So Fiona’s been to Canada and launched a Friends of Scotland group. Meanwhile, Alex’s in China, banging on the trade drum again, having spent time last month in the Middle East. Aye, they’re a globe-trotting lot these SNP folk. All part of the plan.
It’s in the Scottish Government’s international framework, first published in 2008 and yet to be refreshed, despite suggesting she would do so, when Ms Hyslop appeared before the Scottish Parliament’s Europe and External Relations committee in June this year.
The Scottish Government is currently highlighting three parts of the framework: the international development policy (due to be published shortly) which has in the past focused heavily on Malawi; individual focus plans for target countries, of which China is the highest profile (expect a refreshed China plan, yep, shortly); and an Action Plan for European engagement. Which is published, you’ll be pleased to hear. Actually, sorry no, it’s not. At least not the refreshed framework that the Cabinet Secretary suggested would be out in July.
Ach, never mind the plans, feel the air miles. This Scottish Government is out there, determined to ensure Scotland is playing a role on the global stage.
What is interesting is how and where the SNP led government is spending its time and energy these days. The SNP really is trying to stop the world so Scotland can get on: no longer is Independence in Europe the summit of its ambitions.
Indeed, it is worth reading what our Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Relations had to say about the Government’s international plans in the next few years to her MSP colleagues. There is definitely a bi-partisan approach at work. With Europe, the priorities and objectives for future activity will be in the four policy areas of energy and climate change, the marine environment, research and creativity, and freedom, security and justice.
Meanwhile, the overall international aim – epitomised by the laser focus on several key countries – is linked firmly to the Scottish Government’s key purpose. “Our international framework steers our international engagement towards growing Scotland’s population, increasing economic growth and enhancing Scotland’s reputation as a place in which to live, work, learn, invest and do business. This is a Government with ambition for Scotland at home and abroad. As we move on as a Government and as a country, we will need to focus on making informed choices and prioritising our international work with finite resources.”
It’s the economy, stupid. And clearly, the SNP has decided – like everyone else – that Europe is a basket case and best avoided. Which helps explain the conspiracy of silence from the Scottish Government on recent happenings across the water. Greece on the brink? Zip. Italy doomed? Omerta. An eleventh-hour deal to save the Euro? Nada. Predictions of another financial meltdown? “Nous ne piperons mot”. Schottland’s Stillschweigen definitely has a ring to it.
Europe is complicated for the SNP, what with the strategy of Independence in Europe and some currently inconvenient high policy ideals for full-blown EU membership, alongside staying out of NATO and the Euro “until the time is right”. Kenny Farquharson’s analysis in today’s Scotland on Sunday makes a better fist of explaining it actually. But suffice to say here, in the current scheme of things, going to and talking about Europe necessarily opens up these difficult topics of conversation for the media and these ain’t conversations the SNP wants to be having right now.
So, we skip gaily on, ignoring the great big elephant on the continent that threatens to bring our economy down with everyone else’s. But the very need for another big announcement this week about our Plan MacB – how much new money by the way? – to try and keep our economy out of a double-dip recession demonstrates that the Scottish Government is at least aware of the elephant, even if it is currently trying to prevent it bursting out of its too-small cupboard and into our room.
It might seem sensible: this is the SNP after all, which pumps hope over fear every time, which only accentuates the positive and never dwells on the negative. But it smacks more than a soupcon of weak, or at least cowardly, leadership and blinkered economic thinking.
Leaders are at their strongest when they are prepared to acknowledge the reality of their circumstances, to focus on the job at hand, and to share the nation’s pain. To lead, in short.
Thus, Churchill during World War Two; Roosevelt in the 30s and 40s in the US; and yes, even Blair over Iraq. You don’t necessarily have to agree with a leader’s actions at a moment in time to also be able to acknowledge that how they acted displayed strong leadership qualities.
So a question: have you heard the First Minister speak of what is happening in Europe and its potential implications for “all of us”? Have you heard him emote or empathise with the hardship facing many families right now? Do you get a sense of the FM being in the zone – this zone, and not some far away one beyond an independence referendum? Look at his speeches in recent months – upbeat, positive, taking Scotland on a journey, focusing on the horizon, on values and a sense of self – that’s where the emotion lies.
And if there is precious little head-time and heart-space for everyone struggling along and fearful here at home, there’s damn all for our continental cousins. Has anyone ever heard the First Minister make a speech or talk about what is going on “over there”? I’d like to know what he thinks – no, really – on what it all means, if only to be assured that he is thinking about it.
This sort of air-brushing of circumstance and history is risky. Europe matters because of one of the founding principles of the European Union. It wasn’t just about preventing future continental wars through ties that bind, but also about creating an economic power-house. The way to enable recovery from the impact of World War Two was to band together and it worked – the European Union is still one of the world’s largest economies – and it’s why the prospect of complete European economic meltdown makes everyone nervous. It has almost unthinkable global ramifications.
To ignore what is going on in Europe, except to use the experience to start rethinking whether we want to be part of it, albeit sotto voce, betrays an arrogance. If regional trading blocs are good enough for the rest of the world’s nations, what makes Scotland think we can go it alone? Whether we like it or not, our economic future is thirled to that of Europe and the potential economic might it could still wield. A little acknowledgement of that with some closer-to-home trade missions would be welcome.
The Scottish Government’s current approach also ignores the reality that Scotland’s biggest trading partner outside of the UK is still the EU and its member states. Apart from the US and Norway, eight of the top ten trading partner spots in 2008 were occupied by EC members. Of course, past performance is no indicator of the future, but there is no getting away from the fact that an awful lot of jobs in this country depend on functioning economies on the continent – now and five and ten years hence.
We need shiny new markets but we also need to look after the existing ones too. And no amount of panda diplomacy can obscure that fact.