Margo MacDonald: Some lessons in diplomacy

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Amateur Hour is now over. The embarrassing spectacle of the Deputy First Minister getting it so
 wrong in approaching EU member states’ foreign secretaries will be forgotten . . . but only if the Scottish Government gets its head together on what is a, genuinely, fundamental point for any country wishing membership of the EU.

Whoever produced the verbal and written utterly gauche expression of the Scottish Government’s wish to retain EU membership, following the negotiation of as yet unspecified policies, except fishing, should be thanked for their efforts and 
immediately found a new post, as far removed from policy-making as 
possible.

How could Nicola Sturgeon have got it so wrong? Did the written brief for her letter to the EU member states’ foreign ministers originate from her advisors, or civil servants, or from the MEPs and their staffs, or from an unrecorded, ad hoc meeting between herself, the First Minister and perhaps one or two other trusted Scottish Government supporters? The First Minister is known, and in many instances rightly admired, for his spontaneity, but on the flip-side of an inspirational well-developed statement of belief is the danger of summarising a complex topic in an all-too-easy to digest soundbite.

So is the person most responsible for the sound of disapproval, coming from the cheap seats, the First Minister himself? I have nothing other than instinct to guide me, but I suspect he’s beginning to learn how to delegate, late in the day perhaps, but actually trusting others to produce work that previously he would have controlled. It’s an improvement on the decision-making by Troika (First Minister, Deputy FM and Finance Minister) often on the hoof. Before such work as the letter to foreign ministers is produced there needs to be some sort of high-level, collegiate thinking, researching, and advising as to options.

Lots of bright young men are 
reputed to be toiling at their PCs to produce briefs on all of the subject headings that will be covered by the debate on independence.

To date, there’s little to raise suspicion of there being expert and experienced input into the narrative that will describe for Scots wondering which way to vote (20 per cent in the latest polls) how an independent Scotland will interact with other countries and regimes across the globe. For example, how many academics or non-elected officials from the Baltic states have been approached to share some of their experiences in making their way as new states in the world?

Who in the Yes campaign, or in the Scottish Government, has been charged with the responsibility of building a network of “back-channel” relationships with strategically-chosen governments and opposition parties, to prepare the ground for the days following a successful Yes campaign? The identity of this person is, preferably, unknown, so it’s just possible that such a post is in being and is filled by someone palpably unfit for the job.

In advance of Scots voting Yes, there isn’t the faintest chance of Scottish independence being endorsed by one of the sovereign states represented in the UN, EU or African Union come to that.

It was sheer cack-handedness to bring up the subject as it was with the Irish government. Although there is a substantial support for Scottish independence in Ireland, the Dail government is as bound by the diplomatic conventions as any other. At this stage in the process, a joint statement announcing a new big project, creating jobs in both countries, would have been preferable, but failing that, it should have been a statement on motherhood and apple pie.

Newspapers’ political writers can comment on how the possibility of Scots voting to leave the UK economy doesn’t upset Irish entrepreneurs or politicians.

The details of the gaucheness displayed by Nicola Sturgeon will be forgotten on production of a clear, tell-it-like-it-is account of the possibilities open to an independent Scotland 
vis-a-vis the EU, and alternative 
arrangements that might suit us better.

This area of decision-making has become a bit more problematic because of the growing likelihood of there being an EU referendum in England. While there’s a good chance of English voters voting to leave the EU, there’s an argument to be made for Scotland to hang fire until the outcome is known, England being our biggest market.

But these questions, and others like them, will have been observed by Scots working for the British diplomatic service in any country you can name, and others you can’t. Have such people been sounded out on advising a special unit of backroom planners who direct the tone, and timing, etc, of policy dissemination?

The SNP leadership was lucky that Sir Tom Hunter, thought to be Scotland’s first self-made billionaire, diverted opposition attention with his call for more information from both camps on the actual situation regarding jobs and the economy the day after the vote.