Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

Think Like a State, Act Like a State


  • Leading MP McDonald challenges broadcasters to question candidates on foreign policy during live debates
  • Former SNP defence spokesperson authors new paper: Think Like a State, Act Like a State.

Stewart McDonald MP, the former SNP Defence spokesperson at Westminster, has challenged the candidates to be Scotland’s next First Minister to explain how they would tackle foreign policy, their strategy to project Scotland’s interests and values in the world, and to show their understanding of the growing links between domestic and foreign policy.

In his paper Think Like a State, Act Like a State, for the think tank Reform Scotland, McDonald argues that even while as a member of the UK, devolved Scotland needs a strategy to cope with the increasing military and economic power of authoritarian regimes, and the shift towards protectionism by democracies.

The paper calls for:

  • future administrations in Edinburgh to assess the threat posed by hostile foreign states here in Scotland and lead a policy debate about the role our institutions can play in countering it.
  • Scotland to use its size and geography to position itself as a North Atlantic state; the next leader of the SNP must be steadfast in their support for the twin security pillars of the European Union and NATO, recognising the importance of these alliances to our economic and military security.
  • the new First Minister to work with Scotland’s financial institutions and universities to tackle malign actors, including those who use covert policing outposts, as has been alleged in the case of China. The Scottish Government should enhance its work as a public security actor.
  • a reaffirmation of Scotland’s place as a global player in international development, as established by Lord McConnell and continued by his successors.
  • Scotland’s devolved government to address the impact on Scotland’s energy, technology and research sectors of rising global protectionism. 
  • the new First Minister to recognise and enhance the value of Scotland’s defence manufacturing sector, well known for its track record in innovation and delivering highly skilled, well-paid jobs.


“The three candidates to be First Minister have an opportunity to engage in a mature, national debate about how the Scottish Government will deal with global and European issues that have such great impact on the Scottish people.

“The new First Minister must demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of this country’s place in a world where states are more insular actors on the world stage and dominant geopolitical entities increasingly weaponise their economic prowess.

“We can start asking these questions now, and I am today challenging not only the candidates, but the media, to start asking and answering these questions. This is a perfect opportunity for Scotland’s next First Minister to make explicit their vision of Scotland as a flourishing society and good global citizen.

“It is vital that the next First Minister can author a bold, comprehensive and pragmatic strategy to project Scotland’s interests and values in a world that is ever-changing and more complex and is underpinned by a keen understanding of the interplay between domestic and foreign policy. The moment demands nothing less.”

Stewart McDonald MP

“In his five years as the SNP’s defence spokesperson at Westminster, Stewart McDonald proved himself a significant thinker on military and foreign affairs, and did much to enrich his party’s positioning in both areas.

“His call for the new First Minister to develop a foreign policy strategy, and for the leadership candidates to explain what this might look like, raises an important issue at a timely moment – one that speaks as much to the future of devolved Scotland as it does to the SNP’s preference for an independent state.

“One of Reform Scotland’s roles is to be a home to a wide variety of voices, offering a range of ideas for discussion among the nation’s wider policy community. We are delighted to publish this thoughtful and provocative paper.”

Chris Deerin, Director, Reform Scotland


Think Like a State, Act Like a State