WHENEVER any major global crisis flares up, I sometimes find myself wondering what Scotland’s foreign policy positioning would be if it were an independent nation.

This might seem like a fanciful notion – and doubtless any number of Unionists will be quick to point that out given the Scotland Act of 1998 says that foreign affairs are reserved to Westminster.

But let’s for a moment just imagine that Scotland was a sovereign state. Where might it stand, say, on the likes of military interventionism, membership of Nato, aid and humanitarian provision, human rights, gender equality, environmental sustainability, global justice? The list goes on.

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Much, of course, would depend on the political complexion of the Scottish government in power at the time, for who is to say that post-independence it would always be an SNP government that would sit in Holyrood?

This, I suppose, in turn, begs the question of whether at the heart of the debate, Scots attitudes to foreign policy are that much different from our English neighbours south of the Border.

Which brings me to the findings of a new and unique survey carried out by The Scottish Council on Global Affairs (SCGA) which describes itself as “a hub for research and policy-informed, non-partisan debate on international relations and global affairs”.

Late last year, a team from SCGA – who are almost entirely senior academics, as is the body as a whole – set out to make meaningful comparisons of the international outlook of Scots, on the one hand, and English, on the other.

As the researchers themselves are at pains to point out, while in-depth attempts to measure British citizens’ views of foreign policy are relatively rare, even rarer are attempts to compare Scots and English attitudes.

From the data compiled, the three researchers, Claire Duncanson, a senior lecturer in international relations at the University of Edinburgh, Thomas Scotto, a professor of politics at the University of Glasgow, and Timothy Gravelle, a data scientist at Bain and Co, an American management consulting company, concluded that while differences do exist between English and Scottish attitudes towards foreign policy, “these are more matters of degree than direction”.

Perhaps the best way to explain this is by drilling down into some of the survey’s specific findings. For example, 68% of English respondents agreed that “the UK needs a strong military to be effective in international affairs” while only 58% of Scots felt the same.

Curiously, the data showed that SNP supporters were less militaristic than other Scottish people with only 51% of the former agreeing with the need for a strong military compared with 61% of the latter.

What I personally found interesting about the SCGA survey was comparing some of its findings with that of the British Foreign Policy Group’s (BFPG) annual survey of last year entitled UK Public Opinion on Foreign Policy and Global Affairs.

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In its 2022 report, the BFPG data suggests that it is no longer the case that a majority of Britons feel informed about the UK’s foreign policy, with just 43% of Britons feeling informed about UK foreign affairs compared to 58% in 2020 and 57% in 2021.

But it’s on the question of trust Britons hold in the UK Government to take foreign policy decisions in the national interest that the BFPG findings paint a starker picture reflective of today’s Britain. In the main, they correlate with broader trends around perceptions of government performance and political voting intention.

It will perhaps then come as no surprise to many Scots to find out that according to the BFPG polling, Tory voters (57%) are by far the most trusting of the UK Government on foreign policy, although 30% also express their distrust.

LibDem and Labour voters are the next-most trusting at 30% and 20% respectively while just 10% of SNP voters trust the UK Government in this regard.

In fact, 82% of SNP voters actively distrust the UK Government when it comes to acting in the UK public’s interest in foreign affairs.

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But going back to the SCGA survey, there are other factors of note from the findings. Among these is that currently, distinctiveness of the Scottish Government also comes partly from joining nations such as Germany in adopting a feminist outlook on international affairs.

Just to be clear about what feminist foreign policy is – not least given how mistakenly loaded and often misunderstood the term can be – perhaps the definition given by the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy (CFFP) provides the clearest definition.

It describes FFP as a “step outside the black box approach of traditional foreign policy thinking and its focus on military force, violence, and domination by offering an alternate and intersectional rethinking of security from the viewpoint of the most vulnerable”.

Such a shift in thinking where those most vulnerable lie at the core of our take on how we conduct ourselves in the world strikes me as an eminently laudable and positive position to adopt.

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Another area too in which the Scottish Government is increasingly engaged is in what’s called “paradiplomacy”. As the SCGA explains, put quite simply, the term refers to “actions taken by subnational governments, be it Scotland or Quebec in Canada, to advance regional interests that differ from those of a national government”.

To put this another way, “paradiplomacy” enables subnational governments to play an increasingly vital role in international relations. Not that the Tory government shows any signs of agreeing to that as its recent attempted “crackdown” on Scottish ministers’ overseas visits and promotion of Scotland’s interests blatantly revealed.

Whether you agree or disagree with the SCGA’s findings that the differences between English and Scottish attitudes towards foreign policy, are more matters of “degree than direction”, the survey figures speak for themselves and are much food for thought.

In a time where there’s such a dearth of positive news emanating from around Scotland’s political landscape, it’s encouraging to see such research giving us a better understanding of where our nation sits in the global context. I for one welcome it.

A discussion on the findings entitled Good Global Citizens? Scottish and English Attitudes to Foreign Policy will be hosted by the Scottish Council on Global Affairs at Glasgow University today at 6pm at Humanity Lecture Theatre. Details available on Eventbrite