An early evening seminar at the Hume Institute led by the Chair of the First Minister’s Council of Economic Advisors is not everyone’s idea of entertainment but Paul Johnson, Director of the Institute of Fiscal Studies made it that for me. Much of his talk and most of the subsequent questions were about the British economy and its performance in relation to the rest of the planet. Given that the IFS out-gloomed the Treasury four years ago when the recession first hit, this was not stuff for the faint-hearted.
But what cheered me were a number of incidental observations. Paul was clear that cutting public spending was counterproductive. But he was also clear that what public spending there was needed to be well directed and that this was almost impossible to co-ordinate at a UK level. This can happen for well intentioned reasons: he cited excessive housing benefit but a paucity of spend on new affordable housing as unbalanced thinking.
Reading between his lines, what was obvious was that, whereas Scotland is forever being lectured on the advantages of being part of the bigger, beefier UK, its smaller scale and self-contained infrastructure make its future a much more manageable problem to solve.
Caught up in this recession, little has been said about how deep Western society was in trouble anyway prior to 2007. We had green targets and made laudable efforts in recycling, etc. But we are kidding ourselves that we were anywhere near a sustainable future and that a return to 2006 would solve everything.
For a start, we build towns and cities based on cars. Car use grows faster than public transport because it’s easier. But with oil back over $100 and petrol at $1.40, just how sustainable is that? The UK government (especially as it’s Tory) is all for development if it could just unleash the cash to do it. The result would be more urban sprawl, such as has covered the green fields of England over the past century. The proportion of spend on any infrastructure will be small and most of that confined to arterial roads.
Already, Scotland has gone down a different path; most of the houses built in the last five years have, thank to Scottish Government incentives, been affordable. These are seldom urban sprawls needing a car to reach but smaller estates near shops or even town centres as Scotland’s stock of brownfield sites is tapped into. Such closer, mixed communities are in themselves more self-sustaining, needing less transport in and out if there are jobs and shopping available within them; they also make less demand on services, whether it be police, health or social work.
Because the major mistake made by the Americans and aped most of all by the English is the omnipotence of the commercial imperative that has resulted in the urban wastelands that are Haarlem, Pittsburgh, South Chicago, Detroit, Watts, etc., etc. We in Britain are not far behind, as evidenced by the detonator of Stoke Newington that ignited a dozen other suburbs and inner cities across England last August. Why didn’t it happen in Glasgow, even though a couple of lads were trying to make it so? Because Scots society, flawed as it is, still has cohesion that has little to do with how much you earn.
So when Cameron announces further measures to curb immigration because 30,000 people were brought into Britain on inter-company transfers when the 20,000 cap on other skilled visas was not even being approached, we have to wonder whose priorities is it that the UK government is following. Scotland’s not full up and has always thrived on those who come here, whether Italians, Poles or English. One thing the Americans DO get right is welcoming those who will work hard, pay lots of taxes and benefit the country. But no-one seems to be asking why locals don’t have the skills these 30,000 people have.
Thankfully, some in Scotland are ‘getting it’. Scottish Power (a.k.a. El Poder Escocece?) is ahead of the game. Chairman Ignacio Galan has announced a £5bn refurbishment of the power grid across southern Scotland, which will required 300 new engineers and technicians. Despite last year’s slump in production in North Sea oil & gas (largely due to new draconian tax regimes from the UK Treasury) this month BP announced a £2bn investment programme mainly to exploit resources in the Celtic Sea west of Shetland.
Not being as sensitive to immigration as our Southern cousins, we Scots will again welcome whoever shows up to fill those jobs—and the pile of others still to be created as the renewables industry keeps growing to provide Scotland with a modern industrial base. And, as a small country, there is a fair chance that our universities will pick up on such potential and steer their courses towards turning out graduates in tune with the demands that will be made on them in the world of work.
Which, in turn, means that fewer of our skilled young people will feel the need to seek a more prosperous future elsewhere and again reinforce the social cohesion that helps and is helped by what is loosely described as ‘Scottish culture’. There are parallels here with Norway and Denmark. Yes, there are economic parallels and the numbers can be used to make all sorts of arguments. But what matters to people is their quality of life, their sense of being at home among friends and family, of belonging.
Small countries seem to be especially good at that, the more so when—like the Canadians with the Americans of the Danes with the Germans—they have some overbearing self-important bigger neighbour to the south of them. Ask a Canadian or a Dane what they think of their southern neighbour and you usually get the kind of answer that a parent gives about their unruly adolescent—wry with humour, obviously affectionate but glad now to be self-aware enough themselves to have found a more mature, civilised and sustainable form of living.