It is a curiosity of how devolution has gone off the rails that even matters which caused no controversy before Holyrood existed are now squabbled over by sworn enemies as if points of high political principle are at stake. Meanwhile, Scotland’s actual interests are sidelined.

A case in point is the dispute between James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, and Angus Robertson, who carries responsibility for “External Affairs” in the Scottish Government. For whatever reason, Cleverly has deemed it necessary to tell our ambassadors around the world to keep a close eye on what Angus is up to.

In his letter, Cleverly wrote: "I recently met with the Secretary of State for Scotland and share his concerns at Scottish Government ministers continuing to use overseas visits to promote Scottish separatism and undermine UK Government policy positions”.

This would have been more persuasive if he had quoted a couple of examples. In practice, it is unlikely that a minister in another state’s government would meet the representative of a devolved administration, far less have the slightest interest in his commentary on its domestic affairs. That’s not how protocol works.

However, in a response of epic pomposity, Robertson declared: “We cannot be expected to turn our backs on our core national values, and we will not do so”. At this juncture, you begin to think Cleverly just might have a point, if Robertson is trotting round the world to pontificate about Scotland’s “core national values” to foreign functionaries.

It is, in practice, a spat about absolutely nothing of value. There need be no dispute about Scotland’s right to represent itself abroad nor the parameters governing it. Devolution created opportunities for expanding our external relationships within extensive policy areas. Instead, we end up with a row about their limitations while the opportunities are ignored.

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Scottish ministers travelled abroad for decades before devolution without anyone raising an eyebrow because it was obviously in Scotland’s interests for them to do so, regardless of who was in government. I was one of them in the period immediately prior to Holyrood’s existence.

At that time we were awash with inward investment and one of my first missions was to Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong. I don’t recall meeting ministers or aspiring to do so, because the focus was on companies. It still should be. Back then, it was hardly worth a press release for an inward investment that didn’t bring a few hundred jobs. These days are past and show little sign of returning.

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Nonetheless, it is entirely appropriate that Scottish ministers should travel in pursuit of trade and investment, with offshore wind the current obvious focus. It is equally sensible that they should, now as in the past, work closely with UK embassies to secure positive outcomes. With mutual goodwill, there is little difficulty in making these relationships work.

Criticism of Scottish trade offices abroad is misplaced. I was asked a few years ago to write a report on Scottish exporting and one of its recommendations was that these offices should be embedded within the embassies, rather than operating as separate and sometimes competing entities. This has generally been followed simply because it is common sense to get the best of both worlds in how we are represented.

As in so many respects, rational debate in Scotland is impeded by the constant constitutional backdrop. Sub-state governments in every European country have their own foreign representations, mostly for trade, investment and tourism. It is entirely non-controversial. Only here does it attract suspicion and resentment, as reflected in the Cleverly-Robertson letters.

SNP ministers resent the fact that they are not representing a state while the UK Government is suspicious that they are compensating for that reality by peddling their own party political line. Self-evidently, the interests of the Scottish economy would be better served if such paranoia and pretension could be replaced with a collaborative relationship, as used to be the norm.

The UK diplomatic and trade network is a fantastic resource which is at Scotland’s disposal and has served us well. We also have our own experienced teams working in the fields of trade and investment. At its best, under all governments, that has been a winning partnership and it saddens me that stupidity has reduced it to the level reflected in these exchanges between Cleverly and Robertson.

There is nothing wrong with ministers travelling if it produces useful outcomes rather than pointless grandstanding. I’ve always found it a little puzzling that the SNP has been so entirely disinterested in learning from other countries in order to borrow ideas and then apply them here. It reinforces the view that the SNP is not really enthused by anything that does not involve the constitution.

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For example, from the perspective of where I live, absolutely nothing has been done to learn from other coastal countries about policies directed towards maintaining population and providing services in peripheral areas. It’s fine to drone on about Norway if there is some constitutional point to be scored but the idea of actually learning anything about its enlightened policies is anathema.

Another foreign comparator that has long intrigued me involves our miserable town centres. No other country in western Europe has the same scale of problem. So why not pursue a couple of detailed case studies in comparable communities? Then replicate as closely as possible what they do that produces different outcomes and apply the lessons to some of our own beleaguered areas. All the relevant powers are devolved, so what’s stopping us?

These are a couple of random examples of how devolution could make Scotland more outward-looking and create opportunities to do things differently from the rest of the UK, in a self-confident way. But they would involve hard work and a micro interest in policy development which is exactly what devolution offers the freedom to deliver.

Instead, we see our communities stagnate while pointless disputes are pursued and opportunities neglected. Scotland really does deserve better and two governments capable of working together might help deliver it.

Brian Wilson is a former Labour Party politician. He was MP for Cunninghame North from 1987 until 2005 and served as a Minister of State from 1997 to 2003.