SINCE very earliest times, Scotland has influenced and been influenced by the world around it. Foreign policy and our relationships with the other nations of the world have always been important in shaping Scotland, impacting our lives and driving domestic politics. Even today the debate over Scotland’s future and the current cost of living crisis are being shaped by events beyond our borders. All politics may be local but they are shaped internationally.

Scotland’s foreign policy footprint has always been important to events in the country and central to our constitutional status. The Queen’s own collection of artwork holds a portrait of the Scots King Achaius, who is said to have ascended the throne in 796 and forged an alliance with the Emperor Charlemagne, and what some describe as the beginning of the “Auld Alliance” with what became France.

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In later years one of the first acts of William ­Wallace after the battle of Stirling Bridge, that ­re-established Scotland’s independence, was to write the letter of Lübeck in October 1297. It was a letter to ­Scotland’s partners in the Hanseatic League, ­sometimes ­referred to as the European Union of its day, that the country was once again open for business. Scotland’s ­independence came to an end in 1707, in part due a disastrous foreign adventure to establish a Scottish colony in what is now Panama.

Scots did not retire from the world and ­international affairs has continued to play an important role in our nation’s journey. People from Scotland were active participants in the building of the British Empire as well as influential figures in royal courts throughout Europe. For good and ill Scotland’s vast worldwide diaspora plays testament to this. Professor Murray Pittock’s tremendous book, Scotland: The Global History that was published last month is well worth a read on how Scotland continued to build its global brand even after losing its independence.

Devolution and Scotland's place in the world

Our international affairs have continued to play an important role in devolution Scotland. The First ­Minister’s recent visit to Copenhagen to open ­Scotland’s newest overseas office caused ­something of a stooshie back home. Yet the SNP is simply ­continuing a trend that was started even before the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. The ­Conservatives opened an office to further Scottish interests in Brussels before devolution and Tory ­ministers would happily promote the Scottish brand to help with sales in trade fairs across the world. That trend continued under the Labour/LibDem ­administration who opened new offices such as those in Washington DC and Beijing, established a Global Scots network and even Scotland’s own ­International Development Programme.

Under the SNP we have seen an extension of that international network with new offices such as those in Ottawa, Berlin and Warsaw. That makes sense, ­given the important role that such offices do to ­promote trade and investment to support jobs at home as well as education and cultural links that support ­opportunity for young Scots, that have been damaged by the ­isolationism imposed by a hard Brexit. The opening of the office in Copenhagen, covering links with the Nordic states, had been ­something of an omission given the ­important business, education, family and other links between Scotland and our neighbours to the north and east.

Scotland has also shown leadership in our approach to some of the biggest ­global issues of the day. The First Minister and Scotland won plaudits from across the world for efforts during the crucial COP26 summit in Glasgow with praise coming from the UN Secretary-General. As revealed in the new edition of Nation to Nation, Scotland played an important role in facilitating the talks and making sure that key issues came to the forefront of those discussions. The ground-breaking announcement from the First Minister that Scotland would establish a loss and damage fund was welcomed internationally especially from developing states who bear the brunt of the impact of climate change right now.

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There is also important work taking place on developing a Feminist ­Foreign Policy, a focus on security in the high north and a well-established 1325 ­Fellowship for women peacebuilders. The Fellowship, based on UN Security ­Council Resolution 1325 that “reaffirms the role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflict” is run by ­Beyond Borders Scotland with funding from the Scottish Government. So far over 200 women from countries such as ­Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, Ukraine and Syria among many others have participated in this excellent ­programme.

The importance of international affairs was recognised recently with the UK and Scottish Governments both backing the establishment of a Scottish Council on Global Affairs that had been touted in the SNP, Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestoes backed by the universities of St Andrews, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Scotland has undoubtedly grown and developed its global footprint since the reestablishment of the Scottish Parliament. Foreign affairs also goes to the very heart of the independence debate. Just as Scotland’s independence came to an end partly due to a foreign policy failure in the Darien Scheme in Central America, so too is support now being driven by another foreign policy calamity.

The impact of Brexit

It is difficult to think of a greater, self-imposed peace-time policy disaster, than Brexit. In the teeth of a pandemic, war in Ukraine and a cost of living crisis the Conservative Party decided to pursue the hardest of hard Brexits making life worse for everyone and the UK more isolated than it has been in the post-war era.

