Brian Wilson: Opportunities, not opportunism

Nicola Sturgeon's anti-austerity stance was a vote winner for the Conservatives down South. Picture: Jane Barlow
Nicola Sturgeon's anti-austerity stance was a vote winner for the Conservatives down South. Picture: Jane Barlow
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Scotland has a lot to learn from the rest of the world, but the SNP government is not interested, writes Brian Wilson

Comparisons are invidious and Scotland isn’t Greece, even on a sunny day. So let us limit ourselves to one fundamental and indisputable lesson from what is happening there at present. It is that all the anti-austerity bombast and political posturing in the world does not, in certain circumstances, stop the money running out, the ATMs declining to issue banknotes and jobs disappearing like snow off a dyke.

When rhetoric finally collides with reality, there are victims. The billets-doux from Nicola Sturgeon to Syriza, signed “yours in victimhood”, may bolster her domestic, “anti-austerity” fan base, which did so much to help ensure the return of a Tory government. One of life’s little paradoxes, you might say. But they do not negate relevant analogies. Last year, flagrant untruths about Scotland’s balance sheet were dispensed wholesale and the false prospect of a currency union with the United Kingdom was proffered as Gospel certainty.

Serious economists exposed the deceptions and warned of seismic consequences. They were mocked and abused for their trouble. Such things could never happen. Anyway, who cared about billions one way or another, or what currency we used? All they asked from the innocent was a temporary suspension of disbelief.

If Scotland had gone down that road, we would now be hurtling towards the consequences. Rhetoric would be worthless. Supportive communiqués to Ms Sturgeon from Syriza would be of as much use to her as her’s are to the poor and the pensioners of Greece who are well into the process of repenting at leisure – a luxury we would have been denied.

We need only file for future use the fundamental Greek lesson that economic reality cannot be wished away and, when it bites, those who preach simplistic solutions are not at the head of the queue to pay the price. The same would be true here if “full fiscal autonomy” was forced upon those claiming to want it while caring nothing for its inevitable victims.

Ms Sturgeon’s opportunistic dabblings in Greek politics are symptomatic of a wider characteristic of Scotland’s devolved government. Every engagement relating to the rest of the world amounts to a photo-opportunity or a politically inspired attempt to prove how much better off we would be if only we were like … (fill in blank, as appropriate).

In contrast, there is no evidence of sustained engagement with any state, or part of a state, in a constitutional relationship roughly akin to our own, from which lessons could be learned for the practical benefit of the Scottish people within Holyrood’s areas of responsibility.

Norway is a good example. We hear interminably about how virtuous Norway amassed an oil fund. But that is where the interest ends – in making a historic political point. What serious work has the Scottish Government done on learning lessons from relevant, practical things that Norway does well?

The Norwegians have plenty to teach us about retaining population in peripheral areas – a subject on which there is not the slightest Scottish Government interest. They have made a huge virtue out of decentralising civil service jobs. They have given far more power to local communities; the antithesis of what is happening in Scotland.

So do we have nothing to learn from them, on an ongoing, policy basis? Is Norway’s only usefulness to the Scottish Government that it allows them to bang on about an oil fund?

Or how about Catalonia? Apart from the occasional exchange of flag-wavers, what relationship exists with perhaps the most comparable part of the EU in constitutional terms? I tried as a minister to create an initiative bringing together various sectors of our respective societies, as well as learning more about the balances between central and devolved governments. It didn’t last long.

There is no policy area in which we do not have lots to learn from “abroad” – not all in the same place but by cherry-picking best practice. For example, just about everyone now accepts that Scottish education fails an appallingly high proportion of youngsters from less well-off backgrounds. So who does much better? What can we learn? What is being done about it?

The Scottish Government recently published land reform proposals, to general derision among those who know anything about the subject. There had been years of consultation but a total lack of reference to how it has been done effectively elsewhere – and on this subject, every country has its own story to tell. Perhaps there is a fear to look anywhere else in case they learn something they don’t like.

For a decade or so, we heard ad nauseam about the wonders of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger economy before the whole thing went bust and they turned out to have even bigger rogues running their banks than we did. Most of the riches had been built on EU money, profligate bankers and low taxation from which footlose corporations moved on as soon as somewhere else went even lower.

Ireland is definitely off the “if only we were like …” list. Yet a curious thing has happened. Instead of fawning on Syriza in Greece, Ms Sturgeon might find it rewarding to review progress made by dull old Dublin. They took the medicine, went through a massive trough, lost a lot of their young people – and are beginning to come out the other end without the Greek drama.

Fortunately, Scotland was spared that trauma because we had the strength of the United Kingdom around us, or else we would now have a much more acute understanding of what austerity actually means – just like Greece, just like Ireland, just like Iceland. That is a lesson which the Scottish Government certainly has no interest in learning, so let’s be cheerleaders for “anti-austerity” instead.

This butterfly approach to what goes on elsewhere, based on whether there is a temporary political point to be scored, brings absolutely no practical benefits to Scotland. Just as the comparisons with Greece are far from precise, so are those with every other country or nation or province or state you might name.

But we have something to learn from them all.

In short, if the Scottish Government wants to develop a foreign policy, it should be based on a sound principle – stop posturing and start having the humility to learn.