Scotland’s Global Footprint: Navigating the Challenges and Opportunities of International Affairs

Scotland’s Global Footprint: Navigating the Challenges and Opportunities of International Affairs

The Scottish Council for Global Affairs (SCGA) is a partnership between three Scottish universities, the Scottish Government and the UK government, providing a hub for collaborative policy-relevant research and non-partisan debate on international affairs.

SCGA seeks to facilitate and amplify multi-disciplinary research, promote informed discourse and debate on international affairs, and support networks of collaboration to link Scottish expertise with centres of research excellence around the world.

Our strategy for achieving these aims depends on attracting people with ideas and enthusiasm to drive forward in the Council’s activities. The core of these activities will be the work of Research and Engagement Themes. Work on these various themes will unite academic, private and public expertise and promote partnerships across traditional professional, institutional and disciplinary divides.

The SCGA has identified six initial themes for discussion:

  • Human Rights, Immigration, Migration, Refugees
  • Foreign Policy, Peace Building, Conflict Resolution
  • International Law, Trade and Global Governance
  • Defence and Security
  • Global Public Health, International Development
  • Climate Change, Sustainability, Fisheries, Energy

The expectation is that most research and engagement activity will cut across at least two of these strands. A core activity Council is to support ambitious and policy-centric projects, most likely to address questions relevant to two or more of these strands.

Scotland’s pivotal role in British imperialism, particularly its prominent place in trans-Atlantic slavery, have left historical legacies that still linger.

The core themes at the heart of SCGA’s research and advocacy relate to global citizenship and a ‘Feminist Foreign Policy,’ policy agendas that the Scottish Government has embraced as part of its international strategy. SCGA’s work in this area falls squarely into the broader policy aim of being a ‘good global citizen,’ albeit like virtually all research projects in global affairs, Feminist Foreign Policy is not without its contradictions. Scotland is committed to improving the global economy and reducing poverty, inequalities, and climate change while recognizing the privileges the global north enjoys and promoting gender equality.

Scotland’s pursuit of these policy priorities faces genuine challenges linked to its status as a ‘sub-state’ operating within a UK context where external policy is ‘reserved’ exclusively by the Westminster Parliament. This places important limitations on the ability of the Scottish Government to pursue international priorities distinct from those of the British State. Indeed, in practice, the Westminster government has sometimes been lukewarm or even hostile to international initiatives pursued by Holyrood. Brexit provides an obvious area where the priorities of Edinburgh and Whitehall have been opposed. Scotland has endeavoured to retain the close relations with the European Union despite the frequent tensions between London and Brussels.

The current era of ‘Polycrises’ – comprising conflict in Ukraine and the related danger of nuclear war, the COVID-19 pandemic and climate breakdown – presents formidable obstacles to any policy agenda emphasizing responsible global citizenship.

Watch: Scotland in a Changing World Order

One area where many see real possibilities for Scotland to make a distinct and significant contribution is conflict resolution and peace-brokering. It is argued that Scotland’s status as a minor ‘sub-state’ actor outside the club of five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council provides the potential for it to provide a trusted space where opposing sides in an international dispute can meet and negotiate in an atmosphere of trust.

However, it is easy to overstate Scotland’s potential to play such a role. Scotland’s pivotal role in British imperialism, particularly its prominent place in trans-Atlantic slavery, have left historical legacies that still linger. Scotland is also, of course, a constituent nation of the UK (which is a ‘P5’ state) and hosts Britain’s nuclear arsenal.

Similarly problematic is Scotland’s aim to advocate for climate justice. While successive Scottish Governments have made considerable strides in investing in renewable energy and have committed to achieving ‘net zero by 2045, oil and gas extraction remains a substantial contributor to Scotland’s economy. Emission targets have been missed in most non-pandemic years. Indeed, the path towards Scotland’s transformation from an extraction-based economic model towards an economy and society based on regeneration remains unclear.

Scotland has distinguished itself as an advocate of gender equality at home and abroad through its commitment to pursuing a feminist approach to foreign policy and its championing of women as architects as well as participants in peace processes. Scottish civil society has also made significant contributions by hosting meetings of the ‘1325 Fellowship’, a global network of women involved in conflict resolution, peace negotiations, post-conflict reconstruction and humanitarian response.

But, again, formidable challenges remain, particularly if one accepts that a feminist international posture means more than including women in peacebuilding. Challenging the historical global structures that drive gender and other inequalities – challenging the political and economic systems that have created war, exacerbated global inequalities, and driven catastrophic climate change – is an undertaking of an altogether different order.

When it comes to discrete Scottish attitudes towards global affairs — an issue extremely relevant to the ongoing question of independence — Scotland’s distinct ‘international footprint’ is that of a promoter of multilateralism, climate justice and the feminist foreign policy objectives outlined amongst several specific international policy issues.

Scotland has long sought to associate itself with other state and sub-state actors in pursuing foreign and economic policy interests that flow from its unique place in the world. This has included a long-standing commitment to supporting development initiatives in Africa, particularly financial support for Malawi and projects elsewhere in the world.

Scotland’s position on Brexit is an excellent example of its unique position. In the 2016 referendum, Scottish voters opposed leaving the EU by nearly two to one margin. The governing Scottish National Party (SNP) has since sought to maintain close political and economic relations with the European institutions and is the only major British Party to openly favour re-joining the EU.

Brexit has illuminated a marked divergence in attitudes towards international affairs in Scotland as compared to the rest of the UK. This goes further than the SNP. In the aftermath of the EU Referendum, other political parties in the Scottish Parliament also favoured remaining part of the EU Single Market and Customs Union, at times diverging with colleagues in the rest of the UK. It may also point towards a more permissive environment for a future vote for independence.

Although most recent polls indicate only very marginally in favour of Scotland leaving the UK, when these polls are unpacked, they reveal startling divergences in attitudes among different age groups. The division between voters is often one of age, with younger voters, under the age of 55 backing independence and older voters retaining their opposition.

The demographic breakdown of voting intentions, therefore, paints a worrying picture for supporters of the United Kingdom.  A look at political tendencies within the ‘millennial’ and ‘Z’ generations could be seen as troubling for the Union’s future. The traditional view that people become more conservative as they age does not appear to hold up for these generations. The evolution of political attitudes among millennials does not mirror the rightward trajectory of their baby boomer predecessors.  More work is still being done on Scottish attitudes, but this trajectory could prove challenging for the future of the UK.

All of this makes the work of the SCGA more crucial than ever before. The Council was established with the support of every party in the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish and British governments. It will provide a much-needed non-partisan space for the evidence-based debate that must inform the debate over Scotland’s future.

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