SHETLAND. Its name is never plural. It is not in a box in the Moray Firth. Its nearest railway station is not Bergen, Norway. Its people are not itching to create an independent Atlantic statelet. Oh, and “it” is not remote: “you” are.

We do love to talk rubbish about Scotland’s most northerly islands. But it turns out what really gets on some people’s nerves is when we say things about the archipelago that are true.

Last week Nicola Sturgeon, in a speech in Iceland, pointed out that Shetland was closer to the Arctic circle than it was to London.

Cue online abuse. It is always fascinating to see what triggers digital-grade partisans of one hue or another.

For unionists, or at least for some of them, it was a Scottish leader articulating a non-London-centric foreign policy perspective.

Of course, there are visceral opponents of Ms Sturgeon – including disillusioned and radicalised cybernats – who would would howl in to Facebook if she opened a bag of crisps. But there is definitely something about Scottish ministers ‘galavanting’ around the globe which upsets some pro-UK types.

And, for some opposition politicians, slagging the FM for “grandstanding" at an international event is an easy way to please your base. I guess to them, Ms Sturgeon – with her easy manners and confident smile – looks far too much like the leader of a sovereign nation when she does so.

Of course, there will be arch-unionists who will mutter under their breath that bloody Sturgeon has no right to parlay with foreigners. Reserved, innit? Except, of course it is not. There is nothing remotely new, unusual or “reserved” about substate diplomacy. Indeed, this Scottish Government, like its pro-UK predecessors before and after devolution, is just doing the job it is supposed to be doing.

But is it doing that job well? And how would we know if it was?

These are the questions – important ones, I think – which the current opposition attitude to Scotland’s para-diplomatic, trade, educational and other international efforts leave unanswered.

Let’s just take how we look north.

Scottish officials have developed a policy prospectus on how we can engage with the Arctic world. It talks a good talk, as Sturgeon did the other day.

There are reasons, the theory goes, Scotland should be interacting with the north, given our shared history, similar challenges of “remoteness”, comparable business interests such as fishing and fish-farming, renewable energy, and oil and gas.

But how deep does this commitment really run? How are we measuring success? What are our exact goals? And are we achieving them?

Let’s look at Shetland. What efforts are being made to reinstate the islands’ lost transport links to Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands? Shetlanders may ‘look” north, but they can’t “go” any direction other than south.

Authorities in Orkney, meanwhile, believe Scapa Flow, one of the world’s great natural harbours, could thrive as the Arctic opens. I know this appeals to SNP politicians, who also see the Flow as a major strategic military and transport offering for a future independent Scotland. But what, if anything, are they doing to support or even test these aspirations?

Right now the SNP looks good on building relations to the north – and east (it also has a focus on the Baltic states and Scandinavia). But it only because its opponents have surrendered this sphere.

Take the Nordic world. There is some horribly lazy thinking about this in the nationalist ranks. Pro-independence speakers often assert affinity with Scandinavia. But how much have the SNP in their decade and a half really done to build meaningful engagement across the North Sea? They will point to some well-intentioned initiatives. But here is a question: how many young Scots could have been taught to speak a Scandinavian language in the last 15 years?

Building real affinity with a neighbouring country or region takes effort: language skills; mass cultural, tourism and business exchange; and the infrastructure to support that. None of which we have. And, to be fair to the SNP within the limited capacity of devolution, none of which is easy.

Sturgeon in Iceland was offering a different geographical perspective on global events. Smart unionists could see this as a plus for the UK, of a multi-polar state that has eyes in all directions, not just one.

Indeed, there is a reasonable unionist case for pushing a Scottish Arctic or Nordic policy with more gusto than the nationalists have managed.

Pro-UK devolutionary politicians, especially liberals from their northern isles redoubts, could be harrying the SNP on Nordic and Arctic policies.

Labour too could easily outflank the SNP, whose ministers are distracted by so many other cares, on the international objectives of a devolved Scotland. It was their last first minister, Jack McConnell, after all, who did so much to raise Scotland’s profile, not least with his creditable commitment to Malawi.

David Clark used to advise Labour Foreign Secretary Robin Cook. Now an independent analyst, he despairs at what he called the “unhelpful polarisation” illustrated by reactions to Sturgeon’s Iceland speech.

Scotland’s global role, he said, “shouldn’t be contentious”

He added: “By reacting negatively every time the first minister speaks about international issues, unionists risk appearing not just anti-independence but anti-devolution”.

Mr Clark has some suggestions. Perhaps Labour, he said, should call for devolved leaders to be on the UK’s national security council. Maybe the party could come up with a way to give Scotland more of a say in foreign policy as part of the constitutional compromise it says it is working on.

“That way it might begin to find a way out of the mental cul-de-sac it has backed itself into in recent years,” he said.

Yes, part of Scotland is closer to the Arctic than to London. But so therefore is part of Britain. Unionists can help to ensure a Scottish perspective on foreign affairs informs UK-level thinking. Or they can weaken Britain by ignoring such insight.

In Angus Robertson and Nicola Sturgeon the SNP at Holyrood have politicians who can impress on a foreign stage. But their opponents should stop carping about them being there and start making sure they are delivering more than speeches.

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