Building a New Scotland: An independent Scotland's Place in the World

This paper sets out the Scottish Government's proposals for an independent Scotland's place in the world.

Independence and regional and international cooperation

Key points

An independent Scotland would continue to have a close relationship with the UK and Ireland, working together as equals to cooperate on shared challenges.

An independent Scotland would join the UN to cement our place in the world.

Scotland would be active and vocal at the UN on the issues that matter most to us, guided by our interests and values, including those we share with the EU of human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and human rights.

An independent Scotland would also seek to remain part of the Commonwealth, the voluntary association of 56 countries, most with historical ties to the United Kingdom, working collectively to promote democracy, peace and prosperity.

An independent Scotland would establish a network of embassies and consulates in countries around the world, alongside Scottish permanent missions to key international organisations including the UN and its agencies, NATO and the EU.

These islands – shared past, shared future

Independence would mark a new phase in the evolution of Scotland’s relationships with the UK and Ireland. While the ‘social union’ of shared histories, sport, culture, languages, and family ties would continue as before, a renewed Scottish democracy would be a force for good across these islands. Scotland can thrive as a global nation while preserving these deep connections with our nearest neighbours and we will be able to update our partnership so that it meets the needs of the people of Scotland.

Earlier in this paper, we set out why an independent Scotland will have close, mutually beneficial relationships across these islands on defence and security matters. Scotland will also be able to coordinate with our closest neighbours on shared challenges and opportunities, such as developing our hydrogen sector alongside Ireland, and work in partnership with the UK and with Ireland in international forums such as the UN. Where Scotland’s position is different, or more ambitious, we would not be bound by the decisions taken by the UK.

A refreshed British-Irish Council (BIC) could provide a formal forum for managing some of these relationships, complementing regular bilateral discussions. In its current form, the BIC comprises two sovereign states, three devolved territories, and three crown dependencies. After Scottish independence, there would be three sovereign states, two of them (Scotland and Ireland) EU member states.

We intend to say more about an independent Scotland’s relationship with the rest of these islands later in the ‘Building a New Scotland’ series.

Our near northern neighbourhood

As a northern European nation, Scotland shares a common region, historical connections and similar outlook with our nearest neighbours. Scotland and the Nordic countries share deep ties and a mutual affinity stretching far beyond geographical proximity. Together, we have long exchanged expertise and best practices to address similar challenges, such as promoting sustainable rural and islands development, maximising renewable energy resources, seizing blue and green economy opportunities, and improving social equality.[151]

Nordic states are mostly of a similar size – in population terms – to Scotland. They regularly come top of a range of international indices, from responsible development to happiness and sustainability. The Nordic model demonstrates what Scotland could achieve as an independent country.

Our shared values and the way the Scottish Government has built trust in this region have enabled us to build strong relationships, with the exchanges giving us an opportunity to deliver benefits for the people of Scotland. This is clearly demonstrated by policy links such as those informing our delivery of baby boxes[152] (Finland), Barnahus/ Bairns’ Hoose[153] (Iceland), and our partnership on energy efficiency and heat network technologies[154] (Denmark), and many other policies contributing to the wellbeing of our communities and to Scotland’s economic success.

To further this work and increase Scotland’s visibility in the region, in August 2022 the Scottish Government opened a new office with a pan-Nordic remit in Copenhagen. The office is promoting policy exchange and unlocking new economic, cultural and trading opportunities.

We also have significant maritime frontiers with EU and non-EU nations, such as Norway, and with the Faroe Islands. This influences our outlook and approach, including on shared interests in offshore energy and carbon capture and storage between Scotland and Norway;[155] shared environmental ambitions, through for example membership of the OSPAR Convention,[156] significant Norwegian fishing activity in Scottish waters and vice versa; the management of a number of shared fish stocks;[157] and extensive bilateral engagement[158] on marine compliance with both Norway and the Faroe Islands.

The size and strength of our marine interests would make Scotland an influential maritime state, not just in a European context, where we are already a significant seafood and renewable energy producer with expertise to share, but also globally. For example, we would have opportunities to influence the overall approach of the EU in multilateral forums relating to the sea and the use of marine resources, and to be a leading player in UNCLOS (UN Convention on the Law of the Sea), the key international instrument for protection of the sea, freedom of navigation and States’ rights in their maritime zones.

Through the implementation of our Arctic policy framework, the Scottish Government is deepening Scotland’s collaboration with Arctic partners around shared policy challenges, often stemming from rurality and low population density.[159] With the powers of independence and as the region becomes more accessible, Scotland could strengthen its role as a strategic sub-Arctic hub, including for potential new shipping routes.

An independent Scotland would contribute directly to a peaceful and stable future for the Arctic, offering a wealth of expertise to promote sustainable economic growth for the region and its communities. Eleven Scottish universities are already members of the University of the Arctic – the largest number for any non-Arctic nation apart from China.[160] And Scotland has the connections and knowledge to play a leading role in international initiatives aimed at promoting net zero solutions, increasing wellbeing and limiting the effects of climate change in the region.

With independence, we would deepen knowledge and policy exchange with our near northern neighbourhood, and strengthen academic, trade and cultural collaborations with the ability to strengthen bilateral and multilateral engagement with our Nordic and Arctic partners, including in intergovernmental organisations concerned with promoting sustainable cooperation in the region. As an independent country, Scotland will aim to have the closest possible relationship with the Nordic Council.

As noted in the section on Scotland’s defence and security capability above, Scotland’s geographic position in the North Atlantic will also mean we have a distinct role to play in the stability and defence of our neighbourhood.

The European Union

Re-joining the EU at the earliest opportunity as an independent country represents the best future for Scotland. This position is shared by the majority of Members of the Scottish Parliament and the people in Scotland who voted decisively to remain in the EU in the 2016 Brexit referendum. The UK Government chose to negotiate only a limited Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the EU, with, for example, no structured relationship on foreign policy, security and defence. In contrast, Scotland wants to continue to work as closely as possible with the EU, placing huge value on our relationships with our fellow Europeans. We are determined to build upon those links by re-joining the EU as an independent country.

Scotland is a nation with a strong European heritage, outlook, and values. For more than 47 years, individuals, businesses and communities across Scotland experienced the social, economic, and cultural benefits of membership of the EU. Scotland benefitted from access to the world’s largest single market, with free movement of goods, services, capital, and people; and had greater opportunities through the EU to make Scotland’s voice heard on issues that mattered to us – whether on global challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss, or influence over international human rights and equality policies.

Scotland still shares the values of the EU – promoting human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights – and Scotland’s interests will be best served by actively helping to shape the EU’s future direction as an independent member state. With independence we would be able to work more closely with our fellow Europeans, deepening our ties, improving our global networks, and unlocking new economic and business opportunities. An independent Scotland once in the EU would play its part in the European External Action Service (EEAS), contributing to and benefitting from the EEAS’ network of over 140 delegations[161] around the world which amplifies the voices of all member states.

In addition, as an EU member state, an independent Scotland would have the weight of the EU behind it in navigating the global trading environment, for example, assisting in improving market access around the world in the interests of Scotland’s businesses and contributing to and benefitting from the knowledge and expertise of EU trade negotiators.

The EU is evolving rapidly in its recovery from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, its twin transitions on green and digital,[162] and in its response to Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine. Scotland shares with the EU a strategic agenda and a vision that embodies democratic values,[163] promotes the wellbeing of all of society, rises fully to the challenge of the global climate and biodiversity emergencies, and supports a smart and sustainable economic recovery from the global pandemic. This Scottish Government has already committed to remaining close to the EU and to building the strongest possible relationship between the EU and Scotland.[164] By maintaining alignment where possible and meaningful, and by protecting and continuing to advance the high standards that Scotland enjoyed when part of the EU, this Scottish Government will also ease the future process of Scotland’s return.

A globally connected Scotland

Scotland’s enduring connections extend beyond Europe and include links in North America, Africa, the Middle East, Asia-Pacific and South America. For example, links between Scotland and the US and Canada are of such a scale that we have been significant partners for generations.[165] We have built on these historic connections and worked to develop relationships of substance, with the US as our single largest trade and investment partner outside the UK.[166]

Scotland has had a deeply integrated relationship with the United States and Canada for generations. In its modern form it encompasses trade, investment and academic links – and a wellspring of connections via diaspora, family and friends. Strategically for Scotland, North America is central to some of the issues already covered, not least our shared equities and interests in the Arctic and North Atlantic. As the United States and Canada focus on green manufacturing, Scotland is well placed to work with them on those opportunities to support delivery of sustainable jobs, energy independence and co-operation – all while bolstering the national security of our allies.

As an independent state, Scotland would be able to capitalise fully on these relationships, expand our networks and open new opportunities. We would be free to engage more substantially across the world, building stronger relationships while listening to those most affected by global challenges and learning from best practice.

