Brian Wilson: Where are our big events for 2020s?

A FIXATION on THAT vote means there is nothing set to follow the Commonwealth Games and Ryder Cup, says Brian Wilson

The Commonwealth Games bids success was the result of co-operation and creative thinking. Picture:SNS

Gleneagles is one of my favourite places in Scotland – nay, the world – and fortune has cast me down there a couple of times recently. This week, it was for the launch of the Ryder Cup Harris Tweed Hebrides Collection, which revives images of another golfing era.

There was a big media turnout and, without in any way detracting from the incontestible lustre of the product, the guarantee of such enthusiastic interest these days lies in the words “Ryder Cup”. The extent to which Scotland is looking forward to a great few months of international sport is palpable and infectious.

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For that, we owe a great deal to the politicians, sports administrators and others who, in the early part of the last decade, set their minds on winning these events for Scotland. It seems incredible that the decision to hold this year’s Ryder Cup at Gleneagles was taken as long ago as 2001; even more so that it was then seen as a second prize.

At that time, Scotland had lost out to the Welsh contender for 2010 and the confirmation at that time of Gleneagles as venue four years later might have been seen as a consolation prize. In retrospect, however, I think it was the best possible result which allowed interest to build and benefits to be obtained from promoting the event during a longer build-up. Critically, 13 years on, we still have the world’s second most-watched sporting set-piece to look forward to.

The Commonwealth Games has had almost as long a gestation period. I was talking this week to Steven Purcell, an exceptionally able leader of Glasgow City Council, who led the bid on behalf of his city, alongside Jack McConnell on behalf of all Scotland. Steven recalled that when he got the job in 2005, the first decision facing his administration was whether to pursue the bid for the 2014 Games. It was, in retrospect, a no-brainer.

Already, McConnell and the Scottish Executive had been inspired by the example of Manchester using the 2002 Games as a platform for the city’s highly successful regeneration effort. And that was the crucial point about Glasgow’s approach; this was not just to be a sports-fest that would be over in a few weeks but a truly transformational project in parts of the city that needed it most.

The results are there for all to see and the imperative must now be to ensure the implementation of a follow-through strategy. The health and education statistics for these areas, particularly in the East End of Glasgow, are persistently dismal for complex, post-industrial reasons. If money alone was the answer, the problems would have been solved long ago since vast sums have been devoted to achieving that outcome.

These decisions taken a decade ago to link investment, infrastructure and sporting facilities to a much wider regeneration strategy offer the best chance yet of success – but only if they are backed up with ongoing educational and employment opportunities, particularly for young people.

The further education sector has a huge part to play in that process, which makes the cuts it continues to face all the more perplexing and crying out for reversal.

The long and short of all this is that, as we draw pride, enjoyment and inspiration from these great events, we should spare a moment to be appreciative of those who had the vision to think years ahead – beyond the lifespan of one or even two parliamentary terms – in order to bring them to Scotland. In retrospect, it really was a very creative period in Scottish politics, with tangible outcomes on many fronts.

That also leads on to the question of what comparable thinking is taking place in Scotland today? Very little, as far as I can see. What great events or transformational projects are being secured or pursued for the 2020s? Or has the entire focus been concentrated on the one big event on 18 September, with all the uncertainties, claims and counter-claims about what would follow that it has given rise to?

If so, time and opportunities have been wasted.

The one demonstrable certainty is that being part of the United Kingdom did not stop Scotland securing the events we are now looking forward to. As Jack McConnell says: “It was all done from Scotland with leadership, the powers of devolution and some strategic use of UK influence and networks.” That is an evidence-based statement of reality that should be built on rather than sidelined.

That approach would chime with the plea this week from the leaders of Britain’s other big cities outside London for their counterparts in Scotland to stay within the United Kingdom and to press for more powers for their own communities. The Core Cities Group made the excellent point: “Devolving more power to cities to let them create jobs and grow their economies is a more radical constitutional agenda than establishing a border at Carlisle”.

Perhaps the big difference between then and now is that, a decade ago, the vested interest of Scotland’s devolved rulers was in demonstrating what could be delivered using the extensive powers and resources available to them.

For their successors, the objective is, by definition, quite different. It is to emphasise the limitations, real or contrived, in order to create a rationale for separation.

The sooner we get back to judging the Scottish Government on the basis of what it does, rather by what it says it would do if certain hypothetical conditions existed, the better. Because the alterative is not to hold them sufficiently to account for what is happening at present.

Imagine the fury from the Nationalists if it had been anyone else presiding over this week’s quite shocking NHS statistics or last week’s news of falling standards in basic primary-school achievement.

We need more “big ideas” than the single fixation with irreversible constitutional change.

Furthermore, we also need a revived enthusiasm for pushing the limits of what can be achieved for Scotland rather than using the constitution as an alibi for what, at root, is a distinct absence of creativity or vision.