GRAHAM GRANT: It's time to call a halt to Humza's empire-building

GRAHAM GRANT: It’s time to call a halt to Humza’s overseas empire-building while SNP ignores troubles at home

With issues piling up at home, the First Minister decided to play the role of international statesman at Cop28 in Dubai.

At the climate change summit, Humza Yousaf was able to mingle with assorted VIPs – most of whom will have had no idea who he was.

Among those he met was Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish president, and they discussed the need for an ‘immediate’ ceasefire in the Israel-Gaza conflict.

Images of the pair’s warm handshake led to concern from some within the SNP over the optics of a cosy chat with a controversial leader who stands accused of human rights abuses and the suppression of freedom of speech.

But as we reported yesterday, it also prompted anger at the highest levels of the UK Government.

Humza Yousaf with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their meeting at the UN Climate Change Conference COP28

On Sunday, Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron issued a public reprimand to Mr Yousaf’s government for an ill-advised First Ministerial foray into the realm of global affairs.

Such discussions, without the presence of UK diplomats, are forbidden, and the SNP has form for such reckless freelancing – so the Foreign Secretary’s intervention was logical and necessary.

He also issued a series of threats aimed at calling a halt to the Nationalists’ overseas empire-building.

SNP Government outposts in British embassies abroad could be turfed out, forcing their bosses to seek other (probably expensive) accommodation.

Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) support for SNP ministers’ meetings abroad, including help setting them up and getting a location, or providing assistance at airports, would be ditched – unless the Nationalists agree to stick to the necessary protocols.

What on earth was Mr Yousaf thinking when he had a casual conversation about matters far beyond the remit of his devolved administration?

The attractions are clear: back at Holyrood a row was raging about his Health Secretary Michael Matheson trying to take taxpayers on a ride by billing them for an £11,000 data roaming bill on a parliamentary iPad, run up by his kids streaming a football match on a festive family break to Morocco.

If Mr Yousaf had been back in Edinburgh, he might have been challenged about the meltdown of the NHS and a £1billion black hole in government finances, which could mean yet another tax hike is looming when the Scottish Budget is announced next week.

Hobnobbing with dignitaries and their bag-carriers in the Middle East as his constituents shivered at home in the midst of a nasty cold snap was a welcome break.

But Mr Yousaf’s off-piste conflab with the Turkish leader was an extremely bad idea, given that consistency in international relations is key – and that the proposal for an Israel-Gaza ceasefire directly contradicts UK Government foreign policy.

It should be no surprise that Mr Yousaf has blundered into a diplomatic row, given his infamous reverse Midas Touch which has seen him fail in every ministerial portfolio he has ever had – including the present one.

Mind you, was there method in his madness? Maybe he knew UK mandarins and their political masters, including Lord Cameron, would be infuriated by his encounter with Erdoğan on the fringes of Cop28, where Scotland wasn’t even recognised as an official participant.

Another row with our colonial overlords in London might have proved a much-needed fillip for the independence crusade.

Liz Lloyd, former chief of staff to Nicola Sturgeon, tweeted that it would have been ‘better for [the] UK to speak to SG [Scottish Government] and sort it out rather than shout about it’.

That’s a bit rich – the SNP has spent 16 years shouting, often very loudly, about cross-Border disputes – whether real or imagined.

There’s no doubt that it would have flattered Mr Yousaf’s considerable ego to talk about the turmoil in Gaza with the Turkish president.

But others weren’t so impressed, including Roza Salih, an SNP councillor in Glasgow, who came to Scotland from Iraq seeking asylum and is tipped as a future MP.

She said she was ‘disappointed and disgusted’, as Erdoğan ‘kills Kurds and does not respect human rights’.

Lord Foulkes, a long-time critic of the SNP’s refusal to respect the boundaries between devolved and UK politics, points out that Mr Yousaf allowed himself to become a ‘useful idiot’ – and that the unsanctioned talks were ‘dangerous’.

Now Mr Yousaf is reaping the results of his ill-judged tête-à-tête – but when it comes to straying into foreign affairs the SNP Government is far from a first offender.

Around £35million a year goes into the SNP Government budget for ‘international and European relations’, funding a network of nine ‘overseas offices’ – as councils warn they’re on the verge of bankruptcy and police numbers are at a 15-year low. 

In April, Lord Cameron’s predecessor James Cleverly announced new measures obliging foreign governments to go through UK ambassadors to meet SNP ministers, in a crackdown on the party pushing its independence agenda abroad.

SNP politicians had been accused of using overseas trips to ‘promote Scottish separatism and undermine UK Government policy positions’.

As a result, Mr Cleverly told UK diplomats to take a ‘strengthened approach’ by telling other countries not to arrange meetings with Holyrood ministers without the involvement of the FCDO.

The ‘heads of missions’ overseas had also been instructed to gather information about any potential visits and report back to the FCDO, and to ensure UK officials always attend any official talks between SNP ministers and foreign governments.

Fittingly, the SNP’s Culture and External Affairs Secretary Angus Robertson – dubbed ‘Air Miles Angus’ for his regular overseas jaunts – was in the US when Mr Cleverly issued the new rules, to attend Tartan Week events.

Mr Robertson, the recipient of the latest missive from Lord Cameron, has been accused of using his role to bang the drum for independence as he jets around the world. 

In August 2022, at the Bled Strategic Forum in Slovenia, it is claimed that Mr Robertson voiced concern about UK Government positions on issues including the Northern Ireland protocol, the Bill of Rights and the SNP’s independence plans.

And he is said to have criticised UK policy on EU law and student funding in October last year in Paris talks with the French Europe minister.

That same month, he also discussed independence with Iceland’s prime minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir at talks in Reykjavik.

And in November last year, he came under fire for embarking on a trip to Spain – just as the SNP Government was preparing to unveil huge budget cuts.

The Nationalists insist that the Scotland Act, which led to the creation of the Scottish parliament, does not preclude international ‘engagement’.

But now even Labour has said it would put a stop to the SNP venturing beyond the parameters of devolved government and riding roughshod over the clear rules set out by the FCDO.

Mr Yousaf should accept that it’s game over for his attempt at high-stakes diplomacy – even if it’s more appealing than fielding questions about an errant Health Secretary, or crumbling infrastructure, or failing schools.

He should get back to the day job – and leave big-league politics to those who know what they’re talking about.

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