In Conversation with: Stephen Gethins
This article was originally published on March 18, 2021.
The Saint sat down with Former MP and International Relations Professor, Stephen Gethins, to discuss his new book, ‘Nation to Nation: Scotland’s Place in the World’.
Mr Stephen Gethins is currently a Professor of Practice in International Relations at the University of St Andrews but, before taking up the post, he served as North East Fife’s MP for the Scottish National Party (SNP) from 2015-19. While in Westminster, he was the SNP spokesperson for International and European Affairs (a position in which he successfully led calls for 16-year-olds to get to vote in the Brexit Referendum) and, in July 2015, became the first SNP MP to be appointed to the influential House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Select Committee.
Before entering Parliament, Gethins worked extensively in the NGO sector, specialising in peacebuilding, arms-control, and democratisation in the Caucasus and Balkan regions. He also worked within the European Union’s Committee of the Regions - making him one of the few Westminster parliamentarians to have worked and lived in Brussels.
Yesterday, Gethins’ first book entitled Nation to Nation: Scotland’s Place in the World was published. The book has been described as “hugely important” by Mariot Leslie, the former British Ambassador to NATO, as it details the role that Scotland has played, and indeed currently plays, in European and global affairs. Specifically, the book highlights Scotland’s unique development of a significant foreign policy footprint, despite not having a Foreign Ministry. Gethins explores what this footprint consists of and how it can be utilised by the UK as a resource or provide the foundations for a Foreign Ministry in an independent Scotland. Later in the interview, he said: “the conversation around Scotland’s voice internationally is important to both Unionists and those seeking independence.”
In the foreword, Mark Muller Stuart QC, Senior Mediation Advisor to the UN Department of Political Affairs and the UN Special Envoy to Syria, writes that Gethins, through mapping Scotland’s Foreign Policy footprint, highlights the need for a greater discussion on international affairs from a Scottish perspective, which is not always the same as a British perspective, as he reveals “a distinct history of Scotland’s own unique international relations with other countries''.
Within the book’s pages, Gethins provides insights into Scotland’s future place in the world through drawing upon his own first-hand experiences: from time spent in Bute House and Westminster to time spent in the UN Secretary-General’s office in New York and military bases in the South Caucasus. The book delves into the potential of the Scottish diaspora and Scotland’s connections with its near neighbours in Northern Europe, as well as the relationship Scotland has developed with the EU. Gethins details conversations undertaken with a wide range of practitioners and experts, such as the Chair of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee and senior members of the Biden and Obama Administrations, in order to “set the scene for one of the most important debates and dialogues that Scotland is likely to face for a generation”.
A friendly, if slightly flustered, Gethins (he’d been in back-to-back meetings all afternoon) greeted me on the computer screen and we began by discussing what had provided the initial inspiration for Nation to Nation. I probed as to whether it was during his Erasmus programme year abroad, studying at the University of Antwerp, that the seeds were first planted.
“Scotland’s place in the world is something that has been in my head since I studied on the Erasmus programme. The great thing about Erasmus is that it really opens your mind and gives you a different perspective - you see that Scotland’s got an international brand.”
He states that he was further inspired whilst “working in the NGO community in conflict overseas and realising that Scotland could be seen as a safe space” for internationally displaced peoples.
He continued, “My experiences with the Brexit process sharpened up why I think [the book’s subject matter] is such an important debate: I saw a real divergence between Holyrood and Westminster. In Westminster, Brexit has meant that you’ve got a global Britain agenda - which is very much a unilateralist project - whereas, in Holyrood, there’s a greater consensus around the need for multilateralism and to engage and cooperate with other states in a much more organised way whereby the pooling and sharing of sovereignty is commonly accepted.”
“So, [the book] is something that’s been evolving in my mind. There aren’t many good things about lockdown, but one good thing was that we’re at home, so I was able to carry out 50 or 60 interviews with people around the world throughout last summer and autumn.”
