Grandstanding SNP politicians do not have the right to unilaterally set British foreign policy
In a concerning report by the Herald Scotland, it transpires that the SNP government north of the border is attempting to create its own mini foreign policy, not aligned with nor cleared through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Westminster.
More concerning still, the fact that the Foreign Office quite rightly asked the Scottish government to cease and desist from this irresponsible behaviour is being portrayed as the real scandal, rather than Nicola Sturgeon’s back-of-an-envelope attempt at statecraft.
From the report:
The Foreign Office in Westminster is demanding to vet Scottish Government dealings with other countries on human rights, according to correspondence seen by the Sunday Herald.
The UK foreign minister, James Duddridge, has asked the Scottish international development minister, Humza Yousaf, to clear all his letters to foreign governments with the UK government before raising concerns about human rights infringements and other matters.
The move has infuriated Yousaf. “It beggars belief that the Tories – who are in the midst of scrapping the Human Rights Act – want to vet the Scottish Government’s letters raising human rights concerns abroad,” he said.
“I am proud of the SNP raising concerns about human rights without fear or favour – and certainly will take no lessons from the Tories on this,” he added.
“Whilst we are happy to share correspondence with Westminster, as we have done to date as a matter of courtesy, we certainly will not be asking or seeking permission before raising legitimate concerns about human rights.”
And for context:
Yousaf wrote to Duddridge and the Malawian High Commission, Kena Mphonda, on December 16 2015 raising concerns about the arrest of two Malawian nationals, Cuthbert Kulemela and Kelvin Gonani, for alleged homosexual offences.
Duddridge replied on January 7 2016, saying that following representations from the UK government, charges against the two men had been dropped. “You mention that you have written to the Malawian High Commissioner on this matter,” he wrote.
“While it may be useful that the Malawi High Commission is aware of your concern about this issue, I would be grateful if correspondence with governments on human rights and other reserved matters be cleared through this department.”
There is no grey area or room for interpretation here – this was a completely irresponsible act on the part of the devolved Scottish government. Foreign and defence matters are reserved to the UK government and Westminster parliament as you would expect in any country even remotely based on the principle of subsidiarity. It is not the job of any of the devolved assemblies – in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland or indeed England, if there was one – to enter into sensitive diplomatic correspondence with other sovereign nations.
Imagine for a moment that one day California or Texas decided to start acting as an independent agent on the world stage, raising all manner of issues with foreign governments, and maybe even negotiating their own trade deals or bilateral arrangements. The federal government in Washington, D.C. would rightly never tolerate such an arrangement, as it would undermine the very sovereignty and credibility of the United States. The same goes for Scotland.
Whether the SNP government had a point is immaterial. In this case, the SNP and their buccaneering international development minister Humza Yousaf (again, a role which should not exist in a Scotland which remains part of the UK) are probably on the right side of the issue. Malawi has a very concerning record on LGBT rights and the persecution of individuals, and the concerns raised were valid. But being right on this one occasion does not validate the wholly offensive principle of Scotland creating its own mini foreign policy behind the UK’s back.
In typical virtue-signalling SNP fashion, Yousaf tries to fold this issue into their pitched battle against the Heartless Evil Tories in Westminster, saying he will “take no lessons from the Tories” on human rights. But this isn’t about human rights. It is about the structure and proper running of our country. If we now establish the principle that self-regarding Scottish politicians can make interventions like this with foreign countries, what is to say that they cannot one day scupper a sensitive trade, security or intelligence negotiation by blundering onto the scene and undermining the UK’s position?
Even if the Scottish government happens to be right, any differences of opinion on foreign policy matters should be discussed and settled behind the scenes, so that the UK government can speak with one voice. Anything else will see the UK mercilessly divided and conquered by our foreign negotiating partners.
The Scottish people voted in 2014 to remain part of the United Kingdom on the understanding that certain additional domestic powers would be devolved from Westminster. Whether or not you believe that the UK government has delivered on those pledges, at no time was the idea of an alternative Scottish foreign policy raised for debate. There was no expectation that the Scottish government should be an independent actor on the world stage any more than the governor of Iowa or Texas can sign treaties with North Korea.
But as with so many other matters, a repeat of instances like this can only be prevented if we decide once and for all what kind of country we want to live in, and how the various parts of it should work together. And that means holding a constitutional convention as soon as possible. Given the approaching EU referendum, some time shortly after 23 June would seem to be a good time.
If we are to truly resolve the roiling questions about the future of the United Kingdom and our democracy and settle these issues for a generation or more, we need to collectively agree a fair and equitable devolution of powers to the four home nations on an equal basis. The question of whether England is treated as a home nation or a group of regions is of secondary importance, though this blog strongly believes that for true parity, England must be treated as a single entity just like Scotland. But this discussion must take place soon, within the wider context of a full constitutional convention.
Such a convention would give us the opportunity to debate and agree which powers should properly reside at each level – the federal UK government in Westminster, the devolved assemblies in the home nations, and county and town councils. We can simultaneously reform our legislature, ideally making the House of Lords democratically elected and ejecting the Lords Spiritual so that Britain no longer ranks alongside Iran as the most prominent technical theocracy in the world.
If this all seems ambitious and unlikely, then this is only a failure of our imagination. There is no good reason why we should not have such a debate (well, there is one reason – the future of the monarchy – which will be discussed in a future blog post). And as Pete North argues, why should we not be ambitious in terms of the future governance of our country?
Do nothing, and we can be sure that more of these instances will occur in the future, with ambitious Scottish politicians looking to make a name for themselves and burnish their human rights, national security or trade credentials by taking advantage of our lack of a written constitution and designing their own far-reaching roles on the world stage, with no oversight and no accountability.
Enough. No more SNP diplomacy by numbers. Whether they happen to be right or wrong on a given issue, for so long as Scotland is part of the United Kingdom, diplomacy and foreign policy should be a reserved matter for our shared government in Westminster and not hijacked by the Scottish nationalists.
That is the settlement which the people of Scotland signed up for in the 2014 referendum, and that is what they should now get.
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