I posed a stray question on Twitter the other day: how would an independent Scotland purchase, staff and run its newly required embassies. Immediately a response came back: any EU citizen can access the services of any EU embassy in case of a problem or emergency. So when an independent Scotland finally became a member of the EU that would be one issue sorted.
But that wasn’t my point. It struck me, driving past a few different embassies in London the other week, how much money and energy was invested in these huge properties. Even small, poor countries have buildings worth millions, to say nothing of their upkeep, security and staff. A new country would have a huge task to begin this whole process from scratch.
Apparently the UK diplomatic service has 270 offices in 170 countries with 14,000 staff. Scotland need not have such a vast network, but when asked about this question earlier this year Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon suggested that one option could be Scotland sharing the present British facilities. So Scotland’s foreign presence would have to reply on English property and infrastructure to function? In, say, Tokyo, would the Scottish diplomat just have a separate desk or her own office? Would that passport renewal in Cape Town have to be done at an English facility? Who would pay for heating and photocopying … and paper clips? And let’s not begin to talk spies and intelligence. Forgive me, but I do find all of this rather strange – and I’m not just trying to bang a ‘Better Together’ drum.
But there’s a deeper issue here than money or organization. To be independent is to ‘go it alone’, and nothing is more independent and sovereign than a country’s territory abroad. The whole point of an embassy is that it is a slice of home in a foreign land. The writer Somerset Maugham was born in the British Embassy in Paris to avoid the danger of future conscription in the French army in unsettled times. He was British because he was born on British soil. To become an independent country yet to be reliant on the future good will of those who themselves are foreigners in a foreign land is surely to undo the whole system. Interestingly the only country in the UK which has an ambassador but no embassy is Somalia.
This seems to me to be one of those issues the full impact of which has not been thought through. I realize that in a month this question may be none of my business but I as write these words the land I love north of Berwick is still constitutionally my land – my home at home. I may not have a vote about its future but I do have a voice at present with which to ask the questions.