The UK is facing major foreign policy crisis, but the first ministers aren't intervening
While the focus of the Westminster media has been on ‘Partygate’, the Government has been getting credit abroad for its relatively muscular approach towards the developing crisis in Ukraine.
The United Kingdom has been at the forefront of powers providing material aid to Kiev, and the contrast offered by British planes bypassing German airspace has strengthened the idea that Boris Johnson serious about ‘Global Britain’.
Leaving aside whether this approach is the correct one, another interesting feature of this story is that the devolved governments don’t seem to have gone anywhere near it. Google ‘Nicola Sturgeon Ukraine’ and ‘Mark Drakeford Ukraine’ and you will, as of the time of writing, find no interventions from either of these self-consciously European first ministers on the most serious crisis facing Europe.
In an ideal world, there would be nothing remarkable about this. Even under this country’s woefully dysfunctional devolution settlement, foreign affairs are reserved to Westminster. Yet the fierce policing of who’s treading on who’s turf that we see when London trespasses on devolved prerogatives usually only goes one way, and the devolved authorities are ordinarily very keen to involve themselves overseas.
This focus on foreign affairs came to the fore during the Brexit negotiations, when the Government suspected the First Minister of leaking information to Brussels. But also consider the millions of pounds per annum the Scottish Government spends maintaining a network of international offices, or Sturgeon’s hyperactive selfie spree at last year’s COP26 summit meeting in Glasgow.
Nor is that the end of it: this year the Scottish Government tripled its ‘climate justice fund’ to £36 million, sparking allegations that it was using public money to ‘promote independence’ — all while the essential services Edinburgh is actually responsible for, such as education and health, continue to under-perform.
Drakeford meanwhile has set up “Wales’ own Erasmus scheme”, despite the UK Government’s Turing programme giving students from all parts of the UK the chance to study all over the world. Once again, Cardiff Bay’s handling of bread-and-butter education issues leaves much to be desired.
Yet even though both first ministers are happy to divert their budgets to build an international profile, they’re silent in a major crisis. It is increasingly clear that, independent under nationalist leadership, Scotland and Wales would follow the path charted by the Republic of Ireland, which has struck a pious note of official neutrality while piggybacking off the NATO security umbrella, even to the extent of having the Royal Air Force police its airspace.
It is not a model worth emulating. Just this week, the Russian Navy has been preparing to conduct exercises off the Irish coast. Where the UK would dispatch its own warships, Dublin is sending… fishermen. The SNP’s anti-nuclear weapons policy, meanwhile, would see our main submarine base shuttered and the Royal Navy’s ability to police access to the North Atlantic reduced.
Perhaps that’s ultimately why Sturgeon has nothing to say to Vladimir Putin — her overriding political ambition is the break-up of one of NATO’s most important members.