Lesley Riddoch: Scotland can follow ‘wee country’ template for success

A view of New Zealand's Parliament House and the Beehive in Wellington, the nation's capital since 1865. Picture: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images
A view of New Zealand's Parliament House and the Beehive in Wellington, the nation's capital since 1865. Picture: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images
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Scotland can learn the prerequisites of success from nations like Norway, Finland and New Zealand, writes Lesley Riddoch

Is New Zealand the SNP’s new preferred model for an independent Scotland, because previous favourite Norway is deemed too socialist? It’s a strange suggestion on a number of fronts.

Firstly, and pedantically, Norway has actually been run by a Conservative-led coalition since 2013. Perhaps though, that makes the point for folk who fear the Nordics are unachievable role models. Even with Conservatives at the helm, Norwegians support state ownership of assets and oppose private education. Norway has one of the world’s lowest rates of income inequality and highest rates of trust – it seems to be a “natural” social democracy, with fairness, participation and planning at the heart of governance, no matter whose hand is on the tiller.

Actually, you could argue Scotland is heading the same way, aided by a proportional voting system that avoids the damaging and polarising swings of political control still experienced at Westminster. The first Lib Dem/Labour Scottish Government passed free personal care, which was built on, not unravelled by subsequent SNP governments. Indeed agreement on Scotland’s future in Europe has broken out at Holyrood. All that really divides the parties is the issue of independence – and that’s essentially a question about the best way to protect Scotland’s distinctive interests. With long experience of the compromise and negotiation that arises from a century of proportional representation, the Norwegians are a lot further down the road of having a “settled will” on social and economic policy but is Scotland really on a totally different path? I don’t think so.

Secondly, this apparent leak from the Growth Commission report (commissioned by Nicola Sturgeon, headed by former MSP Andrew Wilson and apparently set for publication “soon”) appeared in an independence-supporting Sunday newspaper. The SNP officially made “no comment”. So was the New Zealand line a misunderstanding by journalists, a deliberate SNP leak to test public reaction towards a possible rightward move in economic policy or an attempt to discredit the Growth Commission by internal party critics? Who knows. But after the difficulties encountered by Alex Salmond’s Arc of Prosperity, when two affluent wee neighbours (Iceland and Ireland), almost went bust, you’d think the SNP would think twice before nailing its colours to the mast of any other individual country – however attractive. Like the stock market, the oil price and indeed life in general, the economic success of individual countries ebbs and flows – though growth in both the aforementioned “basket-case” economies exceeds the UK again.

Indeed that is the beauty of being a wee country. There are a wheen of ways to run the economy and a stack of reasons to go for independence – but historically almost none have centred on the certain expectation of economic growth.

Iceland and Finland capitalised on political breakdown in their respective “motherlands”. German occupation of Denmark offered Iceland the chance to declare UDI in 1944 and the October Revolution prompted an escape route for Russian satellite states like Finland. Norway, by contrast, acted over the relatively obscure issue of consular representation – though admittedly Swedish control was limiting the growth of Norway’s massive shipping fleet. Of course, after independence, all these wee nations found ways to develop their natural assets and use that wealth to keep successive generations living happily in the world’s most hostile terrains. But at the time of independence, none of these future economic possibilities were yet in the bag.

It would be madness not to learn from the experience of others. Yet that experience seems to show there is no single template for success – just a lot of slow, sensible growth based on co-operation and fairness rather than Britain’s toxic formula of Splendid Isolation and gross inequality.

But if there is no single template for wee country success – there do seem to be a few common prerequisites.

The first is an underlying level of sound democratic health based on thriving local democracy and a fair distribution of income, land and state ownership of key natural assets like hydro energy, oil and gas. Here, Scotland is sadly still playing catch-up, with chronic inequality and disempowering, centralised structures of control and ownership.

The second prerequisite is the ability to make the most of a crisis. With New Zealand, the turning point was Britain’s decision to join the European Community in 1973, which deprived the Kiwis of their biggest lamb export market almost overnight.

With Norway it was occupation by the Germans – in the first post-war election, all four main parties stood on the same manifesto, committing themselves to the creation of an equal society. With Finland, it was the devastating aftermath of their ill-fated attempt to regain Karelia from Russia which meant siding with Hitler during the 1940s. The Finns were so poor they made reparations to Russia in kind – developing skills in cable construction, paper-making and mobile telephony. With Denmark, the 1970s oil crisis was an opportunity for rebirth. Realising they had no indigenous energy supplies, the Danish government opted to keep oil prices high, tax cars and invest hugely in wind energy. Forty years and many changes of government later, that basic formula still applies. It’s the reason 52 per cent of Danes cycle to work and school. It’s the reason Copenhagen is probably the world’s greenest city and contributes to the Danes’ tediously consistent position in the top three of the World’s Happiest Countries. Just by the by, the top three are all small independent Nordic nations which are triple A credit-rated – they have learned to mitigate capitalism with equality and solidarity. But they do it in slightly different ways which reflect their culture, history, geography and economic interests.

Thus Finland is in the EU and euro (partly because of proximity to Russia), while Norway is not. Sweden has a relatively open door to immigrants – Denmark doesn’t. The important thing is that each small country knows where its’ interests lie and steers its democracy and economy accordingly.

If we agree that Scotland’s interests lie in full or halfway house membership of the single market, greater control over fisheries, expansion of energy resources, scrapping Trident, dramatically narrowing the income gap and the generational curse of inequality then we must have the courage to pursue the constitutional route which enables that future.

Whether we look to New Zealand, Finland, Norway, Slovakia or all the above –that’s the big challenge.