Sir John Arbuthnott: Towards a new Enlightenment

Picture: Ian Rutherford
Picture: Ian Rutherford
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SIR John Arbuthnott writes that the Royal Society of Edinburgh plans to continue being at the heart of the debate shaping the future of Scotland.

When the Royal Society of Edinburgh was formed in 1783, with Adam Smith among its founder members, Scotland was at the heart of the Enlightenment and had an international significance far beyond its size. Leading Enlightenment figures such as chemist Joseph Black and geologist James Hutton were among the early Fellows. To this day, the fellowship reflects a breadth of excellence across disciplines.

More than 200 years later, Scotland is on the verge of another decisive moment in its history as it prepares to vote on whether to become an independent country. In the run-up to the referendum in autumn 2014, the RSE has a vital role to play in informing the debate – and in doing so, moving Scotland towards a new Enlightenment.

We called the RSE’s new strategy document Towards a New Enlightenment to reflect the opportunity to inform the constitutional debate at this crucial juncture – to make Scotland a country of influence and international standing once more, rather than just an excellent small country. To do that, we need to enlighten, to exemplify and to build strong connections with the rest of the world.

Our Fellows have the skills, the knowledge and the global influence to achieve this. Whatever way the referendum goes, the RSE must be able to look back and be confident it did everything possible to allow the people of Scotland to make this vital decision based on the very best information and analysis.

At the moment, there is a lack of depth to the debate at a political level and there are hugely important questions that need to be answered by both sides. Those of us who are taking Scotland into the future need to know how it is going to work and what the options are – and how those different options will allow Scotland to do 
things better.

In seeking to inform the debate ahead of Scotland’s big decision, the RSE will be driven by its primary goal – the economic, cultural and social improvement of Scotland and its people.

Scotland has a distinguished historical record of punching above its weight – and we want to ensure it does so in future, too. Over the next year, we will be holding seminars and events, and will publish a number of reports on some of the big questions around the constitutional debate. How will the way in which Scotland is governed affect all the big issues?

The thorny issue of the European Union and Europe will be the subject of the next report, following our first publication – co-written with the British Academy Policy Centre – that laid down the different constitutional options and looked at very different historical precedents in both Ireland and Czechoslovakia.

Other topics will cover the issues around the economy, currency and the banking and financial world, as well as defence and health and social services.

How would health and social care fare in an independent Scotland, especially the care of older people as enormous demographic changes take effect?

In the current political context, we understand that everything we do can be interpreted in different ways by one side or the other. The Royal Society of Edinburgh will not escape criticism and has been attacked in the past for its report on climate change, for example – and I am sure we will stir it up again. However, the society will only produce reports based on the best evidence available.

Scotland is at a crossroads and if the RSE had stood back, that would have been wrong. We have a responsibility to make a contribution and to record what is happening at this vital time in Scotland’s history.

The RSE also has a part to play in ensuring the style of debate is right. When we descend into slanging matches, we can miss some important parts of the conversation. In tackling this, it is not just about politicians; the media also has a responsibility to ensure that narrow point-scoring is not the only driver. We need more hard information about how things might look if we go down a particular route. There is work to be done and I hope the media can rise to this challenge.

I saw the value of investing in young people during 14 years working in Ireland. Trinity College Dublin was turning out about 4,000 graduates a year and a great many of them emigrated during the deep recession of the mid-80s because there were no jobs in Ireland. But when Ireland started booming and needed skilled graduates in areas such as biotechnology, lots of young people returned home. They made the economic recovery work and showed that investment in young people will stand you in good stead for the future.

It is also important that the evidence we produce to inform the constitutional debate is measurable. There are difficulties, but in my own field, we have made great strides at the Glasgow Centre for Population Health, measuring why it is that – in the shift from industrial to post-industrial Glasgow – the city has been left with so much unemployment, disadvantage and ill-health. It is all about developing a series of indicators to show where things are getting worse, staying the same or getting better.

Then you can start to ask questions about the relationship between housing and ill-health, about the role of drugs and alcohol and so on. It can be criticised as target-driven, but it is a good way to monitor outcomes and we have started to see improvements in areas such as coronary heart disease and early detection of cancers. This approach is now being used elsewhere.

Whatever the outcome of the constitutional discussions, I have no doubt we will continue to move towards greater use of the effective analysis of evidence, how this is converted into policy and how services can improve as a result.

Scotland has an excellent reputation internationally and the independence debate allows us to build on that. Our research capability in universities and research institutes, judged by grants and publications, shows our strength internationally.

But within Scotland, we often take a narrower view of life and, at the moment, we are looking at ourselves more closely in the mirror than ever before. Yet we are looking locally with good reason as we undertake a root-and-branch review of the future of our country, and ask ourselves major questions.

Can Scotland be an innovative, forward-thinking country with a successful economy? Does our schools system work, do our prisons work, and does the Scottish Parliament work? These and many more questions are fundamental to our future. They underpin a much bigger question: whatever its constitutional future, can Scotland move towards a new Enlightenment?

The Royal Society of Edinburgh believes it can – and will lead the way in enlightening and improving Scotland. It will not shirk the challenge.

• Sir John Arbuthnott is president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh: