Andrew Wilson: Shake off legacy of navel-gazing

"That Scottish politics should be framed around comparisons with Westminster is wrong". Picture: Ian Rutherford
"That Scottish politics should be framed around comparisons with Westminster is wrong". Picture: Ian Rutherford
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LEGATUM is Latin for bequest or legacy. The institute of its name produces a prosperity index that ranks the countries of the world in eight categories; economy, entrepreneurship and opportunity, governance, education, health, safety and security, personal freedom and social capital. Within each of these categories are multiple measures that make up the ranking.

It’s a very good exercise that all policymakers and politicians in Scotland would do well to study and inwardly digest. Chiefly because I strongly believe they are all up to the task of elevating our ambition, debate and approach from the crushingly narrow frame we reverse ourselves into.

I know an awful lot of Scotland’s policymakers and politicians, and here’s a small and controversial secret: in global terms they are really very good. Across the board we have well-motivated, diligent and talented people who have devoted themselves to public service in a host of forms. They are up to raising the stakes, game and quality of discourse, I am certain of it.

I mean no disrespect to any individual at all, but take the issue of the week around tax credits and the reversal of Tory cuts. The frame is: “Our priority is what we don’t like about Westminster’s decisions, we must move to fix.”

We define our policy debate – achingly – by what Westminster does rather than looking across the globe, setting ambitious targets for ourselves and doing whatever it takes to reach them.

The constitutional debate I have been obsessed with all my life is necessary but also can excuse distraction and inaction. It mustn’t. The best way to win more responsibility is to demonstrate competence and progress with all that we have. Don’t respect boundaries, just do whatever it takes to deliver.

The Legatum Prosperity Index offers a fascinating inspiration. Or it should.

It’s top five countries have populations under ten million: Norway, Switzerland, Denmark, New Zealand and Sweden. The next five include the larger states of Canada, Australia and the Netherlands but also Finland and Ireland.

We should be scouring the globe for the lessons to be learned across all the different components from the index and finding what we can do now to emulate the best.

Instead we waste the talent of our politicians fighting over who has the largest sticking plaster to place over the wounds imposed by the Tory government. Pretty soon we will find that if all our resource and energy and talent goes into sticking plasters, the wounds will not be fixed and the body will atrophy.

You don’t have to agree with Legatum’s methods but the intent is surely right.

What is it that makes Australia number one in the world for education? Lets find out and copy it. What can we learn from the Swiss on ­governance? Why do the Swedes win at entrepreneurship and opportunity and the Canadians at personal ­freedom?

New Zealand is basically Scotland only 11,000 miles away. What is it about their society that ranks them top for social capital? A call to our cousins could help us find out.

While we European social democrats scoff at American healthcare, it turns out their outcomes, infrastructure and preventative measures rank the best on the planet. So can we learn anything from that?

What we don’t lack in Scotland is democratic scrutiny and accountability. We have accountability cubed. Is that helping or hindering policy reform, risk-taking and progress? It is a question worth asking.

Devolution in 1999 took the existing powers of the then Secretary of State for Scotland and added a proper democratic layer in the Parliament and a tax power designed to be unusable.

That is slowly changing, at last, but will the white heat of scrutiny burn great ideas before they are born? Will the frame of comparing ourselves only against what Westminster is doing narrow our focus and gaze to a damagingly narrow field? The risk is clear for all to see.

Both sides of the constitutional debate carry responsibility for this. It is time to lift our sights. The idea that our entire politics should be framed around comparisons with Westminster is just wrong.

We need to set our own heading and engage globally with the best policy-makers, politicians and ideas the planet has to offer. We are world class at two things in Scotland; beating ourselves up and boasting about our greatness. Both are equally damaging.

There is a worrying trend for too much attention to be given to marginal minority views with megaphones peddling decades-old, failed solutions dressed up as the answer to modern problems. We know what we all have to fix, but banning, nationalising, taxing and spending are hardly the beginning and end of any answer.

I am a true believer in this country and in optimism. I happen to be a believer in our politicians too, across the spectrum. I’d put them up against the best in the world. Whether they lower or raise their sights is up to them. «