Picture Credit: EFF J MITCHELL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Humza Yousaf, global citizen

Britain needs one, and only one, foreign policy

In any democracy, different levels of government have different responsibilities. Even in a country like the United Kingdom, where we rely on a blend of statute and conventions for our constitutional arrangements, there is no lack of clarity. From the sovereign parliament at Westminster to parish councils, decision-makers know how far their powers extend, and which issues are beyond their competence. 

Yousaf’s overreach has been a political play, and he was cunning enough to see that it was win-win

Before the precipitate collapse of his tenure as first minister of Scotland, Humza Yousaf was developing a taste for diplomacy. In March, during a visit to London, he met the Council of Arab Ambassadors, which includes representatives of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Yemen and Palestine. As well as promoting Scotland’s economic potential and higher education sector, he lectured the group on the country’s role as “a global citizen—citing the Scottish Government’s unwavering commitment to promoting human rights, tackling inequality, and our calls for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza”.

It was not Yousaf’s first foray into foreign affairs. In November last year, he invited Husam Zomlot, the head of the Palestinian mission to the UK, to Bute House, his official residence, where they discussed the conflict in Gaza. Zomlot had steadfastly refused to condemn the Hamas atrocities of 7 October 2023, accusing Piers Morgan of “a very vicious and asymmetric game that has contributed to the oppression of my people”.

In December, he met Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the president of Turkey, in the margins of the COP28 climate conference in Dubai, and invited him to visit Scotland. The encounter took place without officials from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and the foreign secretary, Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton, issued a sharply worded protest to the Scottish Government.

It is stated absolutely explicitly in schedule 5 of the Scotland Act 1998 that certain policy issues are reserved to the United Kingdom Parliament instead of being devolved to the administration and legislature in Edinburgh. Foreign affairs and defence are included in this list, so it is categorically the case that relations with other states are not within the competence of the Scottish Government.

Yousaf’s overreach has been a political play, and he was cunning enough to see that it was win-win. By pretending to interact with world leaders on an equal footing, he sought to portray himself as the representative of a separate, independent nation and lift the SNP administration above its current status. Yet his infringement of the provisions of the Scotland Act, and the consequent disapproval of the British government, fuelled the SNP’s unending narrative of victimhood at the hands of Westminster. Look, he could cry with self-righteousness, see how the Tories seek to suppress the voice of the people of Scotland!

This has to stop. It is not a matter of Yousaf’s self-aggrandisement, though he and his predecessor Nicola Sturgeon strayed far beyond their competence into international relations for political and vanity reasons. A country’s foreign policy has to be clear, unambiguous and unanimous, and it is the right of the British government, through the FCDO, to make that policy without interference. Even if Yousaf were benign — and, as his political identity is posited on breaking up the United Kingdom, he is far from that — he has met foreign leaders without adequate briefing or advice, and in the absence of appropriate officials. This risks confusion, contradiction, obfuscation and potentially breaches of security.

To ignore repeated infringements of the constitutional settlement will only embolden the SNP to push further

We know this is a serious matter. It is less than seven years since Priti Patel, then international development secretary, was revealed to have had meetings with Israeli politicians without approval or support from the Foreign Office while she was on holiday in August 2017, and then in Westminster and New York in September. This was in breach of the Ministerial Code, which stipulates: “Ministers must ensure that no conflict arises, or could reasonably be perceived to arise, between their public duties and their private interests, financial or otherwise”.

Prime Minister Theresa May, who, for her faults, understood the basic proprieties of administration, dismissed Patel from her position. Yet Patel was at least a member of the UK Government, attending cabinet every week and bound by collective responsibility. Yousaf had no such guarantees or limitations, and was simply freelancing.

There has to be remedial action to stop the heads or representatives of devolved governments going beyond their powers and competence and attempting to craft their own approaches to foreign policy. It would be reassuring to see a government drawn from the Conservative and Unionist Party take action to reinforce the provisions of the Scotland Act and underline that international relations are the prerogative of the Foreign Office.

If the Tories are defeated at the next general election, this issue will pass to the Labour Party. It may be reluctant to act, fearing it may antagonise Scottish voters as it seeks to rebuild its strength north of the border. But action there must be. To ignore repeated infringements of the constitutional settlement will only embolden the SNP to push further. It would prove the truth of Kipling’s declaration on avoiding conflict, “That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld/You never get rid of the Dane”. This has to be settled before significant damage is done.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover