Is Scotland Pro-Palestine?

Scotland can be an ally of Palestine even without statehood of its own, explains Ryan Swan.

With the ongoing genocide of Palestinians by the Israeli state now in its seventh month, it is worth reflecting and reassessing not only what can be done to stop it but who can do it. In identifying support for Palestine at the global level, we usually refer to states as being ‘pro-Palestine’ or not. We could argue, for example, that Ireland is pro-Palestine while the UK is pro-Israel. However, the question ‘Is Scotland pro-Palestine?’ is more difficult to answer, with the analytic sticking point being that Scotland is not a state. Unlike a state, it cannot recall ambassadors, impose an arms embargo, or vote against the Israeli state at the UN General Assembly – all effective, non-violent forms of opposition. Despite only having a devolved government, the Scottish polity is comprised of many bodies and organisations, endowed with economic and political power. But when it comes to Scotland’s behaviour, what do we point to? What actions constitute solidarity with Palestine?

Palestine is a cause that unites internationalists and is often a litmus test of commitment to ending social injustice. It’s worth setting out some forms of solidarity that can work in such a struggle. Firstly, there are forms that foreground Palestinian voices in media and academia, particularly in regard to their lived experiences and national aspirations. Less effective methods here often support Palestinian narratives but in reference and opposition to Zionist narratives. Such narratives seem on the surface to speak in solidarity, but they imply the primacy of Israel. Secondly, having educational institutions, trades unions and public bodies recognise the racism of Zionism as a constituent part of their principle and practice of anti-racism. Thirdly, working on boycott and divestment campaigns from the grassroots level upwards, targeting companies complicit in the oppression of Palestinians, including academic boycott, which focuses on breaking relationships with Israeli academic institutions. Palestine solidarity work, then, is an effort that requires a plethora of skills combined to apply pressure to agents which support – indirectly or otherwise – the Israeli state’s regime of occupation, colonisation and apartheid.

Scottish Government Inconsistencies

Until now, the Scottish Government has not taken a position on Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against the Israeli state one way or another. Last year however, it took a commendable position on the issue by rejecting a UK Government bill which, if passed, will ban public bodies from carrying out BDS work.1 The Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill is an attempt by the most reactionary sections of the British establishment to prevent any democratic challenge to the Israeli state in the UK. It not only revealed how much of a threat BDS is to such a powerful state, but it showed that the Scottish Government harbours some sympathy for Palestine, permitting BDS but not promoting it. And in November 2023, the Scottish Government donated £750k to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency’s (UNRWA) ‘Flash Appeal’,2 in response to the genocidal campaign on Gaza.

A Palestine march in Edinburgh, February 2024. Credit: author.

However, the Government’s positions on Palestine are discordant when we look elsewhere. It has stated its support for a two-state solution, based on the 1967 borders drawn as a result of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. If this ‘solution’ were to be implemented, the Right of Return – enshrined in international law – will be made impossible for the third or fourth generation Palestinian refugees expelled from cities like Yafa and Haifa in 1947-49. A core step in restitution for Palestinians cannot be guided by colonial approaches to land and belonging.

The Scottish Government’s approach to foreign affairs remains underdeveloped and this is partly due to lacking ‘state experience’. However, expertise on international relations is available at home. In April, Scotland’s International Development Alliance (SIDA) – funded in part by the Scottish Government – set out in a report how Scotland could take a significant role in “shifting the power to achieve global justice.” The language used is radical and anti-imperialist, the report states that it draws from the doctrine of “inclusivity, feminism, anti-racism and decolonisation” to analyse the power imbalance between the Global North and South. In their criticism of the Scottish Government, they suggest that the policy of supporting the arms trade with public funds should be scrapped. As for Palestine, the report makes one approving reference to the Scottish Government being “willing to stand in support of Palestinians in the face of Israeli state violence.”3 An almost hollow compliment, given the Conservatives’ and Labour’s unconditional support for the Israeli state’s genocidal campaign.