Globally, this Scottish Government would aim to have the closest relationships and partnerships with countries that uphold similar values and have similar approaches to international engagement. Many of these have been listed above – our near northern neighbours, the EU, and the US and Canada – but they do not stop there. Scotland already enjoys good relations with several countries in Asia and has burgeoning relationships with nations from Chile to New Zealand. Independence will give Scotland the opportunity to grow these partnerships.

With independence, Scotland will also have to engage with the reality of our interconnected world, in an age of rising tensions. Many countries have different approaches and values which will at times be at odds with Scotland’s. Some countries act in aggressive and hostile ways, breaching international norms and laws.

An independent Scotland would play its full part in the rules-based international system, and this will mean engaging with countries with which we fundamentally disagree. This Scottish Government would try to approach these relationships in a robust but constructive way, recognising that progress on shared challenges such as the climate crisis and issues of peace and security can only be achieved through cooperation with the largest possible number of partners. In some cases, like Russia or Iran, a concerted, collective effort by the international community to isolate and disinvest is the right course of action.

Maintaining this balanced, realistic approach would help Scotland to benefit fully from the opportunities of global connections, while being alive to risks and threats to our way of life from the activities of hostile state actors.

Multilateral relationships

Scotland has a long history of engaging constructively with intergovernmental institutions and participating in international networks. But with membership largely restricted to sovereign states, it is only through independence that Scotland would be able to participate fully on the international stage, join these organisations in our own right, and influence the world around us on the issues that matter most to Scotland.

Working with partners through intergovernmental organisations is an essential tool for international cooperation, for finding shared solutions to shared challenges, and for demonstrating collective commitment to the international community.

Scotland already meets the essential requirements for joining the vast majority of these organisations, except that of being an independent state. However, we recognise that each organisation has its own procedure for membership: Scotland will respect these procedures with no expectation of fast-tracked routes.

Membership of the UN would cement an independent Scotland’s place in the world and our commitment to the international rule of law overseen by the International Court of Justice. An independent Scotland would be active and vocal at the UN on the issues that matter most to us, guided by our interests and values, including those we share with the EU of human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and human rights.

As a UN member state, an independent Scotland will uphold the UN Charter[167] and work cooperatively with other countries to achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.[168] With a vote and a voice in the United Nations General Assembly, Scotland would help to shape action on human rights, climate change, and global peace and security. For example, an independent Scotland could have joined with 153 countries[169] in voting for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza.

With independence, Scotland would also have a seat at the table at UN agencies – including UN Climate Change, the UN Development Programme, UNESCO and the World Health Organization – influencing international action in areas of particular interest.

An independent Scotland would seek to remain part of the Commonwealth.[170] The Commonwealth – a voluntary association of 56 countries, most with historical ties to the United Kingdom – works collectively to promote democracy, peace and prosperity, through a network of over 80 civil, cultural and intergovernmental organisations.

Scotland has deep and long-lasting connections and relationships with several Commonwealth countries, from Canada to Malawi, and growing connections with many others, including Rwanda and Pakistan. Following independence, Scotland would actively participate in the Commonwealth, a consensus-based multilateral forum that gives equal weight to countries’ voices, no matter their size.

Our future network

Independence would, for the first time, enable Scotland to have a dedicated network deploying the full range of diplomatic functions devoted to promoting and protecting Scottish interests.

Building on our strengths, this offers the opportunity to design and expand our international footprint in a way that reflects Scotland’s own priorities in the 21st century, rather than those of a bygone, imperial age; a network which amplifies our voice and ensures we capitalise on the new powers and responsibilities independence would bring domestically and internationally.

Following a vote for independence, the Scottish Government would begin building capacity for strategic planning, oversight and policy functions for defence and international security, multilateral policy, consular, protocol and ceremonial, as well as specialist international functions like legal, analytical, economic and security. We would rapidly expand our capacity to manage bilateral relationships and to engage with multilateral institutions. By independence day, Scotland will seek to develop a network of embassies and consulates covering all key territories, and this network will grow and adapt over time.

An independent Scotland would be able to take advantage of more innovative means of representation, such as roaming diplomats, shared premises, virtual embassies and digital diplomacy to most effectively represent Scottish interests in the right places and in the right ways.

