LAST week my 95-year-old father greeted me with a toast of “wha’s like us?” The response “damn few an they’re a’ deid” always brings a smile to his lips. In fact, as my faither well knows, there are in fact a fair number of countries and peoples that are rather like Scotland and the Scots.
Thus I welcome The National’s examination of how small independent countries in Europe can be successful, and indeed the six featured countries all have similarities of one kind or another with Scotland.
Note that word “independent” – the current nations of Norway, Slovakia, the Republic of Ireland, Croatia, and Finland all achieved their full independence in the 20th century, while the ancient kingdom of Denmark adopted its democratic constitution in 1849.
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Scotland will have a second chance to regain our independence with a referendum at a date sometime in the near future. It is therefore timely, as well as instructive, for us to look at these countries similar to ours and see how they exist happily and successfully.
Life is never perfect and neither is politics, but being independent allows these countries to largely determine their own path. They would not, for example, be taken out of international agreements against their will nor would they be subject to another country attempting to dictate to their national parliaments whether or not they can hold a constitutional referendum!
It is a fact that, across the modern period, the average economic performance of small countries has been noticeably better than that of larger countries. Indeed, economically the evidence is that the optimum position to be in is to be a small country which is part of a large trading bloc.
In a speech I gave recently in Singapore – another small country which is part of a large trading bloc – I called that phenomenon the “triumph of the tiny”. For most of the period of human existence small countries suffered from two major drawbacks, in security terms a problem was of being taken over by larger neighbours and in economic terms the risk was being shut out of large domestic markets. However times have changed.
We still live in a very troubled world, but certainly in western democracies the security is collective not individual. For example, the six countries in this series are just as secure as their larger neighbours.
Meanwhile, in trade and economic terms, the negatives of smallness have also disappeared. These six European countries, all with similar populations to that of Scotland, also indicate what could happen to an independent Scotland, especially a Scotland in membership of the European single market, either via the European Union or the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and European Economic Area (EEA).
Of the six, only Norway is not an EU member but it is one of the four EFTA countries along with Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Iceland. The latter two and Norway are the three EEA countries. Last week I was on a Question Time panel with Brexit Secretary David Davies who, as an aside, was rather disparaging about the status of the EFTA countries.
Small they may be in reality, but in economic terms the EFTA four have European Champions League status, with all four of them now back in the World Bank top 10 for wealth per head.
Indeed all six countries in the The National panel have qualities and issues that mean a comparison with Scotland is very apposite.
Like Norway, we have hydrocarbon resources, though they have secured their oil fund which is now worth many hundreds of billions while successive UK Governments squandered £300 billion of Scottish oil income.
Slovakia is a country that split from a larger union in which the “other half” was dominant and now thrives in the EU. We can learn from Finland where stability and growth are constant, and its Nordic neighbour Denmark has shown how to manage national debt and immigration. Croatia is one of the newest members of the EU and has survived recession while keeping its own currency.
Then of course there’s the Republic of Ireland which has the deepest links to Scotland, not least in the number of Scots of Irish descent.
Despite the economic difficulties caused by the banking collapse of 2008-09, Ireland’s overall growth since joining the Community on the same day as the UK back in 1973 has been phenomenal. They have emerged from the shadows as “an island beyond an island” to be a respected and successful European country.
The Republic has a smaller population than ours and a fraction of the range of Scotland’s resources. And, as faither would testify when making his toast, their whiskey is not a patch on the real thing!
Yet Ireland succeeds, Ireland works very well, and Ireland prospers in peace as a small country within the EU.
So can Scotland.