Civil Society’s International Impact

Scottish civil society deserves recognition for acting in solidarity with Palestine. Students of Scottish universities have played a leading role in protests and campaigning for BDS. The biggest student solidarity network – We Are All Hana Shalabi, named after the Palestinian hunger striker – was formed in 2012 and comprised student groups from five universities. Ten members of the network occupied the roof of the Scottish parliament in protest against the then First Minister Alex Salmond’s meeting with the Israeli ambassador. In April 2024, students at the University of Glasgow voted overwhelmingly for Dr Ghassan Abu-Sittah, a Palestinian war surgeon and university alumnus, to be their rector. Earlier this year, the University of Dundee divested from Barclays bank due to its business with Israeli arms companies. More recently, the University of Edinburgh became the grounds for an encampment by students who joined the global wave of student solidarity to call for the university to divest from companies complicit in the occupation. Trade unions have also consistently supported Palestine, with the Scottish Trades Union Congress reaffirming its commitment to BDS and calling for the Palestinian Right of Return. Similarly, Scottish city councils have a notable role in Palestine solidarity. Dundee and Glasgow reached beyond UK borders by creating a twinning relationship with Nablus and Bethlehem (both in the West Bank) respectively. The Dundee-Nablus twinning in 1980 has developed through the decades, building trade union links, educating citizens and enabling skill sharing. In 2015, a University of Dundee student group had the city council name a street ‘Nablus Avenue’ in honour of their Palestinian twin. The Palestinian flag continues to flag above the city chambers. Glasgow’s twinning goes back to 2007 and has similar programmes to Dundee. It hosted a cultural tour of youth from Aida refugee camp in 2012, and staged a Bethlehem Cultural Festival. Like Dundee, the Palestinian flag has been raised above the city chambers.

If there is a small yet flourishing civil society movement, what happens in the Scottish parliament? Of the four largest political parties in Scotland, the Scottish Green Party is the only one to formally support BDS. In November 2023, all MSPs voted for a ceasefire in Gaza, except the Conservatives, predictable but nonetheless deplorable.4 The parliament also hosts the Cross-party group on Palestine, which aims to “establish a forum for Palestinians living in Scotland” and “promote a solution for the Palestinian people recognising the justice of their cause and the need for the Israeli and Palestinian leadership to adhere to UN resolutions and International Law.”5

While the former aim is piecemeal but positive, the latter equates the struggle of a colonised people with the legal obligations of their oppressor. There can be no moral or political equivalence between a genocidal state and its victims, and with national sovereignty as the raison d’etre of the SNP – the parliament’s largest party – it is jarring to see such a lack of dedication to Palestinian freedom. Scotland’s university groups, trade unions and city councils have demonstrated their ability to have an international impact, which suggests that SIDA could also consider them partners in order to build pressure on the Scottish Government from various quarters. Together they can produce a discourse of liberation, and provide political support for Palestine by countering Zionism at local and national levels. This has become urgent after the change of First Minster to John Swinney, who despite his public self-identification as “moderate left of centre” (a sufficiently opaque label) signifies a step to the right. While it may be an exaggeration to say that the Scottish Government will clamp down on Palestine activism, pressure upon it needs to be pursued. City twinning offers a foundation for this task, but it must be forged from below, establishing relationships with trade unions and universities, with the aim of expanding twinning to include university bodies and implementing BDS. These are options for a polity working with a limited devolved government. This year marks 25 years of Scottish devolution. During this past quarter century, Scotland has shown that even if it did not gain statehood for itself, to be an ally of Palestine, it doesn’t have to.

Ryan Swan is a PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews, specialising in migration and international relations of the Middle East.

    apartheid/ Billy Briggs, ‘Scottish Government rejects Tory bill
    which “backs Israel’s apartheid regime”’, The Ferret, 09/08/2023
  2. ‘Scottish
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    report-From-talk-to-transformation-1.pdf Kate Nevens and Iffat
    Shahnaz, ‘From Talk to Transformation: How Governments can
    really ‘shift the power’ Towards Global Justice, Scotland’s International
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    israel-gaza-ceasefire/ ‘Scottish Parliament votes for immediate
    Israel-Gaza ceasefire’, Scottish Government, 21/11/2023
    current-cross-party-groups/2021/palestine ‘Current Cross-Party
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