Brian Monteith: Innovation would die without UK

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IT’S summer at last, as Edinburgh swelters in the sun. The city’s streets are beginning to throng with tourists and some will no doubt buy, for a laugh, that inestimable tea towel about all the great things Scots have given to the world and how, at every turn, anyone (but especially an Englishman) cannot help but be reminded of Scotland.

You know the one; it lists the steam engine, penicillin, pneumatic tyres, television, the translation of the Bible, vacuum flasks, the telephone and so on – and then finishes with tongue-in-cheek immodesty saying “Wha’s like us, gie few an’ they’re aw’ deid!”

The original poem, by Tom Anderson Cairns, makes a point that we are all familiar with, namely that Scotland has done much to determine the shape and destiny of the modern world. More so than, say, other nations of a similar or even bigger size. And of course we’re still doing it.

Many of the modern-day inventions we are familiar with – such as the cloning of Dolly the sheep, cash dispensing machines, ultrasound and MRI scanning, are still coming out of our research labs and universities – so it is good news indeed that the universities of Edinburgh and Heriot Watt have been given a joint grant of £6 million to establish a new research centre in the Capital for robotics and autonomous systems.

Who knows what will come of it, but it points to that little appreciated fact – that Scotland benefits out of all proportion to its size in obtaining UK government research funding – and that we would lose access to these funds were we to throw our electronic microscope out of the pram and go our own separate way.

The question is often asked, what does the UK do for Scotland, or to put it another way, what is the positive case for being in the UK? And the answer is usually there before us, but we take so much for granted that we don’t see it.

Scotland, were it just a nation by itself, would not need and could not expect to have as large a number of universities. The fact is that we actually export education by taking in students from around the world – but especially the rest of the UK – and, for a fee, sending them out into the world better equipped to solve problems, cure illnesses and of course invent new things.

If Scotland were to stand alone as a sovereign nation it could, I have no doubt, be successful, but there are many components of our country that would change beyond recognition. One is financial services, where a large majority of our biggest companies’ customers are actually in England – and another is our universities where not only does the teaching of students benefit from being part of the United Kingdom, but so too does the considerable amount of research done.

At the moment, English, Welsh and Northern Irish students have to pay fees for attending Scottish universities – if Scotland were to be independent then thanks to the rules of the European Union student “free exchange” system the Scottish taxpayer would have to finance the many millions of those lost fees.

At the moment, Scottish universities receive £200 million of research grants from the UK – double our natural share – but were we independent our universities would not be eligible for those funds.

How would these hundreds of millions be found? Despite raising these questions many times, nationalists refuse to answer them – they are just some of those inconvenient truths that will be sorted out afterwards.

That’s just universities and the vital income that comes into Edinburgh and Scotland, employing tens of thousands of people and gaining us a world-wide reputation for education and inventiveness. And practically all of it happened since the Union of the Parliaments in 1707. That’s no coincidence.

Being in Great Britain gave us new markets, new opportunities, new sources of income and a bigger stage to play upon.

Our pre-Union education system (of a school in every Parish) suddenly gave Scots an opportunity that we took full advantage of – but without that union we would have found it far tougher and certainly more competitive. Thanks to Great Britain, our past enemies and competitors became our partners and best customers.

Obviously a great deal has changed – but the fact remains for higher education and many other sectors, that being in the United Kingdom gives us more chances of success and greater opportunities than being a direct competitor with less resources at our disposal.

That tea towel is a bit of fun but it is based upon an interesting truth, that Scots have greatly prospered since the creation of Great Britain.

The false immodesty at the end is a joke – for we would be fools to believe there is no one else like us. There are other nations and other peoples queuing up to become the inventors for the world and if we throw away the advantage that being part of the United Kingdom gives us – in human and financial resources – then don’t be surprised if, within a generation or two, it is our universities that are aw’ deid.