The politics of Scotland’s autonomous foreign policy

By: Reuben Duffy

Introduction and history

In spite of high-profile meetings with world leaders, Nicola Sturgeon has largely been excluded from the formal decision-making processes at COP26. This contradiction is reflected elsewhere: the Scottish government possesses its own department responsible for external affairs attended by two government ministers yet power over foreign relations is explicitly reserved to the UK government under the 1998 Scotland Act. This highlights the ambiguity of Scotland’s international role and the tensions present within the territorial constitution. This ambiguity has greatly influenced political debate in Scotland around foreign policy, with several differing interpretations regarding the scope of Scotland’s international role.

Before the re-convening of Parliament in 1999, distinctive Scottish engagement was primarily conducted through civic society and UK government quangos such as Scotland Europa. The devolution settlement has greatly upgraded Scotland’s capacity in this area, granting it an autonomous voice in international affairs in the form of the Scottish government. Despite foreign relations being reserved under the 1998 Scotland Act, successive Scottish governments have utilised devolved structures to pursue an autonomous foreign policy. Donald Dewar’s government opened an office in Brussels in 1999. Jack McConnell’s government spearheaded the Scottish Malawi Partnership (SMP), an organisation that aims to promote closer links between Scotland and Malawi through co-ordinating the activities of Scottish organisations and individuals with existing links and promoting new ones. The current First Minister has travelled extensively to promote Scotland and pursued closer diplomatic relations with foreign nations. The recent Programme for Government detailed new initiatives aimed at expanding Scotland’s foreign policy infrastructure, notably the commitment to opening two new Scottish Government offices in Copenhagen and Warsaw respectively. Additionally, the holding of COP26 at Glasgow has granted the Scottish Government the opportunity to engage with leaders and diplomats from around the world.

Brexit and COP26

Brexit has resulted in a massive policy gulf between the Scottish government and the UK government, with the former favouring a pro-European foreign policy in contrast to the more isolationist approach of the latter. This has not been aided by the UK government’s approach toward the Brexit process. In spite of the Scottish government’s forays into foreign policy, the current UK government has pressed ahead with a largely solo approach. The Brexit process illustrates this, with the UK government excluding the devolved administrations and opting instead to negotiate Brexit unilaterally. This is a marked difference from past Conservative governments such as John Major’s 1990-1997 administration which sent the Scotland Secretary to open Scotland Europa offices in Brussels, designed to represent Scottish interests in EU policy making. So too does it differ from Tony Blair’s Labour government which sought to work with autonomous Scottish and Welsh international development programmes in Africa.

In contrast, the current Johnson administration and the preceding May administration have pursued a strongly unilateralist line with regard to Brexit. This is representative of increased tension between Edinburgh and London following the divergent results in the 2016 referendum and the tendency of the UK government to play hardball on the constitution. Similar tensions have surfaced at COP26. In the weeks preceding the conference, there were suggestions that the UK government would seek to limit the Scottish government’s involvement. One MP claimed the UK government was aiming to stop Sturgeon getting photographed with President Biden at all costs. Whilst they were unsuccessful in this, the Scottish Government has been largely excluded from formal meetings during COP26. Ultimately foreign policy frequently draws the Scottish and UK governments into conflict and the ambiguous nature of Scotland’s international role does little to a resolve these conflicts.

Political parties

Scotland’s political class have accepted devolution and engaged with devolved structures enthusiastically. The existence of the Scottish Parliament is uncontested outside of fringe parties such as UKIP. Scotland’s foreign policy is less universally accepted but still widely supported. The main parties all broadly support an autonomous Scottish foreign policy, the key differences being the nature of that foreign policy and more importantly its extent. The SNP favour a strongly pro-European approach and one committed to multilateral organisations such as the Nordic Council and EU. The Greens favour a similar approach, additionally placing importance on supporting liberation movements in China, Palestine and West Papua alongside anti-militarist policies such as withdrawal from NATO (a notable exception to their enthusiasm for international organisations). COP26 and the recently published Programme for Government are symbolic of the joint SNP-Green enthusiasm for Scotland playing an autonomous international role. Both parties have seized the opportunity to engage with the international community at COP26. The First Minister has hosted many international figures at Bute House, including close partner countries such as Malawi. As to the Programme for Government, the six-chapter document contained a whole chapter devoted to foreign policy and the Scottish government’s priorities for this area. The SNP and Greens are therefore enthusiastically in favour of Scotland playing an autonomous role in the international community, seeking to maintain and expand Scotland’s foreign policy infrastructure.  

