What kind of country should Scotland be and how can it prosper? Surprisingly, given the swell of Scottish opinion in favour of independence, these questions aren’t much discussed. A swirling mist obscures the road beyond the referendum, occasionally lit up by neon signs reading “green” and “fair” and “free”. Independence, like Brexit, is predicted by its supporters to have a galvanising effect. Few are as gung-ho as Alex Salmond, who estimates that Scotland is one of the world’s richest countries, the “Saudi Arabia of renewables”. Nonetheless, despite the contrary evidence of a recent economic forecast by the London School of Economics, a view prevails that any damage will be easily overcome. In the words of the scientist and engineer Hillary Sillitto, there has always been “lots of talk about a better, fairer society [and] none about where the wealth was going to come from to pay for it”.
Last month Sillitto and two other Edinburgh-based writers – another reputable scientist, Ian Godden, and a nurse-turned-entrepreneur, Dorothy Godden – published an online edition of their book, Scotland 2070, which aims to rectify what the writers identify as “the poor quality and short-term perspective of Scotland’s political debate”. Avowedly detached from political parties, they warn against conventional solutions such as inward investment and low corporate taxes: the first is a poor substitute for the development of local industry, and the second is already well-catered for by Ireland.
Instead they propose that Scotland looks north rather than south, to the Arctic’s melting icecap and the new east-west sea route that will open up off the northern coasts of Russia, shortening the traditional voyage via Suez between (say) Yokohama and Rotterdam by nearly 5,000 nautical miles. “Within 25 years,” they write, “Scotland will be on the doorstep of a major new global trading passage and a new economic region in the Arctic.”
The old naval anchorage in the Orkneys, Scapa Flow, could be filled again with shipping as “a container port and transit facility to rival Singapore” – the centrepiece of a six-point plan that also includes planting Scotland with 5bn trees; adopting new farming techniques that reduce the atmosphere’s carbon content; exporting renewable energy and technology; and, perhaps the hardest to achieve, transforming Scottish industry by doubling university spending on research and development. They say that with hard work and proper funding over the next 50 years, Scottish manufacturing could recover from its near total destruction by globalisation and under-investment.
This is Scotland as Scandinavia, a version of the future that has been tickling Scottish political appetites since the 1960s. In the words of Sillitto and his co-authors, “many Scots like the cohesive and egalitarian social models of the small Nordics which lead the world in many economic and wellbeing indices”. Sillitto wants Scotland to emulate their industrial innovation, their social policies and their “hard, focused work ethic”.
The two places have a long connection. Several parts of Scotland, particularly the northern and western isles, were colonised by Norse and other Scandinavian settlers between the 8th and the 15th centuries; voyages across the North Sea – coal, salt and herring out, timber by return – were the trade routes that mattered most to Scotland until the late 18th century, when industry and empire moved the focus of energy from the Forth to the Clyde, from east to west. North Sea oil switched attention back again. At the height of the oil boom, the SNP’s favourite country was Norway, which conserved its revenues in a sovereign wealth fund (as an independent Scotland could have done) rather than using them to finance the social costs of deindustrialisation (as Margaret Thatcher’s government actually did). But now, there being no point crying over exhausted oil, the exemplary country, the newest Not-England to which independence campaigners aspire, is Denmark.
The two countries share similar-sized populations and a temperate climate. Each has a glamorous capital city, though Edinburgh is undeniably lovelier and more spectacular. Beyond that, similarities are hard to find. Scotland is nearly twice as large, with a landscape that has appealed to the world’s imagination for at least two centuries. “Spectacular” is not a word associated with Denmark. At its highest it reaches 171 metres above sea level, refusing heights or depths. Statistically and historically, Scotland knows little else. On the left, the high road to Loch Lomond; on the right, the low road to the worst drug-death rate in Europe (and, in western Europe, the lowest life expectancy). There is Morningside … and there is Greenock.
The long, corrupting reach of history is to blame. The reason for the contrast with Denmark – where, to condense the statistics, people pay more tax to live more equally, happily and soberly, for longer – lies in two different experiences of the industrial revolution. It came to Scotland early, swiftly and savagely. The historian Tom Devine has written that between 1760 and 1830 “Scottish urbanisation was faster than probably anywhere else in Europe … and the rate of growth simply overwhelmed the contemporary structures of sanitation and amenity in a great rising tide of humanity.” Inadequate sewerage, squalid housing, disease, the continuing surge of poor migrants from the Highlands and Ireland: Glasgow’s notoriety was established in those years.
Industrialism reached Denmark much later, in the 19th century’s second half, and its factories never scarred the country as the iron forges, steel mills, collieries, shipyards and heavy engineering workshops did Lowland Scotland, transforming a peripheral little country into a great industrial power. Denmark invested more modestly and shrewdly: breweries, shipbuilding, marine diesel engines (which their Danish makers pioneered). After German and Italian unification, Denmark became the smallest state in western and central Europe. Excepting Iceland and the Faroes, it had no secure colonial markets – it had abandoned its little outposts in India and Africa by 1850 – which meant that, unlike Scottish and British industry, it never suffered their confounding loss.
Like Germany and Japan, Denmark might be said to owe its successful society to a national humiliation. In 1863, for famously complicated reasons including the view of romantic nationalism that national boundaries should be determined by language, it laid claim to the duchy of Schleswig. All hell broke loose. Austria and Prussia, then under Otto von Bismarck’s leadership, declared war and within six months inflicted a crushing defeat on Denmark that shrank the size of its population and territory – the opposite of its intention.
In the description of the historian Bo Lidegaard, the damage to Denmark’s national pride “became a defining national trauma” over several generations. The country turned in on itself. It compensated territorial losses with schemes for land reclamation, turning moors into pastures and conifer plantations, and began to specialise in dairy produce and animal husbandry, happy to boast that it supplied Britain with so many breakfasts. Many of its new dairy farms were run as co-operatives. Again to quote Lidegaard, the co-op movement developed into “both an important feature of society and a centrepiece of Danish self-perception … a strong model for social progress through co-operative action rather than through social confrontation”.
Nationalism had been a fragile glory. The serious inspiriting of the nation needed certain conditions and a certain time. When will Scotland be like Denmark? In 50 years or a hundred? If it happens, it will have been worth the wait.