So much contingency work, academic study, and open debate has taken place by now on the international implications of an independent Scotland that it may be worth giving a little thought to the opposite contingency.  If the vote on 18th September goes in favour of Scotland’s remaining in the United Kingdom, we know that Edinburgh can expect to be granted some further devolved powers; however, these empowerments will be in the fiscal and economic fields, not in foreign affairs.[1]  Does that mean that every other field of Scottish policy and activity will return to ‘business as usual’?  Or is there any way that any of the ideas about external affairs raised in the government’s independence manifesto, and in the surrounding debate, might still be pursued in some form?  In terms of external relations, what might be possible for Scotland after a ‘No’ vote?

This personal contribution is headed with a question and its purpose is purely exploratory.  It will contain a good many more questions, hoping to draw out further views and comments.  It deliberately ranges around many different aspects of the issue, to show just how wide the discussion could – and perhaps should – be.  More informed judgements on Scotland’s real possibilities and priorities would be very welcome.

Looking beyond limitation

What is clear is that if Scotland remains within the United Kingdom, it cannot develop its own defence policy, an independent foreign policy, or an independent diplomatic and consular service.  It cannot apply as a separate member to the huge majority of international organizations.  There are examples of non-sovereign territories gaining seats in multilateral bodies of strong functional relevance to them – e.g. Faroese representation in fishing organizations, or Hong Kong’s presence in financial and commercial contexts – but such arrangements are typically made with the support of, or even at the initiative of, the mother country.  In the atmosphere likely to prevail after a ‘No’ vote, it might not seem a sensible use of Scottish leaders’ political capital to attempt something of the kind, least of all unilaterally.  It is also uncertain that the UK government would permit any such arrangement for Scotland.

Yet Scotland is already represented abroad in two less controversial ways: by the presence of Scottish officials within UK diplomatic missions abroad (notably at the EU in Brussels); and by non-diplomatic offices concerned primarily with trade.  As explained on the Scottish Government website,[2] there is a Scottish Affairs Office in Washington DC which supports a smaller Scottish Office in Toronto, and a Scottish Government European Union Office in Brussels.[3]  The relevance of these to Scotland’s primary external interests is clear.

However it is striking that the Faroe Islands – a self-governing part of the Kingdom of Denmark with a population under 50,000 – maintains as many as four delegations abroad: Brussels; London; Copenhagen; and Reykjavik.[4]  Catalonia, a province of Spain, has five delegations covering a total of seven countries plus the EU; it also treats a very large number of organizations formed by Catalonian expatriates as part of its overseas representation.[5]

These examples beg the question of whether Scotland might open more representative offices in future, for instance in one or more of the Nordic countries with whom the Scottish Government has been stressing its kinship.  What would be the cost-benefit balance (also in political and constitutional terms) of doing so?  Are there new ways of making use of leading Scottish citizens abroad, for instance as the non-sovereign equivalent of honorary consuls?

Building upon current Scottish international outreach

When it comes to the content of external policy, the Scottish Government created in 2008 an ‘International Framework’ document discussing both aims and means for the full range of Scotland’s foreign relations.  The latest updated version appeared in October 2013.[6]  Scotland also has an Action Plan for European Engagement and it has published separate strategy papers on its aims concerning Canada, China, India, Pakistan, South Asia, and the United States of America. [7]   It would seem logical to produce a revision of the overall framework after a possible ‘No’ vote, to make clear what has changed or not changed as a result.

In addition, the issue has recently been raised of whether a non-sovereign Scotland should formulate its own Arctic strategy (as the Faroes have also done). [8]  Are there other possible strategy documents that could be helpful in ensuring the coherent use and – where needed – development of Scotland’s present external tools?  Could they be drafted in other functional (rather than geographical) fields where Scotland’s devolved powers also imply external competence and/or obligations, such as human rights, climate policy, energy, fisheries, or international migration?

Scotland has its own development assistance policy, making use of a £9 million International Development Fund that focuses on recipients in Africa and South Asia but includes provision for more varied small grants, and a Climate Justice Fund currently active in Africa.[9]  Regardless of whether or not the actual development effort should be increased, we might question whether the impact of Scottish spending could be enhanced by new kinds of collaboration with other donors and/or direct liaison with relevant international organizations?  Are the parallel efforts of Scottish non-state donors and activists discussed and harmonized as fully as they could be?  While an independent Scotland would be able to launch its own military peacekeeping missions, could Scotland within the UK take responsibility for other (civilian, humanitarian) forms of ad hoc intervention?

A large part of current Scottish external activities involves trade promotion activity, cultural promotion, and the general cultivation of partnerships through high-level visits and other exchanges with individual countries of interest.  There seems to be scope for great variation and expansion in this mode of action within the present constitutional framework.

Northern Alliances?