Within the Unionist movement, there is significantly more diversity in views regarding Scottish autonomy in the international community. Scottish Labour is supportive of international aid programmes such as the SMP and also support expanding Scotland’s internal foreign policy capacity via establishing a Scottish Council for Global Affairs, a policy also advocated by the SNP and Scottish Liberal Democrats. However, they appear lukewarm with regard to the expansion of Scotland’s external foreign policy infrastructure such as international offices and getting involved with international organisations autonomously from the UK. Their 2021 manifesto contained a disclaimer that Scotland does not have formal powers over foreign policy.

As to the Scottish Liberal Democrats, they have two main concerns in Scottish foreign policy, the protection of liberal values and a close relationship with Europe. But like Scottish Labour they appear ambivalent to government initiatives to expand external infrastructure. Both parties have committed to reform of the UK constitution as a solution to the independence debate in Scotland. Scottish Labour favour establishing a constitutional convention to overhaul the existing constitution whilst the Scottish Liberal Democrats favour federalising the UK. Scottish Labour is less clear on the exact extent that the Scottish government should be involved in formulating foreign policy. This is in contrast to the Liberal Democrats at a UK level, who in 2019 pledged to extend the involvement of the devolved nations in the formulation of UK-wide policy frameworks. Overall, Scottish Labour and the Scottish Liberal Democrats occupy a middle ground in relation to foreign policy. They broadly support the existence of an autonomous Scottish foreign policy but are more hesitant than the SNP and Greens to advocate expansion of the existing network. With regard to their reform plans, the Liberal Democrats are supportive of formally allowing the Scottish government input on the policymaking process for international relations.

Finally, there is the Scottish Conservatives and Unionist Party (SCUP). They appear strongly opposed to any autonomous Scottish international action. The SCUP opposes even describing Scottish international initiatives as foreign policy, maintaining a strict originalist interpretation of the 1998 Scotland Act. The SCUP has chosen to spend parliamentary debates criticising the Scottish government for spending public money on new international offices. Indeed, whenever the phrase ‘foreign policy’ is mentioned in Parliament in relation to Scotland, SCUP spokespeople inevitably rise to decry such language. Some SCUP MSPs have challenged Scotland’s international presence via letters to the foreign office, claiming they are in effect boosting the cause of independence. Furthermore, the SCUP is against further constitutional reform with regard to more powers for Scotland. However, whilst their rhetoric is strongly originalist the SCUP still supports an autonomous Scottish foreign policy to a certain extent. The SCUP devoted some space in their 2021 manifesto to foreign policy though their commitments were not as extensive as other parties, focusing primarily on investment and exports. The SCUP pledged to establish a Scottish Exporting Institute and to expand Scotland’s export capacity through improving existing networks and utilising the potential of the Scottish diaspora. Thus, despite their strong rhetoric, the SCUP supports an autonomous Scottish foreign policy, albeit less emphatically than other unionist parties.


It is clear that support for an autonomous foreign policy within Scotland is defined along constitutional lines, with three broad camps existing on a continuum: the pro-independence parties who support expanding Scotland’s foreign policy capacity and engaging with the international community as an autonomous entity; the reformist Unionist parties who broadly support the notion of an autonomous Scottish foreign policy but do not devote as much attention to it as the pro-independence camp; and finally, the SCUP who in practise also support a degree of autonomous Scottish action on the international stage but often engage in rhetoric that suggests otherwise, decrying the existence of any form of Scottish foreign policy.

The ambiguity of Scotland’s status when it comes to foreign policy is central to these political differences. This ambiguity also lies behind conflict between the Scottish and UK governments. Scotland possesses a powerful and autonomous government with a significant international role but as COP26 and Brexit have illustrated, it is often side-lined by the UK government. Reforming the constitution to recognise Scotland’s international role could, however, bring a number of benefits. Affording the Scottish government a formal position in formulating UK foreign policy would encourage closer co-operation with the UK government in international affairs. Furthermore, foreign policy discussions within Scotland could potentially be detached from the current constitutional debate over independence and encourage political parties to engage more thoroughly with international issues. Scottish political parties would possess a foundational definition of Scotland’s foreign policy role to underpin their arguments. Constitutionally facilitating Scottish foreign policy ambitions would lessen the territorial conflict over foreign policy, forcing closer co-operation at a time when the twin crises of COVID and climate change sorely demand it. The possibility of formalising Scotland’s foreign policy role will be explored further in my forthcoming paper, which will provide a comparative analysis of models the UK could draw upon to do so.

Reuben Duffy is a Research Fellow at the Constitution Society. He is working on a paper looking at Scotland, devolution and foreign policy, seeking to understand what, if any, constitutional reforms could accommodate an autonomous Scottish foreign policy. 

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of the Constitution Society.