Scotland is a funny sort of place. As an independent state throughout the Middle Ages it might have been poor—but then so was most of the planet. And that relative poverty helped to shape the national character of pluck, doggedness, thrift, self-sufficiency and an acceptance that any ambition meant you went out into the rest of the world to find your fortune.
That last part was as true of the mercenaries who fought for Gustavus Adolphus, the Scottish merchant houses scattered along North Sea and Baltic coasts, the Glasgow Tobacco Barons or the prototype Star Trek Scotty who held the ships/trains/pumps etc together all over the Empire that, in turn, held that empire itself together.
But in the demise of that empire, we Scots lost our international dimension. The last spurt of it was £10 Assisted Passages to Oz in the 1950s. Perversely, this demise has happened at a time when more Scots go abroad than ever before. The difference is that two weeks in Ibiza or Sharm el Sheikh may teach you Bacardi’s cheaper to drink than Tennents—but nothing about Spain or Egypt or their peoples.
This cultural isolation can be explained almost entirely by the Union. In the 300 years that we have been part of it, foreign policy has, understandably, been driven by the larger partner, indeed the one in the front line against various invasions from the Continent. Embroiled as the English were originally in the Angevin Empire, once Calais was lost, they pretty much pulled up the drawbridge and sought fortune elsewhere. The present membership of the EU has not fundamentally altered that.
As junior partner, we have been following their lead without thinking much about it. Two world wars did much to reinforce a common interest that empire-building had developed. But now well into the 21st century, it’s well past the time for Scotland to assess to what extent its future interests still coincide with those of our cousins.
Rather than couch the question in pure independence terms, let’s look at it from the perspective of the EU—especially our old Hanseatic neighbours with whom we were once so close. Rather than the rabble of city states with whom we traded, we have a handful of nations, the bulk of which form the Nordic Council, all of whom are doing rather well, maintaining individual identity while leveraging their common clout to finance that prosperity with international successes like SAS or Nokia.
None of those countries fell into the supposedly global recession of 2007 that still plagues us. None of their banks needed baling out. Even ignoring Norway’s huge bankroll, all other Nordic Council members have a debt-to-GDP ratio under 50% (UK is pushing 90% while much-maligned Spain is under 70%). But the one country that is also an old partner but which doesn’t get mentioned much is the engine room of the EU and its biggest member: Germany.
Given our 20th century history (both previous generations of my family went off to get shot at by them), both Scots and English developed a pretty poisoned attitude to Germany rather well lampooned by Basil Fawlty. The fact that, economically, they went by us like we were standing still in the latter half of the century only added to resentment. And, while this attitude may be too ingrained in English psyches, the more pragmatic Scots are missing a trick by not cosying up to our other Teutonic cousins.
Because Germany IS the future; the EU stands or falls on its involvement. And its people are getting pretty fed up with fiscal irresponsibility among PIGS and the taking-my-toys-home stroppy sulkiness of English Tories since Thatcher. Even if Scotland were to line up with the Scandinavians and be accepted into the Nordic Council, though that would indeed make a formidable economic bloc, it’s still only 30m vs Germany’s 81.3m.
So it’s well past time for us Scots to cosy up to the Germans. That means stop ignoring its language in schools and its news in our media. We know more about Berlusconi’s love life than we do about Merkel’s policies. Even our best political reporters can’t tell their SPD from their FPD. Most of the thousands of German visitors embarrass us with their fluent English, palates that can discern single malts and sophistication that takes no guff about haggis-hunting season.
Their politics are no more complex than ours (although both seem to baffle the English see-saw tradition). There are two traditional blocs: CDU/FDP and SPD/Greens. A fifth (The Left) may show up in the next federal election but only in the former Communist eastern part. The recent election in Lower Saxony (the one of the 16 federal states closest to us that includes Hanover and Bremen) the former just lost control to the latter by one vote. Merkel is alarmed at the prospect of a repetition of this at the federal level later this year.
When our media does pay attention, it often focuses on the fact that most Germans agree with Merkel’s course in the Eurozone crisis, the “crisis” itself is not a big topic in Germany at all, as it never manifested there. Issues of social justice, healthcare reform, education and tax reform are all more important in German elections at the moment. Does this not sound familiar? Neither the CDU/FDP nor the SPD/Greens have yet come forward with any convincing strategies on the domestic topics mentioned.
What is interesting to us is that the man who lost—the former Ministärpräsident—is not only a top CDU politician and Merkel confidant but also half Scots. David McAllister was born the son of a Scottish soldier in Berlin, his English is faultless, as he demonstrated as a Hume Institute lecture in Edinburgh last year. Now that he has some time on his (very capable) hands, we ought to be capitalising on this fortuitous (for us) fluke.
Scotland has just celebrated our exports rising £1.6bn to over £23bn and the bulk of which is to the EU. If we want this excellent trend to grow further and help us out of our own recession (never mind the English), the likes of Weir Pumps and other engineering firms need to learn from the spotless factories, obsession with precision and taste for gratification from hard work that has made Germany the non-threatening economic powerhouse of Europe.
We should be inviting Herr McAllister to lead a trade mission over here to sample the food and drink, the tourism sites, the spectacular scenery that so many of his own countrymen already enjoy so that more come and all stay longer. That should be followed by a reciprocal trade mission, led by the First Minister to shown its significance and staffed by our best engineering companies and negotiators for power links across the North Sea.
Bremerhaven is actually closer to Leith or Rosyth than either Rotterdam or Zeebrugge. It’s also closer to Berlin to facilitate using a Lower Saxon bridgehead to take Scots goods and reputation for canny banking and solid engineering to the rest of that huge market. Britain may be in the EU…but thanks to Pavlovian English hostility to its precepts (however justified such hostility may seem by history), we Scots have yet to exploit it properly. This looks like our chance.