Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Everyone knows there’s an election coming. The less political punters who think “they’re a’ the same” and seldom bother to vote may already be turned off by the whole affair with over a month still to go. But that would be a shame because—like the referendum in September which engaged just about everyone—there are things worth paying attention to this time around. It’s not just ‘business as usual’.

For the first time in nearly a century, it seems that no party holding an overall majority is easily the most likely outcome. The post-war era of monolithic Westminster-dominated behemoths who were once sharply distinct but have now (like the Republicans and Democrats in the USA) half-blended into Tweedledum vs Tweedledee apparatchiks who seem more fixated by power, the status quo and traditions than breaking moulds and forging new futures for the people.

Since Labour has backed off from the fractious statist mess they created in the 1970s and Tories have backed off from the equally fractious Thatcherite mess of the 1980s distinctions have blurred. Since Blair’s New Labour took power and the noughties by storm, the jibe about Red/Blue Tories has had an increasing whiff of truth.

But rather than fall over each other to woo the middle class, what post industrial Scotland needs is a dynamism that will take it into the 21st century with the kind of quiet resolve, social justice and effective economy that characterises Norway or Finland. What England does with its Westminster rituals, its delusion of world power, its cultural isolation, its distrust towards its neighbours is up to England. Scotland deserves better.

So, rather than getting too caught up in what is an English political debate about how best to afford Trident, aircraft carriers and a ‘seat at the top table’, Scots must be looking beyond May 7th and considering how best to prepare its people for the future. This is not, in the first instance, about re-fighting the referendum. But it is about driving the country forward, powered by the energy, interest and vision that the referendum unleashed.

I attended an SCDI (Scottish Council for the Development of Industry) Forum, held at RBS HQ at Gogarburn. Not only was the array of speakers impressive but what they said and the debates that ensued illustrated the resources upon which we can draw and the ideas that need to be exploited in forging a prosperous and distinct future for Scotland.

The RBS HQ Campus at Gogarburn

The RBS HQ Campus at Gogarburn

The welcome by Ken Barclay, RBS Chairman in Scotland, set the tone that a debate on our economic future was urgent. But Secretary of State for Scotland Alastair Carmichael echoed it by speaking of City Deals and decentralisation as essential steps to an efficiency and effectiveness that leads to prosperity.

This was reinforced immediately by Sir Richard Lees, Manchester City Council Leader who brought a tale of how Greater Manchester, enjoying a 19% population growth 2001-11 due mainly to an influx of younger people, was performing at 4.5% annual growth, better than London’s. But he emphasised that this was not as robust as Munich or Barcelona who had control over a greater geographic swathe and (more importantly) a range of services.

So he was on a crusade for a ‘Northern Powerhouse’—major political elements of the city region (ten councils, including the city) co-operating closely on services while major civic elements (NHS, transport, etc) came under their jurisdiction. He believed that, more than any other factor, cities drive growth and prosperity in their region. He also saw economic and social policy as inextricably linked, with particular emphasis placed on the early years of education. But key among such large overarching organisations was a need for close working and avoidance of silo mentality.

Clearly, despite Alastair Carmichael’s enthusiasm for city deals, we have a way to go. Unlike highly devolved Germany, until recently the UK operated a monolithic power base entirely focused in London. Unfortunately, despite receiving devolution themselves, Holyrood has been equally poor at passing those powers devolved any further and this will be a pivotal issue if Scotland’s cities are ever to benefit Manchester’s pioneering example.

The breakout (or ‘workstream’) sessions followed three themes. Of most interest to me revolved around ‘Better Skills’, led by ECC Chief Executive Sue Bruce. Scotland’s poor vocational system is holding it and the skills of a swathe of its people back. Social stigma associated with non-academic achievement is a curse common to England and Scotland.

Germany makes no such mistake and values craft and creative skills alongside academic ones (going a long way to explain their dominance in precision engineering and exports that capitalise on it). The Wood Commission highlighted a shortage of skilled young people and how poorly we dovetailed their training into education.

British Gas Field Operations Director John Craig provided and excellent example of the application of Modern Apprentices. They must replace their entire installed base of meters by 2020 with smart ones that can be read remotely. This involves 50 million installations in the space of five years. To achieve this, British Gas are hiring and training hundreds of young people as their own engineering staff have good mechanical but limited electronic skills and/or training.

John spoke of ‘fuelling the talent pipeline’, by which he meant they were engaging the young early on by ‘Inspire’ (at ages 5-11), ‘Inform’ (at ages 11-16) and ‘Experience’ (ages 16+). This involves entering schools for the first two stages to better support the last. However, the other presenter Marion Beattie of Skills Development Scotland betrayed the worst traits of a well intentioned but ineffectual bureaucracy. Fluent in the vocabulary “regional skills assessment”…”blended learning”…”triangle approach” it was, in Woody Allen’s phrase “tinged with nothingness”.

It was my distinct impression that, had she been confronted by an apprentice forester with a chainsaw she would have run a mile. Such bureaucrats dominate the civic structure of Scotland as part of the bloated 52% of Scots GDP dependent on the public sector. They are comfortable in cosy niches. As such, they are not part of the solution but part of the problem.

Interlude to Watch the Partial Eclipse during the SCDI Forum

Interlude to Watch the Partial Eclipse during the SCDI Forum

In contrast, the afternoon session brought a refreshingly frank ‘opening of the kimono’ by Darrell Steinberg, former President of the California State Senate. Among his legislative achievements, he created a $250m Career Pathways Trust to better prepare students for the workplace.

But the most important message he brought was the danger of over-reliance on academic results as a measure of either schools or the education they impart. California had based funding on a very narrow set of exam results, with the result that most education effort went into passing as many students as possible, all at the expense of a broader education and adequate preparations for the workplace, especially in vocational terms.

Although only a day long, the Forum was both though-provoking and useful for the opportunity it gave to meet and chat with the broad spectrum of 150-or-so senior business people who were there. Where the audience was weak was in policy decision-makers, whether MPs, MSPs, councillors or their staffs. Anyone concerned about the present academic fixation and consequent refrain from business that students are ill-prepared and sometimes even illiterate/innumerate would find that omission dispiriting.

For what Scotland needs is for our politicians of all stripes to stop fixating on their own career and tinkering with secondary legislation like smoking or air gun bans and meet this crisis in developing our young people to not just to have dreams but to have the skills to exploit them to the economic benefit of the country. That covers a broad spectrum of callings that need equal placing with academia—from the carpentry that drives the world-class Chippendale Furniture school in East Lothian to sports ambition to follow the trail blazed by Andy Murray to the international acclaim from music giants given to Nicola Benidetti for following her dream.

The SCDI Forum was only a signpost. The UK parliament is too fixated on dogmatic disputes based on politics to give a lead. It is the Scottish Government who must take a lead from Manchester and give our half-dozen city regions powers they are hoarding to plan, education and provide civic support for what is appropriate for them.

The present SNP government may show more gumption and initiative than what went before but Labour led a sorry cavalcade of mediocrity for the first eight years. If the polls are right, a decimated Scottish Labour will be in the wilderness for a decade and the Tories have yet to find their way back.

So, in forty days, the opportunity will be there for a rampant SNP to hold Westminster to account for devolution of what Scotland needs. They will have a clear run to go after and pass the Norways and Finlands of the world, a chance for a Second Enlightenment that boosts the lives of all our people. But that will happen only if they stop grabbing any reins of power for themselves and trust some to the hands of the people they claim to serve.

For all the barnstorming bravado shown in Glasgow this weekend, are they gallus enough to chance their future to achieve ours?

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.
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