HERE’S a poser to wake you from your Sunday slumber: if you could change one public policy disaster of the last century, which would it be? You don’t have to be a cynic to construct a long list – our leaders are but human – so let’s exclude wars and taxation to narrow the field.
The true cost of many disasters is often obscured by the mists of time. In the past, the ferocity of scrutiny and transparency was a gentler child.
Harder to judge still are the disasters of opportunity lost, which is a particularly important reflection for the Scotland of today. We are world-class at finding reasons to stand pat when conviction and vision might offer greater happiness.
But to our point, I have two favoured choices: My first is the profoundly sad squandering of the public revenues from the bounty of North Sea oil. Two nations – Norway and Scotland/UK (delete according to prejudice) – struck black gold at the same time. Norway saved while Scotland/UK squandered together.
Norway depleted a scarce resource that took millions of years to create, but handed the benefits to posterity in the form of the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, which sat at £414 billion at the end of October and earned £18bn in returns in the third quarter of this year alone. Scotland/UK depleted a scarce resource that took millions of years to create, full stop.
Can you imagine the possibilities if such an enlightened, future-focused policy had been adopted here? The power to invest to smite the enemy of economic depression would be real.
But there’s no point dwelling on it now, is there? The oil will be gone soon, won’t it? Just as we have been told it would for three decades and more: “Stand pat, don’t act, nothing good ever came from doing, and certainly not with imagination.”
My other favoured choice would be the Beeching cuts of the 1960s, which sought to close more than half of all stations and nearly a third of all rail track. I have no doubt they made sense on a spreadsheet, but the landscape of Britain has scars where once there were lifelines.
There is an old iron bridge near the mouth of the Spey, connecting Garmouth and Spey Bay, that once carried the Moray Coastal Railway between Buckie and Elgin. A magnificent edifice in its time. Now it is the most expensive dog-walking route on earth. It is such a crying shame.
For me, it all represents the moment when ambition, scale and vision were lost in much public endeavour. Not entirely of course, but in large part.
Contrast with the remarkable project that Queen Victoria opened north of Glasgow in 1859, that pumped cleansing, life-saving water from Loch Katrine to the heart of an empire city that needed it so.
The wealth of our economy at that time was less than one tenth of what we enjoy today but still they could afford immense improvement and transformation.
So my heart lifts a touch when I see projects such as the new Forth crossing getting under way. I love the idea of a Borders-Waverley line. Even though I am certain any cost benefit analysis will show it wanting, every instinct in my bones tells me it is the right thing to do economically and inter-generationally.
We cannot prove the future, especially when there is no track record to repeat. But that’s the point of improvement, is it not? So what do we choose? Repeat the pattern of our forefathers and repeat to fade, or drive on with new ideas and ambition for the country our children will inherit?
So is it possible to take the partisan strife out of what should be unifying nation-building projects? The quality of leadership and strategy at the Scottish Futures Trust gives me hope.
The body charged with leading efficient investment in public works and saving money appears to be performing rather well, despite the partisan controversy around its conception.
What an idea it would be for it to create and cost the list of the major infrastructure investments we could make and subject them to a public ranking and ultimately seek a parliamentary consensus on the same.
Then the politicians that cut the ribbon could share the credit with their opponents and accountability could truly be about performance rather than point-scoring – a sin all sides have been guilty of, even I.
We are world-class at so many things in this small country, and feuding about inconsequential things tops the list. We have the capacity to change all that, just as the conduct of public life and policy in Norway demonstrates. Scotland is a country with a track record of showing all things are possible if we believe and strive.
Times are very tough just now, but they were ten times tougher in life standards when Victoria turned the tap on for Mother Glasgow.