For many, if not most, politicians and political commentators south of the border Scotland has been more likely to feature as a source of annoyance than anything else. The most prevalent opinion has been that the Scots are at worst a bunch of scroungers or at best simply ungrateful for the largesse of the Union generally and England specifically. Now that Alex Salmond and the Scottish National Party have delivered the election result of a generation on our side of the border the chattering classes in the south seem to have woken up to the ideal way to put the kybosh on this whole referendum on independence thingummy — force that referendum as early as possible.
That sounds eminently sensible from the point of view of anyone determined to preserve the Union. The easiest way to torpedo an independence vote would be to prevent the Yes campaign from building any momentum by getting the plebiscite over and done with in the shortest timeframe possible.
Alex Salmond is acutely aware that we Scots need a bit of education on what our status is in the Union and what our status would be if we would go our own way. He is aware that we need education as to the benefits of freedom of choice in setting our own policy goals in an international context. He is aware that we need education as to the true potential of our industry and resources to be able to raise funds for the nation through taxation. He is aware that we need education in the opportunities afforded to small nations in the modern world.
However Alex dare not use this “E” word as that might very well come across as condescending. And if there is one thing we Scots cannot abide it is condescension! Instead he must lead us down a path where we witness by the evidence of our own eyes and ears the possibilities and certainties that many Scots cannot yet even imagine.
So why is education such a key aspect? Well firstly those very opinions of what Scots are permeating from England about us all being ungrateful scroungers may be dismissed with one hand but if this type of propaganda is repeated often enough it can leave a stain or even a scar on the psyche in terms of how we view ourselves. Secondly, this is reinforced by our local Unionist politicians telling us how essential it is to preserve the Union as we wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of lasting five minutes out there. Anyway, where would we go? The EU wouldn’t want us and nobody would want to bail us out when we fall flat on our faces. These slurs against the competence and self-respect of our very being need to be addressed, dissected and put to bed once and for all to be replaced by new positive reinforcements of who we are and what we are capable of.
Let’s look at the different aspects of our education in understanding ourselves. We need to be clear, regarding our status, that the vast majority of the population of the Union treats us as second-class citizens. The English are not intrinsically a bad bunch and I think that we all know that. However they are finding a nascent sense of Englishness with the Cross of St George and all that. They look at us with some sense of indulgence as one would for an errant young nephew who really just will not learn. As long as the SNP were in a minority at Holyrood this was all well and good. Now, all of a sudden, this errant young nephew has been left a rather large inheritance and everyone in the family wants to tell him how to invest it or, even better, become his trustee until he is old enough to understand how to spend it wisely. Let’s make no mistake here; we are nobody’s nephew. We are full partners in a Treaty of Union which is as valid today as it was 304 years when it was formalised. Under international law the treaty is a live instrument and the partners are at liberty to revise it as and when they see fit. We are not locked into this Union and we are at liberty to challenge our status without a trustee or guardian insisting upon our conduct.
Scotland is currently little more than a bit-part player in the world of international affairs. For better or for worse we are characterised as that bunch who let the Libyan bomber go free. How that affair is read depends upon where you are rooted. Hawks might say that we are a soft-touch whilst those with a more all-embracing nature might say that we are compassionate. Quite frankly this is an irrelevance. We are being judged on something that was decided from a point of law. There was no pay-off, there was no dividend, there was no back-scratching done. But as the government in Westminster was less than willing to be frank or in any way clear on the matter we had to stride the international stage as a government with no Foreign Ministry. Westminster made no attempt to assist in that and it was a perfect opportunity for London Labour to try to leave Edinburgh high and dry.
That we were able to get any message across at all was remarkable in itself. The SNP has a highly professional team of front bench talent in Holyrood and as we saw accusing fingers pointed at Kenny Macaskill and Alex Salmond from the hawks in the US and from within the Union a valiant and tidy rear-guard action was fought. Some were convinced that this issue might come back to bite the SNP in the 2011 poll but the results of last week are proof that this has become a non-issue for most Scots. Nonetheless we need to see for ourselves how the impressions and misrepresentations of others can affect our international persona. Our ability to present ourselves on the international stage is not helped by the status quo at Westminster but we need to demonstrate this for all to see on the domestic front.
We Scots have been some of the greatest innovators in science and commerce in the history of the modern world. This goes back to one key issue — education. We were the first country to offer universal education to everyone regardless of class or position. This great advantage was readily seized upon by the British Empire in its time as we were the most numerate society of the age, so the fact that the administrators and managers in the colonies were predominantly Scots was no coincidence. When the Industrial Revolution came along Scotland, as well as supplying many of the ideas and processes, embraced the new age with vigour and foresight. The great industries of the Central Belt were forged from Scottish iron and steel smelted on Scottish coal. Times have changed since the great days of the Industrial Revolution and the heavy industries have died or declined to a vestigial level compared to their pomp. But we tend to forget that New Lanark is still in the essential travel guide for Japanese tourist coming to the UK. We may have forgotten a great deal of our industrial background but they want to come and see where it all started from their point of view in the crucible of sustainable, compassionate industry.
