It has certainly been an interesting time to move to Aberdeen. As something of a political junkie I have over the years – but always from a distance – followed developments in Scotland. In the 1980s when England was pretty solidly Conservative Scotland stood out, and the rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP) was intriguing. My own political education really took place in my late teens in Germany, when Willy Brandt and then Helmut Schmidt defined the new social democracy. In Ireland it was always slightly difficult to find a political perspective based on political principle, but I got used to it and became at home there. So now, what to make of Scotland?
I arrived in Aberdeen just as the election campaign for the Scottish parliament was getting properly under way. I was able to register to vote in time, and so I needed to ensure that I had understood the issues and the extent to which the parties could deliver on their promises. The impression I got early on was that Scotland will need to be able to make some important political and economic choices, which will in particular secure a highly educated and skilled population and knowledge intensive investment. English people sometimes assume that Scotland has a higher reliance than England on public sector employment, which is not actually true: several regions in England are more public sector reliant than Scotland. But it is true that the future here must involve more entrepreneurial initiative and the promotion of new technology and life science industries. Also, Scotland seems to me to focus its priorities far too much on the ‘Central Belt‘, the area dominated by Glasgow and Edinburgh. There is a major need to ensure that development is more appropriately spread across the regions.
In higher education, the key issue may not actually be funding (though of course it is highly important), but the extent to which universities become more directly engaged with an agenda for political, social and economic renewal. The degree of interaction between universities, government development agencies and industry is not yet at the level it has reached in Ireland, and this too will be important for the country’s future.
I watched the various public debates between the party leaders, and on the basis of these debates, the manifestos of the parties, and their record in government and opposition, I felt I was able to make an informed choice. I will say only that the election outcome did not surprise me.
With the SNP’s overall majority now comes a much greater interest, both inside and outside Scotland, in the question of independence, or perhaps the level of autonomy that may be achieved short of independence. Politicians on both sides of the border and media pundits are lining up to have a go. One theme that seems to unite readers of the Daily Telegraph and usually progressive commentators such as writer Tim Lott (in the Independent) is the assumption or assertion that Scotland is bankrolled by the English taxpayer and that independence would see the country facing financial crisis or even ruin. Still, Scottish people may assume that the country’s oil has bankrolled the English taxpayer, but no matter. And in the meantime, some in the media are predicting that the actual model to be pursued by the SNP government will be ‘independence lite’, or a form of enhanced autonomy that won’t involve a complete break with the UK. And indeed there is a poll that suggests that more English people than Scots favour Scottish independence.
What do I think? I’m new here, but I have now spoken with a fairly large number of Scottish voters, and I am getting a very consistent message, so consistent that I am going to discard the normal caution of suggesting that this really isn’t a sufficient sample to be useful. Almost everyone I have spoken to who voted SNP has said the same. And to explain it, I might refer to the remark by a BBC commentator on election night, who suggested that the Scots had ‘lost their fear of independence’. That seems to me to get it absolutely right. It doesn’t mean they voted for it when they voted SNP. But it means that they knew that, by voting SNP, they were making independence a live issue. They might still voice caution when polled. But they are there to be persuaded, and expect the persuasion to come. They are not yet all in favour, but they are no longer determined to be against.
These will be interesting times.