ANGUS Robertson has accused the Foreign Secretary of trying to censor him and his colleagues as he demanded the withdrawal of guidance to British diplomats placing curbs on dealings between Scottish ministers and overseas governments. 

A letter sent by James Cleverley to all UK heads of mission said that all meetings involving ministers in Edinburgh and overseas governments must be organised through the Foreign Office and attended by UK officials.

He said UK officials must take a “firm approach” to ensure the Scottish government was not using overseas visits to promote independence and undermine UK policy.

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The letter led to anger among Scottish Government ministers who have a network of international offices across Europe working to enhance overseas trade relations and maintain ties with the EU post Brexit.

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It also has hubs in Washington DC, Beijing and Ottawa. The first two are inside the British Embassy offices in those capital cities, while the Beijing hub is located in the British High Commission bureau.

In his response to Mr Cleverley's letter, Mr Robertson, the constitution secretary, said he is ‘concerned at the damage [the] letter and guidance could do to Scottish trade, cultural exchanges and education, and to Scottish interests.

“Scotland has long benefitted from the investment and domestic benefits our international network has helped to deliver and as EY reported last year, Scotland continues to outperform the UK as a whole for foreign direct investment, driving the creation of new jobs and economic opportunities for local businesses," he wrote.

“Ministerial engagement to promote Scotland is a key driver of these opportunities, alongside the efforts of our international network, and it is more vital than ever, given the damage of Brexit to the Scottish economy and trade. 

"Just this week, Wellbeing Economy Secretary Neil Gray met with a major Japanese company in Osaka to discuss plans for a large subsea electric cable manufacturing plant in the Highlands.

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“We will of course resist any move by the UK Government to curtail these types of visits and reduce opportunities to promote Scottish trade and investment opportunities.  There is, rightly, nothing in the Scotland Act that prevents Scottish ministers from undertaking overseas visits to promote Scottish interests.”  

He added: "The Scottish Government is internationalist to its core. We believe Scotland has a contribution to make to global issues, whether that is tackling climate change, international development, advancing equalities around the world, the treatment of those fleeing war and oppression and many other topics where the UK Government also has relevant responsibilities. We cannot be expected to turn our back on our core national values, and we will not do so."

He continued: "In terms of the practical effect, the clear purpose of the guidance appears to be to limit the Scottish Government’s international activity. Make no mistake: this will cause real, practical damage to Scotland’s interests. Scotland is home to leading businesses in space, renewables, life sciences and artificial intelligence and has an arts and culture sector with a global reputation. Our economy, businesses, educational institutions and transition to net zero all depend on international partnerships and engagement. 

"The Scottish diaspora comprises some 40 million people, many of whom want to engage with Scotland. In all of these areas of activity other countries, their governments and businesses want to work with Scotland. The new guidance seems designed to put obstacles in the way of that."

He went on: "Your letter and guidance amount to an attempt to censor Scottish Government ministers’ legitimate engagement in international forums and meetings. 
"They give an inaccurate picture of both the way the Union itself is supposed to operate and of devolution. And above all, they will damage the Scottish economy and a range of Scottish interests."

Mr Robertson said he was surprised to first hear of the new guidance via a newspaper journalist seeking a comment and underlined that the Scotland Act did not stop Scottish ministers forming relationships with other countries despite foreign affairs being a reserved matter.

A spokesman for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said: “The UK has one of the best, most expansive and expert diplomatic services in the world, with people from across the UK representing our interests abroad.

“As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the G7, NATO and the Commonwealth the UK has an unparalleled influence on the international stage.

“We are delivering effectively for the whole of the UK, including by ensuring that Scotland’s interests remain at the heart of our international agenda”.