This would allow Scotland to maximise the impact of its resources, respond quickly to shifting demands, and support key sectors of Scotland’s economy. It would ensure we could reach a greater number of countries, beyond those where we have a physical presence. For example, an independent Scotland could appoint honorary consuls to provide support and representation in locations where no permanent staff were located, as many other countries currently do in Scotland. The diplomatic network of an independent Scotland would deliver five core functions:

  • policy: to promote Scotland’s strategic interests, share learning and make connections with international partners to ensure effective engagement with governments and other public institutions. In many countries, this would include our commitment to working with partners to support their development. All sovereign posts – Scottish Embassies in national capitals – would fulfil a political and government-to-government function
  • security: to keep Scotland safe, promoting and safeguarding Scotland’s defence and security interests overseas, including military, intelligence, justice and police liaison
  • trade and investment: to promote Scotland as a hub for innovation, trade and investment – strengthening existing trade and investment links and seeking new opportunities – all underpinned by our values and principles. We would also increase the level of support to our existing GlobalScot[171] and Trade and Investment Envoy[172] networks, key parts of Scotland’s international business community. These networks share advice, help open doors for Scottish businesses, and identify opportunities that support exports, capital investment and foreign direct investment
  • consular: to provide appropriate consular support for our citizens through a range of routes, including agreements with key partner countries, reciprocal services as an EU member state and as part of the Commonwealth, roaming diplomats, and use of innovative digital services, giving future Scottish Governments the means to reach Scottish citizens requiring assistance abroad
  • people: to promote Scotland’s world-class universities and colleges to international students, create new opportunities for Scots to study abroad, and help our universities build research partnerships with institutions globally.[173] Cultural policy and agency personnel, integrated into an independent Scotland’s own international network, will help promote people-to-people links and attract talent to live, work and study in Scotland.

The locations for a future network of diplomatic and consular offices would be informed by these functions and objectives. They would reflect the aims and interests of Scottish businesses, academic institutions and cultural bodies, drawing on their global expertise. Scotland would have a particularly strong presence in countries with significant Scottish diaspora, as well as in popular tourist destinations for Scottish travellers. In strategic locations, this Scottish Government would expand upon the Scotland House model already adopted in our offices in Brussels[174] and London,[175] which include teams covering diplomatic engagement, economic development and cultural promotion.

Figure 1: An illustration of independent Scotland’s possible initial diplomatic coverage[176]
A map providing an illustration of independent Scotland’s possible initial diplomatic coverage.

An independent Scotland’s international network would grow and adapt over time. At the point of independence, this Scottish Government would establish embassies in: London, Dublin and Washington D.C., to foster relations with our closest neighbours and partners; key EU capitals; our partner countries in Africa; Canberra, Wellington, New Delhi, Islamabad and Ottawa, in recognition of our strong people to people links; and in our most important trading destinations, including in the Middle East and Asia – with Beijing, Tokyo, Singapore and Abu Dhabi initial priorities.

Table 4 below provides an overview of the size of the established diplomatic network of a range of countries with a population under 10 million. These countries maintain Embassies in 29-93 countries, alongside missions to the multilateral organisations of which they are members or observers.

Table 4: Established diplomatic network of selected countries with similar population to Scotland
Country Number of bilateral missions [177] Number of multilateral missions [178]
Austria[179] 87 9
Croatia[180] 57 7
Czech Republic[181] 93 7
Denmark[182] 67 6
Finland[183] 71 6
Ireland[184] 70 6
Lithuania[185] 43 8
New Zealand[186] 56 5
Singapore[187] 29 9

In addition to embassies and consulates, this Scottish Government would establish Scottish permanent missions to the key international organisations which an independent Scotland would plan to join, including the UN and its agencies, the EU, NATO, the Council of Europe, and OSCE. The appointment of professional diplomats to key multilateral institutions would enable regular engagement with a range of potential country partners without requiring the physical presence of an embassy. An independent Scotland’s membership of groupings like the Commonwealth would also offer useful networks of like-minded international partners to cooperate and share efforts internationally.

An independent Scotland would work openly and constructively with our European neighbours. As an EU member state, an independent Scotland would benefit from and contribute to reciprocal consular services. As citizens of an EU member state, citizens of an independent Scotland in need of emergency assistance, including in countries where there is no Scottish Embassy or High Commission, would have access to the consular services of over 2,100 EU member state missions around the world.[188] European countries of varying sizes utilise access to this large EU network to ensure their citizens overseas have support when they need it. EU membership will also mean that Scotland is represented by their vast diplomatic network in over 170 countries around the world.[189]

Independence would see countries and international organisations from around the world establishing their own embassies to Scotland, with Edinburgh becoming a diplomatic hub. This would bring a wide range of benefits, not least high-quality job opportunities as locally engaged staff in the representations of our friends and partners.



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