Labour ‘testing water for SNP coalition’ by offering Scotland new powers

Gordon Brown and Sir Keir Starmer - Jane Barlow/PA Wire
Gordon Brown and Sir Keir Starmer - Jane Barlow/PA Wire

Labour has been accused of “testing the water” for a possible post-general election coalition with the SNP by offering the Scottish government new powers to sign international agreements.

A recommendation buried in Labour’s 174-page Commission on the UK’s Future says Scotland should be allowed “to enter into international agreements and join international bodies in relation to devolved matters”.

These could include the Erasmus student exchange scheme, which is only open to EU countries.

The suggestion has alarmed senior figures in the Foreign Office, which represents the UK’s four nations on the international stage.

One source said it appeared Labour was making an early offer to form a government with the SNP if the polls narrow and there is a hung Parliament after the next election, expected to take place in 2024.

The controversial section of the report, which was unveiled by Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, and Gordon Brown, the former prime minister, is headlined “International recognition of Scotland and its parliament”.

‘Cooperation will serve Scotland better’

It says: “Scotland as a nation already has a powerful international presence across the world, one supported by the UK Foreign Service and by the offices maintained by the Scottish government in a number of countries, which help to promote trade and cooperation.

“Of course foreign affairs is a reserved matter and the responsibility ultimately of the United Kingdom government and Parliament, but this is yet another area in which we would expect the UK and Scottish governments to cooperate, and where cooperation will serve Scotland better.

“We think it is right for the Scottish parliament and government to have greater powers to promote Scotland across the world, both to represent Scotland as a nation and to promote its economic and social interests.

“We therefore propose that the Scottish government should, with the approval of the Scottish parliament (and where appropriate, the assistance of the UK Government) be able to enter into agreements with international bodies, insofar as they relate to devolved matters only.

“Examples would include Unesco, the Nordic Council or (if the EU were willing to agree) even the Erasmus scheme for student exchange. The reservation of foreign affairs in the devolution settlement should be amended as necessary to allow for this.

“We note that the devolution settlement already contains reserve powers for the UK Government to intervene if actions by the Scottish government would cause the UK to be in breach of its international obligations, and these would obviously apply here also.”

The suggestion was given short shrift by a source close to James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, who told The Telegraph: “Britain’s foreign policy is there to represent all the nations of the UK.

“This idea seems the first tentative ‘test the water’ offer to try and build an SNP/Labour coalition. If that’s not enough to tempt the SNP, where might that end up? The offer of a second independence referendum?”

Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative leader, added: “It’s extraordinarily naive of Labour to think they can appease the SNP by handing them more powers, when nothing short of independence will ever satisfy them.

“Gordon Brown’s proposals to give the Scottish government free rein to pursue their own foreign policy and sign international agreements is a dangerous concession.

“Foreign affairs is a reserved matter for a reason – because it’s vital that the UK speaks with one voice on the international stage. This would be put at risk by Labour’s proposal, particularly when the SNP have a vested interest in fostering division with the UK at every opportunity.”

Privately, UK government ministers have been growing increasingly frustrated by the Scottish government trying to project itself on the global stage.

In the past 24 hours, Angus Robertson, the Scottish government’s external affairs minister, sent Independence Day messages on Twitter “to everyone in Finland from your northern European friends in Scotland”.

On Tuesday, Mr Robertson also hosted a St Andrew’s Day reception in Berlin and said he had been in “discussions with German federal and state governments, as well as economic, educational and cultural decision-makers”.

Labour declined to comment, but a spokesman pointed to Sir Keir's denial of any deal with the SNP to The Telegraph’s Chopper’s Politics podcast a fortnight ago.