I followed up by asking him how he had found the process of writing his first book.
“One thing I’ll say is that it’s absolutely terrifying. When I was a member of the House of Commons, I didn’t mind debating; I don’t mind going on the telly; but there’s nowhere to hide when you’re writing. It’s 250 pages and it’s going out there for people to scrutinise and criticise, so it’s really scary.”
“A really important part of the research was the interviews: for the first-hand experiences but also because, on Scotland’s foreign policy, there’s not much [published] out there.”
I was interested to hear more about Gethins experience within the NGO sector and how it had influenced his insights within the book.
“As a small to medium size state, you occupy a space that could be a safe space. I remember working in the Soviet Union - in places like South Ossetia and Abkhazia - and everybody knew about Scotland: they knew about Burns, or they knew about the football team, or they liked whisky. They had an idea of the country. And, in 2003, I helped bring a group over from the South Caucasus who did view Scotland as a safe space. So, I started to see that with an international brand and soft power, there’s stuff that you can do. And, you can have a foreign policy without necessarily having a Foreign Ministry. There’s a distinctive niche that Scotland can fill that the UK doesn’t or couldn’t. And I find that really interesting and exciting.”
On the concept of Scotland’s “brand”, he continued:
“You find connections in so many places. I remember discussing the Scottish brand with the so-called Foreign Minister of South Ossetia. I can remember talking to a lady who worked on the Nepali peace process whose grandfather had brought golf to his remote, mountainous village because he’d been serving with Scottish soldiers. And, in Buenos Aires, I can remember sitting in the Ambassadorial Residence discussing St Andrews actually - golf and Higher Education.”
We moved on to discussing his transition into the domestic political realm and his time in Westminster.
“What struck me in Westminster was that, in the run up to the EU Referendum, I was hearing things from both Ministers and MPs across the House that had no basis in fact: people talking about the European Commission as if it can tell you what to do; people talking about the lack of democatic scrutiny when, in actuality, it’s in-built into the EU’s institution. I remember being astonished listening to people criticising a lack of democratic accountability within the elected European parliament whilst sitting in the House of Lords.”
“What I found unforgivable were the people who were advocating leaving the EU who did not understand the European Union or were misrepresenting the EU. We are now paying for that [their actions] in reduced GDP and fewer economic opportunities, and, critically, this generation of politicians will leave fewer opportunities for young people - which is a first for decades and a real political failure.”
Indeed, a fundamental insight Gethins gained through the interviews “was the extent of Scotland’s branding and the fact that things have fundamentally shifted with Brexit.”
“One lesson that I drew from this is that people are paying attention to our debates. Now, I’m not saying that when President Joe Biden wakes up in the morning [British domestic politics] is all he thinks about - it’s not -, but people are paying attention in a way that they’ve not before, which means that we want to put on a good show if you like: by being respectful and mindful. I can remember sitting in Westminster where Ministers would criticise people within the EU that we needed to work with, forgetting that those folks were watching the debate on the telly. So we need to remember the lessons of Brexit: remember that when we’re debating domestically, the world is watching.”
I had been struck by a statement made in Gethins’ book. He wrote: “During a time when political divisions can get far too personal, it is worth bearing in mind that most people are able to disagree agreeably”. I asked him how he had managed to balance his own political beliefs with the need to present an objective analysis of Scotland’s role in the world.
“By just listening. To everyone I interviewed I said ‘I’ve got an open book, talk to me’ - and I found people did. I didn’t need to say anything. I just took notes. Critically, I was keen to talk to those who don’t share my world view - which is important for all of us to do. I was grateful to get input from former Conservative Ministers, from both former, surviving Labour First Ministers, and politicians from other countries who’ve got a different perspective.”
“If you’re going to disagree with someone, understand them before you do. Most people’s beliefs are honestly held and it’s only through respecting one another and having an informed debate that we can hope to make progress.”
