Independent Scotland should take inspiration from 19th-century Meiji government in Japan and modernise its economy and institutions – Stewart McDonald
To walk down Whitehall is to walk back in time. The street which houses the UK Government and its civil service is home to Georgian mansions and the Palace of Westminster, where politicians have been plotting and hurrying through corridors since before the first brick in the Aztec Empire was laid. Just like the palaces and mansions themselves, however, the institutions these buildings house often feel like they would be more at home in a museum than in the heart of a modern state.
Indeed, beyond the neat divisions of Whitehall, a densely textured web of political and economic relations has come to span the world – with little regard for the increasingly porous frontier between domestic and foreign affairs. Issues like climate change, ransomware, drug trafficking, AI, and irregular migration are among the most pressing of our age, yet the UK Government continues to demarcate strict boundaries between its departments’ responsibilities with no clear idea about how to tackle these complex modern problems.
I am far from the only person to voice this issue. In a recent paper for the thinktank Reform, Mark Sedwill – former Cabinet Secretary, national security advisor, permanent secretary at the Home Office, and political director of the Foreign Office – praised the officials who work in the civil service, but noted that William Gladstone, the 19th-century Prime Minister, would feel perfectly at home in the institutions they work in today. This should set alarm bells ringing in London.
It is also a problem which has plagued the UK Government for decades. But the British state, as ever, remains trapped by tradition and by a congenital desire for consistency. These are positive attributes for a government in normal times but, as I have written before, we are not living in normal times. The foundations upon which we have built our political institutions are shifting underneath our seats, and these institutions must move with them – or risk crumbling.
With the UK Government patently unable to move with a rapidly changing world, Scotland has a chance to do things differently. Independence offers people in Scotland the chance to build institutions afresh and create a government fit for the modern world by looking around and learning from states which have been able to adapt to the challenges of an interdependent world.
I do not want to labour the analogy too heavily, but there is perhaps an interesting lesson to be drawn from the Meiji government in Japan. After ending its long period of political and economic isolation in the 19th century, this new Japanese government sent a group of statesmen and scholars around the world to survey the institutions which other countries had built, from the armed forces to the post office, and pick the best ones to replicate at home.
This ambitious project was more successful than could have ever been imagined and was, in no small part, responsible for Japan’s swift transition from a feudal, rice-based economy to a global superpower – a feat no other country in history has come close to replicating at such an incredible pace. In highlighting this, I don’t mean to say that modern Scotland and mediaeval Japan are the same. I want only to show the possibilities that come when governments are given a tabula rasa. I want only to show the possibilities that independence brings.
Even now, we can look around the world and see examples of governments doing things that an independent Scotland might want to replicate. Not surprisingly, many of these examples come from smaller states which are more nimble, agile, and better able to rise to the moment. Ireland has created a minister for the diaspora to engage with its population abroad and bolster its soft power globally, while Finland has appointed an ambassador for hybrid affairs to coordinate the state’s response to threats like disinformation and cyber-attacks and to avoid national security matters slipping through the cracks as the Intelligence and Security Committee has found in the United Kingdom time and time again.
Similarly, New Zealand’s Prime Minister is also the country’s minister for national security – ensuring a whole-of-government approach to national security at all times. These countries and others like them – Estonia, Sweden, Denmark – have shown the world how small states can more easily embrace innovative new approaches to government which make their countries more able to deal with modern threats.
While an independent Scotland would look to be a different kind of international actor to the United Kingdom, it should go without saying – but all too often doesn’t – that an independent Scotland would still look to build the closest possible diplomatic, security and military relationship with our closest neighbour and Nato ally. Bound together by the inescapable fact of geography, both Scotland and the United Kingdom will face many of the same challenges in the decades to come and the two states should establish formal mechanisms of intergovernmental collaboration – of the kind currently lacking in the United Kingdom – to ensure that Scottish ministers and their senior officials are in close and regular contact with their opposite numbers in London.
If it seems ironic that the working arrangements between the Scottish and UK governments have the potential to be more productive following independence than under devolution, it might be taken as a signal of just how deep the asymmetry of power and respect under the current constitutional settlement runs. If the UK Government is not willing to break with those traditions so unfit for the modern world, the people of Scotland must do it for them – and choose a government for the future over one stuck in the past.
Stewart McDonald is SNP MP for Glasgow South
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