As one obvious starting point, the Scottish Government has already put some detailed substance into its ideas on a Nordic alignment by publishing the Nordic Baltic Policy Statement of March 2014.[10]  This focuses on social, economic and environmental issues where action could be pursed within Scotland’s existing competences. Could any initiatives be taken with Nordic neighbours after a ‘No’ vote in other, somewhat ‘harder’ fields such as maritime security and civil emergency response?  While the UK is associated with the five Nordic states in their military ‘NORDEFCO’ cooperation, it may be possible that Scotland could offer information, advice and practical support for the same countries’ ‘Haga’ programme, addressing non-military societal security and civil disaster relief. [11]

Is there a case for Scotland to seek some kind of link with the ‘West Nordic‘ cooperation of Iceland, Greenland and the Faroes, where two of the participants are non-sovereign states to start with and where some Norwegian provinces are also allowed to take part in cultural and social projects? [12]  Aside from the Nordic group, is there any other state, or group of states, with which a non-sovereign Scotland could take action to build a common front on some of the issues covered in independence contingency planning?

Activity within Scotland

Clearly, a ‘No’ vote could not constrain international activities based in Scotland that are of a non-state and voluntary nature.  Could the ideas developed during the independence debate inspire some new initiatives of this kind, while respecting the bounds of national and international law?  The sizeable body of anti-nuclear feeling in Scotland might, for instance, find new outlets here: denying the Faslane nuclear base is surely not the only way to work against a future British nuclear weapons programme.  More generally, official policymakers might like to review the importance of non-state contacts and networks (e.g. those between parliaments, churches, major NGOs and social organizations) in promoting Scotland’s interests and identity abroad, and also in bringing knowledge of the wider world back to Scotland. New cross-sectoral consultation processes, and the case for official sponsorship for conferences and workshops on international issues, would be worth reflecting upon.

In a piece published by an academic on the website of a new Scottish think-tank, it seems natural also to raise the question the enhanced role that academics and other international experts might have to play under a ‘No’ scenario.  Both supporters and opponents of independence would hopefully agree that the results of good-quality research carried out on independence–related issues in the run-up to the referendum should not be lost or wasted, the more so where extra public funding was applied.  Are there grounds for setting up a more permanent and formal network of academics working in Scotland who are interested in these issues (and/or in sub-sets of them such as ‘small state’ studies)?

Could the Scottish Global Forum itself become the nucleus of something like a ‘Chatham House’ – an institute of international affairs or council on foreign relations – for Scotland, promoting continued public discussion of the world outside as well as bringing researchers and other experts together?  The UK is surely large enough to house more than one think-tank with such a focus, bearing in mind the number of institutes for international affairs that exist (for example) in different parts of Germany.  Some German provinces also have their own ‘peace institute’, as do Flanders (within the framework of Belgium) and Catalonia (in Spain).  Peace studies may represent an area in which a new research centre could help Scotland develop – and export – some of the special aspects of its national personality.

Perhaps the last question to ask is how much all of this matters, compared with other possibilities that will be opened or closed by the outcome of the 18th September vote. External relations, including defence, are perhaps the area where a ‘No’ vote will most obviously shut the door.  But perhaps for that very reason, the question whether alternative ways forward could still be found is worth asking.  Scotland is already heavily engaged abroad and its economy and social conditions are highly dependent on external relationships with customers and investors, not to mention tourists, foreign students, and the media.  Its reputation and level of international awareness have been boosted by the referendum debate, while the Scottish Government’s explorations and contingency planning for independence have created new ties with a wide range of foreign actors.  As a minimum, both Edinburgh and London should have an interest in seeing that a ‘No’ vote does not mean losing the valuable lessons learned, and does not prompt the world to simply write off Scotland or ignore its specific attractions.

If it were possible to go further, along some of the lines discussed above or in other constructive ways, this need not be dismissed only as a kind of consolation or occupational therapy for the Scottish nation.  As some foreign commentaries on independence have shown, people who find it easier to be friends with Edinburgh than with London are not necessarily enemies of the latter.  Just as admirers of Californian or New England culture contribute to the prestige of the US, a country as large and diverse as the UK might gain much from letting its right hand and left hand reach out in different directions.

[1] It is, of course, possible that new fiscal powers and discretion in public spending would widen the set of devolved topics on which Scotland has to speak for itself in specialized external contexts such as EU work.
[4] See
[6] Text at
[8] For example in the present author’s article at
[11] For a brief explanation of ‘Haga’ see the present author’s ‘Nordic Cooperation in Civil Emergencies’ at
[12] West Nordic cooperation takes both a parliamentary and an governmental form. It focuses primarily on Arctic issues but also on trade development, social conditions in the North, and cultural and educational cooperation.  See Egill Thór Nielsson, ‘The West Nordic Council in the Global Arctic’, at
Professor Alyson JK Bailes is currently Adjunct Professor at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik, and a Visiting Professor at the College of Europe in Bruges.  She sits on the Advisory Board of the the Scottish Global Forum.