Brian Wilson: Scots formula has worked so far

Dolly the sheep, the world's first cloned mammal, is one example of the prowess of Scots scientists. Picture: PA
Dolly the sheep, the world's first cloned mammal, is one example of the prowess of Scots scientists. Picture: PA
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Prof Hugh Pennington points out Scottish scientific achievements have been born within the Union, writes Brian Wilson

Pronouncements around the independence argument are now ten-a-penny but this week’s entry into the fray by Professor Hugh Pennington at the launch of Academics Together stood out both on its own terms and as a metaphor for the wider debate.

For those who complain, however disingenuously, that opponents of separation speak too direly of its hypothetical consequences rather than pointing to actual benefits of Union, then here was an intervention for them to rejoice in. Surely there is nothing negative about defending undisputed excellence?

By the same token, Pennington’s case cannot be misrepresented as anything other than an extremely proud and positive account of what exists in Scotland and now, in his view, urgently needs safeguarding. Scotland’s strength in scientific research, he argued, has not been arrived at in isolation from our place within the United Kingdom.

On the contrary, it has evolved as part of that wider history and context to the benefit of all, on the basis of merit not nationality. He said: “The absence of barriers allows not just funding and people but ideas and innovation to flow freely across borders. I don’t want to put the success of Scotland’s world-leading research at risk.”

This is not an argument primarily about money, though it is scarcely irrelevant that, on the basis of academic entitlement, Scotland receives 75 per cent more than our pro rata share of UK research funding. It is about the positive, enhancing reality of academics working collaboratively for the betterment of humanity, which they do with spectacular success in disciplines such as medicine and life sciences.

It can be argued, of course, that life would go on as before if we were divided into two states, academically and otherwise. It can be argued – but not demonstrated. It can be asserted that money would come from somewhere else – asserted but not proven. What cannot be claimed is that being part of the United Kingdom has prevented the development of what actually exists, the priceless bird in the hand which Pennington wishes to protect.

Just as Pennington’s argument was persuasive, the response of the Nationalists seemed curiously perverse: “Scotland,” they said, “has an unrivalled record of success in attracting research funding, reflecting the excellence and global reputation of our universities… We have more world-class universities than any other country and a number of our universities have risen up the international rankings this year.”

Quite so, give or take a modicum of unnecessary hyperbole. But, with due respect, surely these comments reinforce Pennington’s argument for retaining the framework within which this happy state of affairs has been achieved? If everything is going so well in the laboratories of Scotland’s great universities, then what is the case for disruption, financial or otherwise? What is the problem that cries out to be resolved?

This takes us back to the old game of positives and negatives. We have a research network that has been built up over centuries, delivers magnificently, transcends politics and of which Scotland is rightly proud. By definition, every scintilla of its achievements have been delivered within the context of the United Kingdom for 300-odd years. Is there any grievance to be addressed in that state of affairs?

In contrast, what could be more negative than to set about creating, as the by-products of a political ideology, institutional and constitutional barriers where none now exist, as well as separate funding systems within our small island which would introduce uncertainty on the basis of nationality where there is now generosity on the basis of merit?

The theologian, Professor Donald MacLeod, wrote recently: “The burden of proof lies on the apostles of negativity who consistently disparage the last 300 years of Scottish history as if the Union had prevented all progress and sapped us of all self-respect. Listening to them, you would never believe that during these years we have successfully negotiated the industrial revolution, produced such world-class writers as Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott, nurtured leading scientists like Alexander Fleming, John Logie Baird and James Clerk Maxwell and reared outstanding athletes such as Kenny Dalglish and Sir Chris Hoy.”

Substitute your own preferred names and disciplines as you see fit – there are plenty of them – but the principle remains the same. It is irrational on the one hand for Nationalists to seek to expropriate whatever they fancy from the last 300 years on the basis of its Scottishness – “Scotland has an unrivalled record of success, etc etc” – while at the same time seeking to break up the state within which all of this has transpired.

What is the great grievance that would justify that approach? The more one looks for it, the harder it is to find. As MacLeod said: “We live on the same rock, speak the same language, share the same history and have learned to live with our differences. We are not victims of a cruel repressive regime or consumed with ancient hatreds and unforgotten wrongs.”

One of the leading Nationalist thinkers, Andrew Wilson, recently used an interesting metaphor when he delivered a lecture at the SNP conference. Opponents of independence, he opined, were driven by a conservative fear of change. We were like “frogs in a pot, as the water simmers, feeling comfortable in the inevitability of their own demise”.

It is a pretty disparaging way to regard the 60-odd per cent of fellow-Scots who do not appear to share Andrew’s vision for Scotland, but c’est la vie.

I don’t recognise myself as a boiling frog any more than I recognise the society I live in as a pot from which I am too stupid to escape. I actually like the country within which I have lived all my life. Nothing that I value about it suffers from any shortcomings in the constitution and most of what I do not like is already within our own hands to change, if the will exists, which is by no means self-evident.

Pennington and MacLeod have both set the relevant challenge in this debate. We know what we have got, what we value and what is worth defending. It is up to the “apostles of negativity” towards our shared history and achievements to prove, not assert, that they have something better to offer.