Paradoxically, the SNP came to power at a time when the traditional institutions of Scots identity were crumbling in short order. The 1980s saw a renaissance in the Scots banks and media. This has now been nearly wiped out through the failure of the housing boom, and the effective nationalization of much of Halifax Bank of Scotland (HBOS) and most of the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS). Scottish Television limps on; Gannett have savagely rationalised staffing at the Herald and the shares of the Johnston Group, proprietors of the Scotsman, are in the cellar. Hogmanay was marked by the first cracks appearing in the property and retail fortunes of the country’s quondam billionaire, Sir Tom Hunter. There are likely to be more.
The tone of Scottish government is determined by its huge state sector. In at least one local authority, the Council and the NHS make up over half of the workforce. But it is a conservative collectivism which replicates pretty accurately the country’s social divisions, under a prehensile oligarchy of departmental heads and executives, drawing salaries comparable with those in the private sector, whose solidarity with the proletariat has now dwindled to the feeble rituals of football support.
This is pretty far from the basis-democratic ideals of the old Independent Labour Party, and from the anarchism of the most coherent intellectual figure associated with the nationalist movement, the sociologist and regional planner Patrick Geddes. These had their roots in the enlightenment and the parish-based ‘Godly Commonwealth’ of the Free Church. The route actually taken was Fabian-centralised ‘industrial democracy’: the vertical ‘trust’ confronted by an amalgam of trades unions, cooperatives, and local government. Very often this was served by dedicated Communists. They knew ‘democratic centralism’ when they saw it.
Harold Macmillan did deals with this oligarchy in the 1960s, so Alex Salmond’s ‘historic compact’ of June 2007 with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (CoSLA) was nothing new. But mistakes were made in the 1960s – rail closures, urban motorway building, multi-storey flats, giant fossil-fuel and nuclear power stations – which would, with remote ‘region and district’ government (1974), cack-handed privatisation and a rash of Quangos (1980s), produce a Labour plutocracy and a sort of digitalisation based on cash. The current local government ‘settlement’ of 1995, gerrymandered by the Tories in the (vain) hope of retaining a token presence, ratified a clumsy collection of single-tier authorities, simultaneously too big (Highland) and too small (Clackmannanshire).
A similar bureaucratisation has, more tragically, affected the arts. The literary originality of the 1980s gave way to the ‘Number one best-seller’ with the replacement of Scots-managed bookshops by Anglo-American chains. The Scots have been allocated four ‘icons’: Rowling, Rankin, McCall-Smith and Welsh. The tastes of the booksheds are as timid as might be expected in Guildford or Northampton and ‘small-press’, i.e. nearly all, Scots publishing is disadvantaged or ignored.
The same goes for the other arts, with the gallery establishment apeing London. Scotland needs Titian’s ‘Diana and Acteon’ (bought by the Duke of Sutherland, of Clearances fame) as much as she needs Tracey Emin. The money can be put to better civic use: perhaps by helping restore the booty of another Scots kleptocrat, Lord Elgin, to the Acropolis of Athens.
Negatives and Positives
But first there must be two events: negative and positive. Scots civil society was shafted by the behaviour of the banks, in which speculators ran amok, and subsequently surrendered abjectly to the dyarchy of the City and Whitehall. Investigation must be followed by assessment and punishment. There’s a precedent, for Fitzjames Stephen’s ‘Judicial vengeance’ figured prominently (if uncharacteristically) in Thatcher’s handling of the Guinness takeover of Distillers in 1986. A few leading bankers sent off to stitch mailbags would encourage others to regain their civic identity. A proper crackdown on the shadow-line between ‘buccaneering finance’ and the outright criminality generated, notably by Scotland’s drugs traffic (three times the European level), would then be possible, and open the way to socially-owned SMEs at a local level as an alternative to local bureaucracies and invasive, unsustainable supermarkets.
Positively, there is a need for reorientation in Scotland’s European outlook, to circumvent the City of London and gain partners who have shared aims, financial and industrial resources, and impatience with the residual, though still ridiculous, pretensions of the UK as a great power.
Such deals are necessary, particularly with Norway and with Germany. The latter, pledged to a non-nuclear future but poorly endowed with natural sources of wave, current and tidal energy, will need Scottish renewables. German local and Land banks could become financial feedstock for projects like railway reconstruction.
People and Power
Once the ‘might of the mighty Atlantic’ can be tapped, then the equation changes. Tidal and wave energy are available on a scale that could power most of Europe. The problem is to assemble a labour force which can create or adapt the appropriate technologies, and this is not easy. Scotland’s manufacturing workforce is an anaemic 9%; roughly half of the German figure. Inadequacies of training means it will dwindle further, while of the 14% employed in financial services, how many will be around a year from now?
In the immediate future active European involvement will be necessary – hopefully chiming in with a German need for infrastructural contracts, and using Scots skills in distance-learning to expand technical training and overcome language barriers. A genuinely ‘mature’ Scots economy could go back to Robert Owen’s idea of a socio-economic order based on energy, evaluating and recovering its wastage in space heating and pointless hypermobility. Local government could be reconstructed at a new level, based on the creation of Energy and Environment boards on the multi-parish scale (but not repeating the spirit) of the old Poor Law Unions.
Insulation and micropower projects can be used to train up a new workforce as the renewables endowment comes on stream, and the ‘homecoming’ programme – significantly reoriented to Europe and expanded – can bring in a new and timely economic boost to Scotland and industrial Europe alike.
A peculiarity of the past twenty-one months has been the absence of any of the ‘girning’ which has characterised Anglo-Scottish relations under the Union. The political gulf has, however, been increasing, particularly over relations with Europe, and the lack of any Conservative presence in Scotland offers little hope of reconciliation, should the Tories win the next Westminster election.
After Ireland became the Free State in 1922, the WeimarRepublic and Siemens-Schuckert provided the technology which created between 1924 and 1928 the Shannon Power Scheme, then one of Europe’s biggest. A mot of Dean Swift’s came to the Irish mind, ‘Burn everything English except their coal!’ Scottish financial services haven’t held out against the City, even in its present delirious state, but Scottish wind and water-power should.