Current Affairs

Nimble Scotland Versus Lumbering Britain

Legendary Scottish politician Jim Sillars in action

There are very few politicians that I actually admire. In general my opinion of those who enter party politics is pretty poor though growing up in Ireland, with its values-adverse, morally flexible and easily purchasable political classes, it is easy to see why. It’s not that Irish politicians are particularly corrupt in the sense of brown paper envelopes being handed over in out-of-the-way car parks (though in fact we did have plenty of that from the 1970s to the early 2000s). Its more about nepotism and cronyism, networks of influence and reward, and career politicians (and their families) who keep a decades-old grip on certain constituencies. I think it’s safe to say that this country is infamous for its “political dynasties” of local, regional and national politicians. In Britain they have the “old school tie” network. In the United States it is the Ivy League or variations thereof. In Ireland it is blood and marriage.

Perhaps it is no surprise then that one of the few politicians that I do admire is not Irish but Scottish (though still a Gaelic nation, so near cousins I suppose). Jim Sillars is one of the most honest politicians in these Celtic Isles, a man of genuine integrity and vision. He is the best First Minister Scotland never had and a leading if independent “Yes” voice in the referendum campaign on Scottish independence. Some of his TV performances and debates have been electrifying as he wiped the floor with his “No” voting Unionist opponents (and frequently Unionist-leaning interviewers). In recent months, despite the premature loss of his wife Margo MacDonald (a legendary and much-missed Scottish politician), he has shown Alex Salmond how it is done. Unfortunately of course Alex wasn’t paying attention. So it’s good to see Sillars being interviewed in the Irish Times by Mark Hennessy as we edge ever closer to the fateful September vote:

“Standing in the back of a repainted ice-cream van in a Maryhill estate in Glasgow yesterday, Jim Sillars, microphone in hand, apologises for waking anyone who had gone to bed after a nightshift.

“I know what nightshift is all about, I did them myself – on the railways, in the fire brigade,” says the 76-year-old Sillars, a former deputy leader of the Scottish National Party.

“I apologise if I have woken you up,” he goes on, “but this is the first time in 300 years that we have the chance of becoming independent, and this is the only chance.”

Sillars’s transport is named “The MargoMobile” in honour of his late wife, Margo MacDonald, a much-loved politician whose memorial service in April united the deeply bitter world of Scottish politics.

So far, he has held 60 meetings…

Independence has been a lifetime ambition. In the 1970s, Sillars held a seat for Labour in the House of Commons, but he quit because it did not set up a Scottish Assembly.

In the late 1980s, Sillars, who by then had joined the Scottish National Party, became an MP again, this time for Govan, after he beat Labour in a bitter by-election – one of the SNP’s most famous victories.

“I am finding huge support from the working class of Scotland for Yes,” he says confidently. “Huge support, and given that the working class are the majority in Scotland I expect to win.”

Scots are faced with a simple choice, Sillars believes. A rejection of independence on September 18th means the option is gone, and it will not come back.

Equally, the promises of extra devolution that are being made will wither…

Few politicians are remembered for a single phrase, but Sillars is. In 1992, just minutes after he had had lost his Commons seats, he scathingly described Scots “as 90-minute patriots”.

Today, however, he believes that Scots will take the hard choices if they are clearly put before them…

“I find that a lot of working-class people will vote Yes, but only because they want change. They want as much of it as they can get,” he says.”



Meanwhile some interesting thoughts on the greater utility of “small nations” in a 21st global economy, particular as it relates to Scotland. The first is from Robert Moran in the Huffington Post:

“In the 21st century, what’s a nation state for?

If the nation state is an organizational technology, what is the technology used for in the 21st century?

It’s only fitting that the Scots, who invented so much of modernity, should be debating this issue. And, Edinburgh, where favorite sons and philosophical giants Adam Smith and David Hume are honored with statues on the Royal Mile, is the epicenter of that debate.

On September 18, Scots 16 years of age or older will go to their local polling places and vote YES or NO on a simple proposition: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

At the moment it looks unlikely (unless 1. the polling is underestimating Yes turnout, 2. Undecideds heavily break to Yes or 3. there is a very strong surge of Scottish nationalism late in the campaign)

While there is very strong support for the Scottish National Party (SNP), the dominant and well-regarded party in Scottish politics today, the polling data suggests a majority NO vote on September 18th. Although the polls vary, all consistently find a No vote exceeding a Yes vote.

But, what exactly is victory in this context?

Better Together “wins” by keeping the Yes percentage below 50.1%. True.

But, even this might feel like a pyrrhic victory.

The Yes vote strategy has been far more interesting, arguing the merits of full independence as a means of solving local problems with local action. The Yes campaign has argued that an independent Scotland will better manage North Sea oil revenues, better represent the more Labour-centric and socialistic views of its inhabitants, craft a superior, written constitution more in tune with the 21st century, remove nuclear weapons from its territory, and build a successful, and agile 21st century nation. Interestingly, it is worth noting that many Scots that I have spoken with here during festival season speak admiringly of the Nordic nations to their east as a model.

And this is why thoughtful observers, politicos and futurists should pay attention to what is happening in Scotland. They should be focusing on the free-ranging debate on 21st century governance.

Economies of scale, communications and nationalism drove the trend toward larger nation-states. But, what will happen in our post-industrial era?

