Posted tagged ‘independence’


September 19, 2014

Exactly three and a half years ago I arrived in Scotland to take up my post of Principal of Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen. At the time there was a minority SNP government in Edinburgh, but within weeks the Scottish elections delivered an overall majority for Alex Salmond, and the path to a referendum on independence was set. Today we know the answer: a decisive but not overwhelming majority of Scots have opted for staying in the United Kingdom, having received a list of promises from the major UK parties of new devolved powers and responsibilities.

Scotland’s First Minister has called on the country to accept and respect the outcome, and that is a good start to the post-referendum deliberations. But the London parties will need to deliver a number of changes. Chiefly these will need to involve a much greater level of economic and fiscal autonomy, not least so that Scotland can stop being a recipient of a UK grant and instead develop a proactive and innovative economic strategy of its own, ensuring that it can be a successful innovation hub.

Universities can make a major contribution to this. During the referendum campaign one perhaps unexpected issue of contention in the political and popular debate was research funding. A number of academics expressed concerns that Scotland would lose access to UK research council funding, from which a number of the country’s universities had benefited disproportionately. I am myself all in favour of continuing UK research awards for Scottish academics, but I don’t see it as a priority in the same way. I believe that a distinct Scottish research funding framework, recognising the opportunities for successful growth in industry R&D linked to academic expertise, and recognising also the specific social and cultural needs of Scotland, would secure significant benefits.

For many who believed that independence could and would offer an exciting future for Scotland this is a disappointing day. But the energy visible over recent months on all sides of the campaign should now be harnessed to continue building a better, more successful, more innovative, more prosperous, more attractive Scotland. There is still much that can be achieved.


Scotland’s decision

September 18, 2014

I imagine that all readers of this blog know that, today, Scotland decides in a referendum whether it will remain part of the United Kingdom or become an independent state. In this blog and elsewhere I have written about some of the implications for higher education of this decision, whichever way it goes.

I have written to staff of RGU in the final days before the referendum, and you can see this communication below. Right now it is my hope that as many people as possible are voting, and that the result will allow all those affected by the decision to see the future positively and with confidence. I know it will not be easy for many, but I hope that any disagreements and divisions will heal quickly.

I shall comment more on the outcome itself once it is known. Tonight I shall be at the Aberdeen counting centre, which is in my university.

As I write this, the Scottish independence referendum is 11 days away, and right now the outcome is too close to call. As I know from emails I have received from colleagues, and indeed from students, over the past few months, there are strong opinions in the RGU community on both sides of the question. That of course is how it should be, and I hope that the university has been a safe place in which to put forward views and be heard in a respectful way.

Once the votes are counted we will know what constitutional future lies ahead, though not yet exactly what form some of the more precise aspects will take. If the vote is Yes, there will be national, and indeed international, discussions and negotiations, and these will stretch over the next two years at least. If the vote is No, there will still be detailed debates about how Scottish devolution should develop. In each scenario there will be implications for universities, though I suspect these will not be dramatic either way.

I do however hope that this university, and its staff, will play an active role in the process that is to come. RGU, I believe, represents much of what is best in Scotland, and I shall seek to ensure that we are heard in the discussions that are due to take place. I hope that colleagues who have something to contribute will also be prepared to participate, and I would be happy to hear from anyone who would like to do so. But whatever your views may be, and however you feel about the referendum outcome, I hope that this will be a supportive and collegial place for you to be over the time ahead. Let us make sure that we are active and constructive contributors to plans for a bright future for all of this country’s people.

The Scottish dimension

October 15, 2011

It is still too early to say whether the people of Scotland will, in the referendum promised for the term of the current Holyrood parliament, vote for independence. It will of course depend on exactly what question they will be asked. But right now the signs are that the vote will be in favour: the news today is that, for the first time, an opinion poll has found a decisive shift in favour of an independent Scotland, and moreover there is now a slim majority in the UK as a whole for this proposition.

As a newer resident of Scotland, I am still learning about the country and its history and its ethos and its traditions. But I believe I have come to understand what for me are some important considerations. First, the noises from some sources south of the Border are missing the point. There is a lot of chatter from some political and media voices in England about the economics of separation, and the ability or otherwise of Scotland to manage its own affairs. This is annoying many in Scotland not least because of its patronising nature, but also because the key driver of Scotland’s search for a new status is not really about economics, but about values. The Scottish sense of community, whether it is better or worse than that in England, is at any rate different. This has become particularly clear to me in the debate about tuition fees, which is actually a debate here about a higher education ethos at least as much as it is one about funding.

Secondly, Scotland has a very different cultural and social identity from England, and there is a growing sense of confidence that the time is right to express this constitutionally.

But thirdly – and maybe crucially – I detect a sense that Scottish independence can be achieved without any hostility towards England. People I knew who lived in Scotland a couple of decades ago found little taste for independence but often quite visible antagonism towards English people. That has mostly gone, and has been replaced by a sense that the two nations can co-exist in a friendly manner but with each controlling their own destiny, to the extent that this is possible in today’s globalised world. The fear of independence has gone, and with it the sense of insecurity that may have accompanied it.

Of course independence should not be assessed sentimentally, it has to be evaluated in a sober way. But the backdrop to this assessment has changed. And that makes it a very interesting time to be in Scotland.


Scotland’s choice

May 16, 2011

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.