Andrew Wilson: A light-bulb moment in independence

The White Paper for Scottish independence. Picture: Getty
The White Paper for Scottish independence. Picture: Getty
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IT IS time for a light-bulb moment in how we govern ourselves, writes Andrew Wilson

Curious is the world of politics. Curiouser still the people who inhabit it. Most curious of all are the ­arguments they often use to sustain their case.

An idea may be as bright and creative and clever as can be, but if it comes from an opponent it must be derided. Not always, but often.

I once commented in the first term of the Scottish Parliament that if the SNP had invented the lightbulb, the Labour party would have dismissed it as a dangerous anti-candle device. Or had the Nationalists invented the motor car it would have been derided as an unworkable anti-horse machine.

But what has long baffled me most is the political use of the evidence of problems created by things as they are now, to argue that things must stay the same. And it is when we ­reflect most on this point that I think we can eventually distil to simplicity the actual choice we face, 87 days from now.

The classic is of course the public finances. As a share of the economy the UK has one of the highest public-sector deficits (public spending outstripping tax revenues and, therefore, increasing borrowing) and national debt (all accumulated public borrowing) in the developed world.

In most countries such a position would make an urgent case for reform. In Scotland the politicians who ran it up use it to argue that things should stay the same. It is just odd.

But because it is an argument that has been repeated for nearly half a century, people who should and do know better, nod in learned acknowledgment. Another is the “demographic time-bomb”. The population is ageing because the economy is consistently mediocre over decades, the young emigrate for work, the old live longer and immigration is a political football at Westminster. A better emblem of the case for reform it is hard to imagine. But no. It is, we are to believe, a reason to stay the same.

And the other great phenomenon of our time and debate is what I call the “A to B” issue: “We are at ‘A’, even if you want to get to ‘B’, getting there is just too hard, and anyway, I wouldn’t want to start from ‘A’.”

Rather than debate about whether B could be magnificent or that A is as good as it gets, we are instead to worry most about the seeming impossibility of getting from A to B. Standing still in a storm is the entreaty we are asked to buy. In our modern context, therefore, the invention of the lightbulb would be viewed as a fantastical idea that might be good. But the idea of electrifying the country, and wiring houses would render it just too hard to deliver. And anyway think of all the gas lamplighters who would lose their jobs.

Or, as I think I may have mentioned before, “So Mr Bevan, we hear your grand idea for a National Health Service offering care free at the point of need, but how many bedpans will we need in Doncaster and who is ­going to pay for them”.

All well and good of course. But missing the point on a pretty colossal scale. And if we allow these themes to become too embedded in the culture of our discourse the outcome is conservatism not improvement and ­reform. The implication is small, incremental and marginal policy rather than the creation of new and perhaps life-changing ideas. This diminishes us today and, worse still, short-changes the generation to come.

One of our many jobs as people is to collectively do our best to hand on a better world than the one we inherited. Just as parents strive to do this for their children so collectively should we endeavour to do the same in our communities and countries.

Lots needs fixing. We have not achieved nirvana. We can do much, much better. We owe it to ourselves, and those to come, to try. Much harder. Public finances must be put right so we don’t further beggar the future. The economy must be strengthened so our well-being can be sustainably improved. The growing inequality across societies will corrode us unless addressed. Our energy supply must be secured and made sustainable and affordable. Homes need built. Transport needs modernised and our education system relentlessly improved and made fair. Our health habits must mature and our health service equipped for the modern challenges it faces.

We know that this will be true on 19 September, regardless of how we vote, we inherit tomorrow from today. The question we must answer is: whom do we trust to make good what needs done?

Do we entrust the system that has created things as they are now and a government our country elects less than half the time? Or do we trust ourselves to elect a government every time focused on the Scottish interest every day?

As the American academic John Schaar once wrote: “The future is not some place we are going, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made. And the activity of making them changes both the maker and the destination.”

That is true of us all now. Exciting, isn’t it? «

Twitter: @AndrewWilsonAJW