VOTING Yes would shrink an already small talent pool and make it impossible for Scotland to join the premier league, writes Michael Kelly
Sport is a well-known metaphor for life. Those fearing the consequences of a Yes vote in the independence referendum are praying that Scottish football is not an analogy for the way we would be run as an independent nation. Scottish football has never been dependent on a “London” government. Since its inception in 1873, the Scottish Football Association has run football in Scotland. And what a mess it is making of it, along with those other culprits the Scottish League (1890) and the breakaway Scottish Premier League (1998).
The manner in which incompetents organise the affairs of their clubs and sporting bodies shows how shallow the pool of managerial talent is in this country. The evidence of how these small businessmen have run the game into the ground give the lie to any theories about how new, small, indigenous firms will be born and thrive in a free Scotland. For decades, directors have joined smaller clubs because of the local prestige of the office and to enjoy the massive financial perks football offers. The game may be poor, but that does not deter its representatives from first-class flights, five-star hotels and generous per diems on foreign trips paid for, ultimately, by the fans. The higher they go through Uefa up to Fifa, the faster the gravy train rolls.
We have ended up with the worst quality football in our history. Clubs are impoverished, playing skills hover around public park level and our match officials are beyond a joke. If this is what Scots acting independently can achieve, what chance is there of sustaining vigorous and healthy public and private sectors here if we end up running everything on our own?
Fortunately, if we take a broader view, there is room for hope. Many aspects of the health service are run better here than elsewhere in the UK. Our universities continue to produce world-class research and thoroughly well-educated graduates. Our legal system is robust. We produce eminent jurists. Our young people have always been credited with acting professionally and bravely in the armed forces. And although we can exaggerate the number of inventions that we mark down as Scottish – for example, can we really credit John Logie Baird with the invention of television when it was a rival’s version that was chosen by the BBC and is now the standard? – we do have an innovative culture.
Even here, however, there are caveats. The NHS operates throughout the UK and both the UK and Scotland benefit from the interchange of ideas and personnel. So, too, do our universities. And our brave young people serve in a bigger army that is well-resourced. Would Scots be offered the same chance to shine in much smaller pools? Innovative, yes, but can we demonstrate the level of enterprise that would generate the new industries that will become the drivers of growth in an independent economy? Doubtful.
Many Scots from all business walks of life have left and prospered because of the greater and more rewarding offers available in the wider world. Would not even more leave from a new economy grappling with creating new international relationships and struggling to set up new systems at home?
Might there be some comfort to be gained from the way many other sports are organised here, which we could draw parallels with for business? Cricket, an indigenous sport of more than a century, is run very well. No-one can criticise the way swimming or cycling have been run and the legacy shows in the number of Scots taking up these sports. But, again, this was done with UK help; Sir Chris Hoy trained in Manchester.
Maybe football is an exceptional and unrepresentative case by which to judge the rest of the Scottish business community. Reasons have to be found as to why it is doing so badly. The abilities of those who run it have to be questioned. In my short time as a Celtic director, I saw too much bad practice throughout the game to be in any doubt that it is a cause for worry. But possibly the best analogy with football is not with the people who run it, but with the fact that the industry is working in a hostile environment. It is trying to make a profitable and sportingly successful living out of a small, poorish population that is badly skewed geographically. This smallness affects the prosperity of the clubs and restricts the local pool of talent.
That relative lack of prosperity and the restricted size of so many of our domestic markets are barriers that much of Scottish industry may struggle to overcome if they are asked to succeed in an independent Scotland. There are always exports and Scotland’s success is going to rely heavily on these. However, most exporting countries have built up that trade through first serving a buoyant domestic market.
More significantly, independence immediately establishes a new barrier between us and our biggest export market – England. There is no reason to expect the English to attach the same glamour to brands from a country that has just snubbed them. There is certain to be local pressure to replace Scottish goods with those produced by their own businesses. There are, of course, European Union rules as to free and fair competition. But everyone in the UK will tell you how easily the French can get around those – particularly for farm products. That is if we are in Europe. If not, we cut off other markets. Again, if we are we will expect the English to pay euro prices! Currency confusion is yet another barrier to trade.
So, the current state of Scottish football is not so much an analogy as a warning. Autonomy can be tough. Going it alone has many disadvantages. The game here would have a much greater chance of survival if it were linked to that in the rest of the UK. But that door has been firmly slammed in our faces. No door even exists for the rest of Scottish business. It does not make sense to build a wall in which we have to punch a hole. The lesson for Scottish business is that it is better together.