Nicola Sturgeon fancies herself as something of an international stateswoman, jetting off to the United States to boost her profile and touring the capitals of Europe in search of allies against Brexit. She is fond, too, of tweeting her commentary on global affairs, in the hope that others may learn from her example so that, one day, they too can lead a country with a £12.6bn deficit that can’t teach its children how to read.
A network of de facto embassies has been steadily assembled, nominally to promote trade ties (which the UK Government already does) but in reality to promote Scotland externally as a separate state.
Those who point out that such matters are wholly reserved to the UK Parliament, and the SNP leader has no business using taxpayers’ money to build her own foreign policy apparatus, are dismissed as gurning pettifoggers. The cooing commentariat longs for Westminster to produce someone of Sturgeon’s calibre, as though the Labour backbenches weren’t chockers with earnest, well-meaning junior ministry talent.
Finally, as was always going to happen, a foreign relations nightmare has fallen in her lap. Simon Cheng Man-kit, a 28-year-old trade official with the Scottish Development International section, has been seized by Chinese authorities. Cheng, who is based in the British consulate in Hong Kong, went missing after boarding a train from Shenzhen to Hong Kong on August 8. His last message to his girlfriend came as the train approached the former Crown colony: ‘Passing through. Pray for me.’ The Chinese foreign ministry told the Times that Cheng was being held in administrative detention for ‘violating the law’. What that means is not clear, though it has been reported that the official expressed support for the Hong Kong protestors.
The Foreign Office has issued its boilerplate helping-the-family, talking-to-authorities statement. Where, though, is Nicola Sturgeon? Cheng is, after all, a staffer for one of her agencies. The Scottish Government has put out its own boilerplate statement but beyond that, silence.
Of course, caution and sensitivity are called for while back channels are worked to establish Cheng’s alleged offence and secure him access to legal representation and family contact. The current Prime Minister is an object lesson in how not to handle overseas detentions.
But the SNP leader is seldom shy in sharing her thoughts on international topics and human rights, whether in parliamentary statements or through her restive Twitter account.
In recent years, she has ventured into foreign affairs to condemn Donald Trump for recognising Israel’s capital, to denounce detentions at the US border, to declare deaths in clashes at the Gaza boundary ‘not acceptable’, to raise ‘concerns’ with the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, and to oppose US airstrikes in Syria. On Cheng’s detention, her Twitter account is still silent as of this afternoon — not even a bland reassurance that everything is being done to help him.
A cynic might suggest that the reason for this is the same reason Sturgeon has been similarly muted on the Hong Kong anti-extradition protests, even as they approach the five-month mark. Her government is heavily invested in strengthening links with Beijing and she has paid an official visit to this end, even after a madcap £10bn ‘trade deal’ her officials signed with China humiliatingly fell apart. Freely decrying the US while keeping schtum as a Communist dictatorship holds one of your emissaries under lock and key is a curious approach to both foreign affairs and human resources.
If Sturgeon wants to play world leader, she has to accept the responsibility that comes with it. Foreign policy is not just about racking up the air miles, grinning for selfies with mid-level functionaries and expecting the Foreign Office to do the heavy lifting when things get tight.
Whatever Cheng is alleged to have done — and whether he actually did it — the head of the government he serves ought to be showing leadership, not least by telling Scots what is happening and imparting confidence that necessary steps are being taken. That’s what a real-world leader does, instead of leaving her citizens asking: Where is Nicola Sturgeon?
One of her team is being held by one of the world’s leading human rights abusers. His detainers accuse him of breaking the law; he is reported to have expressed dissenting political views. Scotland’s relations with the PRC have taken a sudden, troubling turn.
Where is Nicola Sturgeon? In Shetland, campaigning in a by-election.