Big thinking for a small country

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On Thursday 18th September 2014, my husband and I walked to the polling station. It was a fine evening and as we walked we shared stories about our respective days. Much like any other couple, just another day at work. And yet this was a day unlike any other. We both knew that.

Having cast our votes, we strolled home. Quietly at first. And then he broke the silence. ‘My father will be turning in his grave’, he said. It was confirmation of what I already knew inside. We had voted different ways. Me for Yes, him for No. He with his head and me with my heart. For me a leap of faith, for him a standing still.

Why? It was the economy stupid. He didn’t believe a sufficiently coherent case had been made. I knew he was right but I was prepared to make that leap. I had been on a journey from No to Yes for the previous two years. It was a voyage which had been intellectually fraught and emotionally turbulent.

My husband had been on a journey too but he had arrived back at the same place he started. Better the devil you know. I was disappointed. I wanted us to agree. I wanted us to step into a different — albeit less knowable — country, together. I was excited. But for all he’s a glass half full to my glass half empty, he’s less excitable than me. I don’t call him my anchor for nothing.

It scarcely seems four years since that momentous day. So much has changed. Not all of it for the worse. Yet the world seems to have become a less hopeful place. And for that reason alone, I like it that Andrew Wilson’s long-awaited Sustainable Growth Commission report is called ‘Scotland - the new case for optimism’. Andrew’s good at hope and it warms my heart.

Of course, I’m completely aware that others will be left stone cold. Perhaps my husband will be too. He’s less likely than me to pore over the report for sure. But he’ll take an interest and when he’s ready he’ll tell me. However, I’m under no illusions. My heart isn’t warmed because the report promises me that everything is going to be alright. Though it does suggest that if we make the right choices it could be.

No, I’m encouraged because, on first reading at least, this report doesn’t pull any punches. There are ‘trade offs’ and ‘choices’ to be made — there are no ‘silver bullets.’ It appears considered on GERS and cautious on oil. Critically it avoids the fundamental flaw in the White Paper, that ‘choosing independence means signing up to every detail of a future policy prospectus in advance.’

For a long time on my journey, the political sleight of hand in that position offended me. In the end, I cast it to one side and put my faith in independence despite, not because of, the case being made. Perhaps it’s a lifetime of grappling with contradiction — being a practising Catholic and a gay man has taught me a lot about faith.

I did so not because I’m a nationalist — any more than my husband is a unionist — but because I thought Scotland stood a chance of being a better place if we opted to self-govern. I decided we should take a risk and make our own future. And by ‘we’ I mean, as the report says, those of us who have chosen to make our lives here — all of us.

And I did so because that opportunity felt bigger than the questions which so often dominated the airwaves during the debate. I was drawn to the idea of collective endeavour in a smaller country. A country less encumbered by an inflated and outdated sense of its place in the world than the one we were in. Enter, Brexit, stage right.

I hope this report provides the chance to have the kind of debate we all say we want to have. Yes, I know — motherhood and apple pie. And yet it’s unavoidably true that we all say we want a better conversation. So if your response is to shout or pour scorn, well, that’s a shame. And if your response starts with the phrase, ‘the people of Scotland want’, that’s not much help either.

It is self evidently the case that the people of Scotland don’t all want the same thing. And if we are to stand a chance of cracking some of the other huge questions bearing down on us, we need to make a much better stab at creating consensus, whether we’re on the road to independence or not.

And that is another of this report’s major pluses. Yes, it advocates for independence— in the end — but it also offers food for thought about the here and now. And refreshingly, given the catastrophe that is Brexit, it focuses not just on future potential but on transition too. In simple terms — what can we do now, where might we go and how might we get there?

This isn’t a thoroughgoing analysis of the report. I’m not an economist, so I will leave that to others. But I find a lot to like — not just because I remain on the Yes side of the argument — but because it is progressive. It makes a positive case for immigration, to make Scotland a ‘welcoming home.’ It sets its face against austerity and for tackling poverty and gender inequality. And it recognises the importance of participation and inclusion.

And notwithstanding its caution, it is refreshingly bold in its argument for a long term vision, for strategic thinking and investment. For big thinking in a small country. I will confess to a weakness for its focus on Denmark and that, at least, is something my husband will concur with me on. We visit Denmark a couple of times a year because his auntie moved there nearly half a century ago. Auntie Sandra has long been a Scottish Dane.

Every trip me make, we remark more than once that it would be great if Scotland was more like Denmark. It’s not not just the ‘hygge’ — although that is a lovely thing. And it’s not perfect — for one thing, you can definitely have too much pork. But the life that Auntie Sandra and her family have is testament to the value of ‘flexicurity’. It’s a good life — and things work.

There is already a certain inevitability about some of the reaction to the report. Everyone was waiting for it but not everyone really wanted it. For some people, its very premise offends. Yet whether we are for independence or not, whether we are open to being persuaded in either direction, the status quo is a journey we’re on, not a place we’re in. Nothing stays the same.

‘Scotland — the new case for optimism’ understands that. It understands the importance of raising the ‘quality of ambition across the political spectrum’ and of grasping the potential which outstrips our current economic performance. It makes no claim to be the ‘last word’, still less to have tackled everything.

Crucially — and significantly — it also understands that we have to find better ways of sharing the future across these islands — of being better together even if we do go our separate ways. And, in the meantime, it is resolute in its call for cross partisanship and collaboration — for a more mature debate beyond the ‘fierce and shallow political discourse’ we all too often find ourselves flailing around in. We can all raise a glass to that. Cheers, Andrew.

Chair @SAMHtweets, Non Exec @socsecscot & runner @EdinburghAC, Views my own

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