…the fact is that smaller governmental units, from cities to smaller nations have been pushing the envelope of innovative governance for some time, from experiments with crowdsourced laws to detailed and aggressive strategies for competitive advantage. Singapore, Norway and New Zealand are all small, but incredibly successful, nations. It may be that in the 21st century small and agile nations (or even cities) have an advantage over large nations with heavy legacy costs. They may be better positioned to mass the right brains and the right time and translate their culture into power.

As I finish this piece surrounded by Edinburgh’s many world-renowned festivals (the arts festival, book festival, fringe festival and festival of politics) I am again reminded of the power of culture, of the ability of people like Adam Smith and David Hume to move the world not with a fulcrum, but with an idea.”

The second equally favourable view comes from Darrell Delamaide in the right-leaning business webzine Market Watch who makes some comparisons with the electoral situation in Sweden:

“As Scotland and Catalonia get ready to vote on independence, the current election campaign in Sweden offers an object lesson in how people in small-country democracies have greater control over their lives.

Polls show that Swedish voters, after eight years of a center-right government that cut taxes, are ready to let the pendulum swing in the other direction and elect a center-left government that is calling for, gasp, higher taxes to reduce the deficit and support more government services.

Sweden, of course, is the poster child for the high-tax “socialist” welfare state so reviled by American conservatives.

It is also, however, a society marked by an extremely high standard of living, a strong middle class and low levels of inequality and poverty, and a high degree of social harmony.

It is, in short, if not paradise on earth, one happy country.

And it’s not alone. Several other small West European democracies enjoy similar levels of peace and prosperity.

Switzerland, which no one would call a socialist paradise, continues to thrive. Its alpine neighbor, Austria, also enjoys enviable levels of prosperity and harmony. Sweden’s Scandinavian neighbors, Denmark and Norway, are on this list, too.

It was in fact an Austrian economist, Leopold Kohr, who inspired a whole “small is beautiful” movement, arguing that small autonomous communities offer a more humane environment. His 1957 book, “The Breakdown of Nations,” envisioned a Europe splintered into hundreds of small states.

You get the drift. Independence and autonomy contribute to a high-functioning democracy and a more resilient economy. Sweden, for instance, was largely sheltered from the impact of 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing euro-zone crisis.

Swedish voters, it seems, are ready to pay higher taxes in order to get better child care and stronger schools, among other things.

An independent Scotland, freed from the neoliberal legacy of Margaret Thatcher in U.K. politics, would also likely favor more progressive policies for a supportive social safety net.

Scotland, which is holding a referendum on independence Sept. 18, has a population of 5.3 million, comparable with other prosperous European democracies like Denmark (5.6 million), Norway (5.1 million), Austria (8.5 million), Switzerland (9 million) and Sweden with 9.5 million.

Catalonia, which is planning a non-binding independence referendum for November against the protests of the Spanish national government in Madrid, has 7.6 million people.

A small country embedded in a continent-wide common market but free to determine its own taxes and social policies starts to look like an ideal combination.

It looks unlikely that Scotland, let alone Catalonia, will gain independence anytime soon, but the referendums could give these regions greater leverage to demand even more autonomy from their national governments, and so get closer to this ideal.

The “small is beautiful” vision of Kohr and Schumacher may yet have its day.”

6 comments on “Nimble Scotland Versus Lumbering Britain

  1. And what about small countries in Eastern Europe?
    We have to join organisations like EU and NATO to get protection from our aggressive and warmongering neighbour.


    • And also we’re not rich and prosperous.
      That’s one of the reasons why I’m living in Ireland now.


      • Estonia, the Czech Republic seem to be doing well.

        Most of the E. European nations are still emerging from the effects of WWII, Soviet Occupation, Communism, the Cold War, independence struggles/civil conflict, etc. It will take decades to establish themselves along W. European lines and with W. European prosperity.

        After all decades after reunification parts of E. Germany are still incredibly impoverished (comparatively so) despite billions of marks and later euros.

        Scotland, Catalonia, Basque Country, Flanders, etc. would be very different.


        • Another thing that’s bad in small countries is that many people can’t get jobs they would really like.

          For example if you want to work @ AAA gamedev. Your choices are either the big European countries (UK, Germany, France, etc) or the USA.

          There’s nothing in Ireland, Estonia or Latvia.
          If you’re from Ireland you can’t even get funding from Kickstarter. (but you can if you’re from the UK or the USA).

          And gamedev is just one example – there are many other industries – automotive, aerospace, and so on.

          Where’s Ireland’s Boeing or BMW?
          That’s right – they don’t exist because the country is too small.

          The USA would not be where it’s now if each of the states were an independent country with their own currency, borders and so on…


          • So what’s your answer? A more coherent EU? But you seem to resent EU control?? Maybe more small countries in the EU might in time reduce the power of the old imperialist states, France, Germany, Spain, UK. Maybe not?


            • A more coherent EU?
              More or less.
              But you seem to resent EU control??
              What makes you think that?

              Actually I believe that there are only two choices for Latvia – either be part of European Federation or Russian Federation. You can’t be neutral next to a neighbour like that.

              I support independence from Russia because anything is better than being part of Russian Empire.
              But I don’t mind being part of another prosperous and civilised country.

              I believe that in the long term people should drop all that nationalism bullshit, erase borders, dismantle their armies and use trillions that are currently wasted on military on something else that actually benefits humanity – scientific research, space exploration, etc…


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