He chuckled as he stated: “There’s an old saying that goes ‘you’ve got two ears and one mouth, so try and use them in that proportion’.”
The book feels incredibly timely, published as we approach an election that may determine whether Scotland will push for a second independence referendum. We spoke about the leader of the current Scottish Government, Nicola Sturgeon - whom Gethins had once been a special advisor to - and the concept of “soft power clout” which appears throughout his book.
“Nicola’s carved out a really interesting niche for herself. She is globally recognised - more so than almost any other First Minister - for her clout on issues like climate change, for Brexit and the leadership she showed, and also through her work with Beyond Borders Scotland and the UN with women who have been involved in conflict.”
Of course, this led to a discussion of the Holyrood Inquiry into the Scottish Government's handling of the 2018 harassment claims made against former First Minister, Alex Salmond, which has dominated headlines over the past few weeks.
“We’re not talking about daily politics, we’re talking about getting a HR system right so that people feel safe to make claims and the Scottish Government got that wrong at the time and we’ve got to make that right.”
“We’ve got to have a sense of perspective. We’re talking about this at a time when the Prime Minister has been criticised in court for lies misleading the House around PPE contracts; criticisms about Robert Jenrick; and about Priti Patel and pay-outs because of bullying allegations from senior officials.”
“I don’t think [the actions taken by the Scottish Government] are a resignation matter. Even if it was, there’s an election coming up and I would encourage everybody to cast their vote as this is a time when you, the voter, will have the opportunity to make your judgement about it.”
The book also feels timely in the context of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement which sparked protests and discussions not only within the USA, but globally as well. Mark Muller Stuart QC writes in the foreword of Nation to Nation that Gethins “maps out Scotland’s past relationships with...the British Empire” and is “not shy to recognise some of Scotland’s darker connections to the history of slavery”.
“Don’t forget,” Gethins states during our interview, “one of the reasons the Union came about was because of the Darian disaster, which was a Scottish effort to establish a colony in what is now Panama”.
“Our foreign policy today is also about our past and you can’t be starry-eyed about these things. I think that being open, honest, and accountable about your role in the past makes you fit to face the future.”
Within the book, he discusses “a statement that went out from the Scotland-Malawi partnership based in Scotland and the Malawi-Scotland partnership based in Malawi on the back of BLM” which addresses Scotland’s role within the British Empire.
He states that “what they tried to do with the joint statement - and it’s worth reading in its entirety - is to have an honest appraisal of where the relationship is today, and once you have that honest appraisal you can build from there....If you’re going to engage with the world in a positive way, you need to do so having acknowledged and faced up to both the good and bad stuff that you’ve done.”
Within the book, a central theme is the historical development of Scottish nationalism. While nationalism in general parlance holds, to many, negative connotations, Gethins writes that Scotland possesses “a new civic and inclusive form of nationalism” - “a nationalism that is based not on ethnicity”. When we discussed this dissonance towards the end of our interview, Gethins stated:
“Don’t let other people define who you are. You wouldn’t do that as an individual, don’t do that as a political movement. Define yourself in terms of the action that you take...In Scotland you’ve got the SNP - the Scottish National Party, which means all-encompassing. It is a government that is pro-EU, pro-pooling sovereignty, pro-international development, pro-action on climate change, pro-immigration, and ‘refugees welcome’. So, rather than talk about different kinds of ideology, judge a movement - judge a government - by what it does rather than by what other people say it is.”
He ends the interview on a note of gratitude towards the St Andrews community:
“I had some really insightful comments from colleagues in St Andrews: Caron Gentry’s work on feminist foreign policy and how that fits in is a really interesting concept and something that I hadn’t really thought about before. And, Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies, has got some really good insights about the challenging questions we need to ask ourselves. I was also really lucky that Harry Stage, a student at the University, did a wee bit of research for me which was really helpful and it was really good to get his perspective on the book.”
Photo Credit: Stephen Gethins