more frequent than they need to be.

Get out in the world and make the case for our nation, Nicola. But assume that adults are watching. And I mean those diplomats (and democrats) standing in the streets of Scotland, as well as in the book-lined parlours of Washington.