It is difficult to think of any upsides to the decision to leave the EU but there are plenty of downsides. The loss of our rights as European citizens, taking away opportunities for our young people that those of my age took for granted, ­resurrecting barriers to trade that make it especially hard for small businesses, threat to peace in Ireland and the list goes on. No wonder Scots are clamouring to find family links to Ireland, Italy, Poland and other states that will give them an EU passport.

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Those who pursued Brexit talk of ­independence and the importance of parliamentary sovereignty. That is exceptionalism and narrow nationalism of the very worst kind. Of course, the concept of parliamentary sovereignty is not found in Scotland, as Lord Cooper established in the 1953 case MacCormick v Lord ­Advocate

The principle of the ­unlimited ­sovereignty of Parliament is a ­distinctively English principle which has no ­counterpart in Scottish ­constitutional law.

Brexit also asserts that independence can only be found outside the European Union. Around Europe that is a concept that only seems to have any significant levels of support in the Westminster ­Conservative Party and the fringes, ­usually the far right, in other parts of Europe. Around the rest of the continent countries do not consider themselves to have given up, what was often, hard fought for independence.

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The long-serving Irish Foreign ­Minister Simon Coveney’s comments were ­uncontroversial in Ireland, and Europe, when he said that EU membership has “strengthened rather than diminished, our independence”.

The same sentiments will be found across Europe. The Baltic states see EU membership as underpinning their ­independence with membership of the EU and Nato seen as pivotal for the ­security and prosperity that their citizens have enjoyed since regaining ­independence. Most Ukrainians, who are dying in their thousands in the face of Russia’s invasion of their country, want to see EU membership. Ukrainians have certainly won the right to pursue that option as a free and independent country given the appalling aggression by Putin’s forces.

In many ways the UK, has been changed irrevocably by the establishment of the EU. In short, the EU is a club for independent states, the UK is not. EU states all have a say at the top table, agreeing treaties as partners, no such arrangement exists in the UK. An EU member state can leave the Union at any time, as illustrated by the UK, no such provision exists in then UK. The SNP can win election after election by an overwhelming majority and still be ignored by a party that hasn’t won in Scotland since even before the Treaty of Rome, that first established the European Economic Community, was signed.

The model of a Union that respects its members, promotes citizens rights, has built peace and prosperity and ­maintains the independence of its members is a ­model that the rest of Europe finds ­appealing and one that is supported by ever greater numbers of Scots.

The EU is incredibly important for our security too. It strengthens food, energy and even hard security measures for its members at a time when that is of ­critical importance to its citizens. The UK ­incredibly opted out and it may be that in a hundred years from now it was seen as a restrictive out of date model that had its time as the EU continued to grow.

It's about more than diplomacy

The question of Scotland’s place in the world is not simply one of how states interact with each other on the highest level. Foreign policy is something that is conducted by us all, from businesses seeking to reach new customers, ­universities that collaborate globally on teaching and ­research and even us as individuals.

Critically international affairs have an enormous impact on our day to day lives. The cost of living crisis has been made worse by a war in Ukraine, ­squeezing ­energy supplies and the cost and ­availability of food and drink. This was made worse by a pandemic that spread from a market place in China (that required international ­collaboration to deliver a vaccine) and in Britain a Brexit that has increased barriers and ­removed opportunity at the worst possible ­moment. All politics maybe local but so too is the impact of international affairs.

It also begs questions of what kind of country we want to build in the ­future. From speaking to decision ­makers and influencers around the world it was clear that there is an enormous amount of ­interest in what is happening in ­Scotland. Understandably other ­countries want to know that if Scotland becomes ­independent what kind of state will emerge. That is a view that is being shaped now.

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EU member states will want to know if we are to be collaborative partners in that Union willing to work together and ­compromise, like the Irish, or isolationist and raising barriers, like the UK. The states bordering Russia will want to know if we are committed to their independence and will be a partner in security as they face an existential threat from an aggressive and authoritarian neighbour. Around the world those most affected by climate change will want to know if we are prepared to make the sacrifices and progress necessary to tackle that threat.

These are not questions and ­debates that can wait until Scotland is ­independent but rather discussions that we need to be ­having now. Throughout history the ­question of Scotland’s place in the world has driven and shaped our politics and lives. That is no different now and it does mean that we need to take the debate over our place in the world more ­seriously than ever. I hope that my ­updated version of Nation to Nation will help ­facilitate that debate.