I recently read the UK Government’s (let’s call it “HMG”) official policy paper on constitutional issues arising from the prospect of Scottish independence in the “Scotland Analysis” series – see https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/79417/Scotland_analysis_Devolution_and_the_implications_of_Scottish_Independan…__1_.pdf
The following two sentences in Chapter 3 of that report leapt off the page at me when I read them:
“The UK occupies a unique position in international affairs: the product of its history, culture, economic weight, military strength and position at the centre of a series of overlapping networks”
“It is therefore evident from the Opinion that an independent Scottish state would not be able to ‘inherit’ membership of key international organisations and – through them – the UK’s pre-eminent position in international affairs, its global impact and reach.” (emphasis added)
These sentences were written in a paper which sets out HMG’s constitutional arguments against Scottish independence in advance of the referendum. HMG presumably had in mind that it would be read by voters in Scotland, whom it seeks to persuade to vote “No”. As a public document, it can be read by anyone in the world. I do not understand why HMG still uses this kind of language in any context, never mind in a document which will be of special interest to Scottish voters. I do not know of many Scots who feel a warm glow when they read tub-thumping assertions of British “pre-eminence”, “economic weight” and “military strength” in the world. I do know however that the majority of voters in Scotland voted for the SNP to form the current Scottish Government and that the SNP’s long-stated policy on Scotland’s place in the world is very different to the HMG’s current policy. If I know this, then so does HMG.
So what exactly were the people involved in writing this document thinking? Numerous civil servants and ministers would have been involved in writing, reviewing, approving and commenting on various drafts of this document before it reached us in its current form. So they are not just the words of a lone, patriotic crackpot.
HMG wants to engage with Scotland about its future. HMG states that it wants to maintain good relations with an independent Scotland and presumably also a devolved Scottish government within the UK. This is good and I am right behind HMG on this. So let’s see more of an effort to communicate with them in language which respects Scotland’s different position in the world and their different political preferences. Let’s also be a bit more modest in trumpeting our claimed achievements in documents which the whole world can read. This doesn’t mean changing HMG policies to line up with Scottish government policies – it just means expressing its policy more respectfully and therefore more effectively.
I would like to suggest to HMG an alternative to the phrases I excerpted above on the issue of international relations. I do this through gritted teeth as I don’t share the views on HMG on these issues. OK, here we go:
“The UK is fortunate in that it is a wealthy country, by international standards, and has been able to build up a stable network of international links over many years. The policy of the UK Government is to continue to make use of its wealth and existing international relationships in order to exert a strong influence in international affairs. HMG would like the people of Scotland to continue to be a part of its endeavours in the international arena. Nevertheless, HMG acknowledges that the Scottish Government’s proposals regarding the foreign and security policies for an independent Scotland are significantly different to our own.”
(Sigh.) That was a struggle but I pulled it off. It would be useful to have feedback from any Scottish people as to how differently they feel after reading each of the two examples.
In the field of international relations, using the right language to communicate policies is extremely important. All countries have their sensitivities and their blind-spots when it comes to communicating with other countries. It is no different between England and Scotland. I think, as a matter of good practice, it would be good for HMG officials and ministers to get feedback from outside the UK before finalising and publishing documents dealing with international relations. I am sure that, for example, the Irish, Americans, South Africans and Australians would be able to give us constructive feedback. They may even appreciate the request for help. Perhaps this would be a little humiliating for HMG, but I think its choice of language in the excerpts I have discussed here demonstrate that they have a serious problem which needs addressing at the highest levels of government.
PS. It is not at all evident that “an independent Scottish state would not be able to ‘inherit’ membership of key international organisations.” There is a lot of legal debate on this and HMG advisers have selected the legal position which maximises the difficulties that a new Scotland would have. See my letter to David Cameron et al – which is the article before this one.