The Cost of Being British

There are many stalwarts among the people working towards Scotland’s rightful future as a proper country. But, until this week, I never included The Economist among them. Don’t get me wrong—right-wing rag for blinkered fat cats though it is often derided—I am a fan of the publication, often subscribe and frequently find their analyses more rooted than other publications I enjoy: more pragmatic than the New Statesman; more global than Time; more objective than Private Eye.

So much for the intro ad. This week, their occasional centrefold Special Report is on the Nordic Countries. In the past, the Economist has certainly not held back from pillorying Sweden 20 years ago for its massive state share of their economy or the entire bloc 10 years ago for the parlous state of its banking system. But this report is glowing. While it makes distinctions among them, all four Nordic countries (Norway; Denmark; Sweden; Finland) gain high marks and high praise as models for 21st century living with a “generous welfare system that does not cost the earth”.

The analysis tries to cover a spectrum of measures and not just raw wealth. Places like the US rank high in per capita GDP and even productivity but their social tensions and their inequalities—not to mention liberties taken with the environment to achieve it all—rather spoil the scale of achievement. Other advanced countries like Italy suffer severe geographic inequalities and even Britain suffers from an unbalanced economic picture between its capital and affluent surroundings, as compared to bleaker, poorer provinces that are treated as such by the establishment.

But the images of Scandinavia described are at once futuristically alien and yet intimate and comfortable. As the report puts it:

“Swedish fathers enjoying a leisurely lunch while their children sleep in prams (Sweden’s paternity leave is among the most generous in the world); Danish mothers cycling, helmet-less, through the early morning mist with their children in sidecars (Copenhagen has more than 350 km of cycle lanes and 1/3 of the population cycles to work); a Finnish physics teacher discussing the nature of elegance with a class of 15-year-olds (Finland regularly comes top of league tables of educational attainment).

That latter point itself is worth considering. Through its 32 councils, Scotland spends around £2.5 bn on educating her children up to 18. This outlay is exceeded only by health but is subject to even more scrutiny and, especially in England, more partisan political interference than in any other public service. Various theories of teaching methods, examination, streaming, etc have dominated at one time or another.

But the bottom line is—exam results or no—Scottish employers claim school leavers are not adequately educated; our colleges & universities must provide remedial courses in basic english and mathematics. This is confirmed by the internationally acknowledged PISA scores which rank Scotland below any of the four Nordic countries on measures of reading, mathematics and science. Finland ranks head and shoulders above on all three measures.

Why is this? Their success does not depend on accountability: they have dispensed with shibboleths like a national curriculum, school inspections or high-stakes exams. Nor does it depend on resources: they spend less of their GDP on education than the USA and Finnish teachers talk enviously how much their British colleagues are paid. The reason they do such a good job for less pay is simple: the high quality people it attracts have stability and respect—they design their own curricula and write their own tests. And this system has been left undisturbed by mandarins or ministers for forty years.

But Finland is not the only one of the four to have cocked a snook at Western orthodoxy and beaten its own path into the future. One news item you never head from the unionist media in Scotland is how little impact the recession (now in its fourth year and third dip of crippling the British economy) had on Scandinavia. Take Sweden as an example why this is the case.

For much of the 20th ©, Sweden steered a course between socialism and capitalism but by 1993 it had drifted left to the point that public spending was 63% of the economy, the budget deficit stood at 11% and public debt was up to 70% of GDP. A banking crisis and a conviction that the welfare state they had created was unaffordable caused radical thinking and decisive action. What helped resolve was that they had drifted from 4th to 14th place among the world’s richest per capita countries, similar to Britain’s recent decline.

It adopted fiscal orthodoxy by pledging to create a fiscal surplus. It scrapped a complex system of taxes on property, gifts, wealth and inheritance and brought the top tax rate slowly down from 84% to 57%. Its public debt is now halved to 37% of GDP and it is running a budget surplus of 0.3%. All this meant that, as a small, open economy, it rode the storm of 2007-8 and recovered quickly. As part of Britain, such a path is not open to Scotland.

But, just as Scots look skeptically at the kind of fiscal cowboy behaviour favoured by the English with Canary Wharf as its epicentre, preferring a more egalitarian society, so the Nordics appear to have found a way to prosper without generating the kind of social tensions and material inequalities that plague both Birminghams in England and Alabama. Their most laudable achievement appears to be that, despite each having a distinct approach to prosperity, all four top the league table of equality with a Gini equivalent of income inequality around 0.25. This compares with an OECD average over 0.3 and with Britain and the USA both pushing o.4.

Had history gone differently and Scotland had become independent in, say, 1979, not only could we have avoided Thatcher but, in order to steer clear of her slash-and-burn crusade, we would have been forced into the arms of the Scandinavians, the only neighbours of comparable size with whom we share comparable social philosophy.

Had we then gone through the same financial epiphany as Sweden, funded by our capital from North Sea oil, thirty years on, we would be a full fifth member of the group, with The Economist praising our fiscal rectitude, our internationally successful companies, our educational effectiveness, our enlightened social programmes and our happy egalitarianism.

But we’re not; we’re part of clueless Britain. So, are we going to wait another thirty years bumping along in the shadow of its past glories before we see the light?

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
This entry was posted in Commerce, Community, Education, Politics and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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