Nicola Sturgeon’s Stanford promises sound fantastic but wait, haven’t we heard them all before asks Bill Jamieson.
For a moment when I woke up I thought I was in paradise. The skies were blue. The sun was shining, and the air infused with an ambrosia of positivity.
And all this in the middle of a Nicola Sturgeon speech.
Gone were the scornful, hectoring tones. No more the frenzied jerking of the head, the relentless demented woodpecker laying into all things Boris and Brexit.
Abandoned was the blood red Braveheart outfit. Instead, the lady wore a jacket of white.
And what a dulcet melody sprang from her lips. Speaking at Stanford University in California, she highlighted the global role an independent Scotland could have, stressing it would remain an “open, outward-looking and inclusive” nation that would continue to welcome people from across the world.
It would also seek to “build partnerships around the world”, including with governments, businesses and universities, she said.
For a blissful moment I thought a Great Reconciliation had befallen Scotland’s First Minister.
Might it just be possible- oh, please - that the demented woodpecker had flown far away? That such a fleeting, blissful moment of celestial harmony could banish the relentless grenade tossing and machine gun fire that has marked Holyrood’s relations with Westminster?
Might there be in fact, another Nicola Sturgeon, long repressed by the ranks of her fulminating fundies, that has now emerged like a beatific, dazzling chrysalis?
What positive, inspirational, heavenly words. But wait a minute. Have we not heard such words before? Are they not just a tad familiar? Indeed, is this not what we have been hearing, almost every waking hour, from that beat combo band of Boris and The Brexiteers? Has not the UK Prime Minister Theresa May earnestly lectured us for months about the brave new world that lies ahead for Britain beyond Europe?
Indeed, that passage could have been lifted straight from a Daniel Hannan speech. Indeed, it could even have come from the beer-spattered quill of Nigel Farage were the very thought not to have sent Bute House into a paroxysm of drastic last minute speech re-writing.
Now it’s possible, of course, that the First Minister has fallen victim to a spasm of rhetorical forgetfulness. It happens: people are known to speak in tongues. And some might accuse her tongue of being forked.
But I do not think that is fair. There has always been an emphasis among the more thoughtful nationalists of Scotland’s global reach, endeavour and ambition. Scotland’s economic and financial reach has historically not been confined to Europe but has extended across the world to Asia Pacific, southern Africa and North America. As I have argued here before, Scots played a significant role in the development of Britain’s informal, invisible financial and trading empire, greater and more enduring than the formal physical empire extolled in history books.
Scots played a formative role in opening up Asian and China trade. We were to be found in the in the giant engineering works of deep level gold mining in South Africa. Scottish venture capital played a crucial role in the opening up of the American west and the development of American railroads.
Scotland’s biggest investment trusts trace their origins in high risk start-up investments across the US and Canada. And Scots endeavour is to be found in many spheres and activities, from medicine to horticulture, civil engineering to banking and finance, textiles to tea plantations, steel and coal to farming and shipbuilding. Never, ever say that our horizons are exclusively European. That would be a denial of our heritage and a great diminution of our history.
So in this respect Nicola Sturgeon has spoken well to remind us, not just of our past global reach but what a global outlook now offers us. We have a greater mission than ever Brussels could imagine. Brexit may well be full of uncertainties and unknowns. But one positive benefit will be the freedom to negotiate our own trade and investment relationships with countries round the world. No-one would deny that such freedom is challenging. But it is much truer to the spirit of who Scots are, what we were in the past and what lies ahead of us to achieve.
Much of this world view is to be found in the previous writings of nationalists and was evident in the book Global Scots by Kenny MacAskill and Henry McLeish. It set out a revealing tableau of diverse Scots abroad, how they feel their home country helped shape them, the motivations they had for moving away and the perspectives that distance has lent them of the land they left behind.
Scottish Development International continues to promote Scotland round the world – we are too apt to forget that our exports to the rest of the world at £16.4 billion or 21 per cent of the total are greater than those to the EU- £12.3bn or 16 per cent.
However, the problem with the more familiar Nicola Sturgeon Mark 1 – incessant, hectoring critic of Brexit and agitator for a second referendum – is that domestic policy issues have been treated as of secondary importance. And nowhere is this more true than in the stewardship of the economy at home.
Continual uncertainty created by demands for a second independence referendum combined with concerns over business rate rises and the cost pressures on business are now taking their toll. Official figures out yesterday showed that Scotland’s economy contracted by 0.2 per cent during the fourth quarter last year and that over the whole of 2016, Scottish GDP grew by just 0.4 per cent – compared to growth across the UK of 1.8 per cent.
The collapse of the oil price and its impact on North Sea exploration and development activity have been a big factor. But as the Federation of Small Businesses points out, the cost of employment also went up substantially last year – with the impact of pension auto-enrolment and big increases to the national living wage having a substantial impact on Scotland’s large service sector. Says FSB Scotland convenor Andy Willox, “If Scotland is to avoid recession, we need to see action from governments in Edinburgh and London to boost local firms.”
According to economist John Mclaren, the underlying health of the Scottish economy weakened in 2016 with the ‘Active Economy’ contracting by 0.6 per cent. Since the end of 2013 the ‘Active Economy’ measure - which excludes the more erratic and more difficult to measure elements of GDP to concentrate on activities based around manufacturing and private sector (non-financial) services - has grown by just under 2 per cent in Scotland, compared to over 13 per cent for the UK. “If such a relatively slower growth is maintained”, he warns, “it will have significant budgetary implications for a Scottish Government with Income Tax powers or under full independence. In particular, it highlights the potential Budget losses relative to what would have been the case under the Barnett formula” So much for waking up and thinking I was in paradise.