But what of our current industry? Some would scoff about whisky, picture postcards and shortbread but let’s not get sidetracked. The whisky industry as it stands today is a massive contributor to the Exchequer. The taxes, duty and excise raised by Scotch whisky are the envy of many countries in Europe. This is a massive shot in the arm to Scotland’s input to London’s tax pot. Or is it? Well actually no, generally it is London itself that inputs the whisky numbers as the companies that own the distilleries are registered in London so therefore it is English whisky funds.
Oh well never mind, the oil and gas sector contributes billions and that does certainly come from Scotland doesn’t it? Well no, actually it doesn’t. The energy sector is also mostly London based. For all the endeavour that goes on in the North Sea and for all the roles that Aberdeen, Peterhead and Shetland play it is once more London’s input.
So that’s two of the major industries in the UK economy almost exclusively operating in Scotland but with their financial returns reflected as English. No wonder we would feel inadequate if we imagined that the best of our industries were being tallied in the big bean count as our own but we still came out so poorly. We need this financial obfuscation to be cleared up and complete transparency to reign.
“But Scotland is too wee and too poor to survive on its own.” If I had a pound for every time I have heard that in my lifetime I would be very well off thank you very much indeed. This is a lie peddled by those who have no coherent argument beyond the nonsense they are fed by the Unionists. For the past 18 years I have lived in Tallinn, Estonia which is a country of less than 1.5 million inhabitants. Now if that’s not a country that was too wee and poor to go it alone then I do not know what is. When I first visited Estonia in December 1992 I found a tatty little country lacking for most of the things that we take for granted but the one thing in no short supply was self-respect. The country had only shaken of Soviet rule 16 months earlier and was finding its way but the people were optimistic. The undercurrent of enthusiasm and the can-do attitude of people I met prompted me to settle in Tallinn for a short spell in March 1993 but that short spell has now become, as I say, 18 years. I am not going to try to convince anyone that Estonia is some kind of heaven on earth but what I will say in the clearest terms is that when I settled in Tallinn there were so many things that we simply accept as part and parcel of modern living that were unavailable. I recall having a dinner party in 1993 and I ended up having to visit eight different food shops before I had all the ingredients for a relatively simple menu. When I put fuel into my car I always had a nagging fear that there might be dirt in the petrol which could block the fuel system — it happened to me more than once and it happened to others frequently but we learned which pumps to avoid. These are two simple aspects of everyday living that we take for granted in that one will find food in the shops and one will be able to use the fuel that one buys without fear of breakdown. These are only exceedingly minor issues but this is just an illustration of what the population of Tallinn and other cities, towns and villages of Estonia had to put up with on a day-to-day basis for some considerable time.
But it wasn’t just Estonia. It was Latvia and Lithuania as well. It was Slovenia. It was Slovakia. These are all now full members of the EU and three of them are in the Eurozone as well. These countries had none of our advantages and yet they have all claimed their place in the New Europe with enthusiasm and pride. And lest we forget Croatia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo and the Czech Republic. All of these far less fortunate than Scotland but none too wee or too poor. OK, not all of these are perfect societies yet but they have chosen to be apart from something else that was no longer fit for purpose and to invest their effort in being what is their essence.
For us Scots to take on-board all of the above overnight is nigh on impossible. We need time to catch our breath and to make some form of understanding of what we have achieved so far and what that means for our future. This is where the education process starts. We need to know who we are, what we are, what we have as our right, where we are going, who we are going with and who we are going to meet. We need to know why we are going there and what we will receive in return. We need to know how we are going to get there. The question of when we can go needs to be carefully weighed up against all these whats, whys, wheres, whos and hows. At the juncture that we can understand the reasons then we will know when. That is the education that we need.
It is completely disingenuous for the supporters of the Union to insist that a referendum must be held at the very earliest moment. Did David Cameron put every campaign pledge into action in the first 90 days of his Prime Ministership? Of course not. Will Labour action every policy in Wales immediately? Don’t be daft.
Alex Salmond and the SNP clearly stated again and again ad infitum that the referendum would be called in the second half of the new Parliament. The pledge was clear and unambiguous.It is no coincidence from my own point of view that I am coming home. I am moving back to Aberdeen this year and I will be opening a business using many of the things that I have learned in my time in Eastern Europe. I have confidence in Alex Salmond and the SNP; I know where we are going. I feel it is my duty to share with as many others as possible in finding that same route so that we might all know exactly why we are on it. And I am so looking forward to the thrill of the journey. A one-way family ticket please.