Global View

Party Manifesto Support for a Scottish Council on Global Affairs

Published: 27 April 2021

Professor Juliet Kaarbo, Professor Peter Jackson and Professor Phillips O’Brien discuss the potential of a Scottish Council on Global Affairs:- what it is, what it would do and the level of cross-party support for the initiative. 

With a careful reading of the 2021 election manifestos of several Scottish political parties, you will find support for a Scottish Council on Global Affairs.   Remarkably, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish Labour Party, and the Scottish National Party have all signalled their intention to support this initiative.  What is this Council and why has it garnered cross-party promotion?

What is a Scottish Council on Global Affairs and What Would it Do?

This Council would bring together the vast expertise and broad interests in international relations from across Scotland -- from academic, public sector, business, and third sector areas.  Initially a cooperation between the University of Glasgow, the University of St Andrews, the University of Edinburgh and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Council welcomes participation and engagement across multiple sectors, across Scotland.  It seeks to provide a hub for collaborative policy-relevant research and a home for informed, non-partisan debate on all areas of global affairs, broadly defined.  The Council would be non-partisan, independent body, supporting and showcasing evidence-based research on global affairs.

Like similar institutes, such as the Irish Institute of International Affairs; Chatham House, the European Council of Foreign Affairs, the Swedish International Peace Research Institute in Europe or the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the Brookings Institution and the Carnegie Endowmment in , the Council would be a forum to bring together government, civil society and academic expertise for dialogue and debate on issues of global importance.  A Scottish Council of Global Affairs would address those issues generally and also how they might affect Scotland particularly.

There is no shortage of these issues, and a Scottish Council on Global Affairs [SCGA] would foster interdisciplinary research and dialogue on policy options on today’s important challenges and wicked problems in international politics, such as global public health, climate change, a post-Brexit UK in the global economy, international human rights, nuclear proliferation, and conflict resolution.  It would offer a focal point of expertise for business, government, and advocacy groups and serve as a bridge between these groups and Scottish universities.  It would be public-facing, with a mission to inform and indeed elevate public discourse on global affairs. The SCGA would work closely with existing third sector institutions in Scotland such as Scotland’s Development Alliance and Beyond Borders Scotland to enhance the range of perspectives on international issues available to policy stakeholders and the general public. By involving university students, it would be a training ground for future leaders in diplomacy, international business, and global governance.

Why is there cross-party support for a Scottish Council of Foreign Affairs?

While different political parties may have their own, distinct reasons for supporting this initiative, they recognise similar advantages that the Council would bring to Scotland.   According to the Lib Dems manifesto, ‘Scotland has an important place in promoting global issues’ and the Council – ‘an independent, non-partisan centre of expertise on international affairs’ --would help ‘to develop public policy on these issues and to give voice to our academic centres of excellence’Scottish Labour’s manifesto makes a similar point, noting that ‘while Scotland does not have its own foreign policy, it has an important role in a range of international issues….Drawing on Scotland’s academic centres of excellence, as well as civil society and business,…[the Scottish Council of Global Affairs] will serve as an independent repository of expertise on international affairs, helping to enhance knowledge of international affairs within Scotland.’ And the SNP, in its manifesto, supports the establishment of the Council ‘to develop critical thinking on international issues and Scotland’s place in the world.’

This view that Scotland can, and should, gather together its global knowledge in a central place to reflect, debate, and inform may be related to recent events that have brought the global into local focus.   The financial crisis in the early 21st century, the strengthening of authoritarianism, populism, nationalism, and ‘strongmen’ rule in parts of the world, the challenges to international norms of multilateral cooperation and to individual freedoms, the climate crisis made more real in the form of ‘extreme’ weather, the Black Lives Matter movement that resonates around the globe, and, of course, the Covid-19 pandemic that brought unprecedented disruption to life, health systems and economies have all highlighted the connections between peoples and the need for good research and good policies  to respond, confront, and adapt to these conditions of our time.

Although the idea of an international affairs institute has been around for a good while, we are only now seeing broad support behind establishing an institutional framework within which to marshal the formidable expertise that exists within Scotland to lift public debate and support public policy.  In the face of today’s global challenges, political parties across Scotland are coming together in recognising the need for a concerted focus on international affairs. An SCGA would establish an institutional framework that can marshal the formidable international expertise that exists within Scotland, helping to inform public debate, impact policymaking, and deliver world-class policy-relevant research.

Professor Juliet Kaarbo, Chair of Foreign Policy, University of Edinburgh

Professor Peter Jackson, Chair of Global Security, University of Glasgow

Professor Phillips O’Brien, Chair of Strategic Studies, University of St Andrews

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