I'VE always had a great fondness for the Basque Country or Euskadi as it’s known in the language of the region. Perhaps family stories – never followed up – that somewhere on my father’s side an ancestral line existed that could be traced back to the Basque Country, left me with some deep psychological affinity with this autonomous community in northern Spain.

Not that all Basques are to be found there of course, concentrated as their people are in three provinces in northern Spain and three provinces in south-west France.

Indeed, if I do in fact have a family connection my understanding is that it lies on the French side of the Pyrenees, a perhaps unsurprising detail given the historic links between Scotland and France.

But tenuous as this connection might be, I’ve always taken a keen interest not only in the Basque Country’s often turbulent history, but equally the remarkable success story it has become in recent times.

That there are historic parallels between the Basque Country and Scotland are obvious not least given that both are small countries annexed by a much larger neighbour that has often not had their best interests at heart.

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In the former’s case the regime of fascist General Francisco Franco, did all it could to supress Basque identity and culture from outlawing the use of the Basque language to criminalising the display of the Basque flag.

Following Franco’s death in 1975 and the creation of a new, democratic Spanish constitution in 1978, substantial autonomy – particularly fiscal autonomy – was granted to the Basques.

That of course did not stop some from seeking full independence leading more extremist separatist elements to take up an armed struggle alongside the political fight. Fortunately, those bloody years of the “Basque conflict” – sometimes known as the Spain-ETA conflict – when the separatists of ETA were at loggerheads with authorities in Madrid have been a thing of the past since 2011.

For the past decade now, while many Basques still hanker after full independence, the region’s political identity has been shaped by peaceful means and its fortunes have taken a turn for the better on so many levels.

It was with some interest then that this week I noticed an article by Martin Wolf, chief economics editor at the Financial Times (FT), highlighting how the regeneration of the Basque Country is an example well worth taking a few lessons from when it comes to “levelling up”.

Though often still described as a “work in progress” this is an impressive tale of sustainability in a small place with a population of a little over two million people. Again too, there are parallels with Scotland, not least in the shape of challenges inherent in regenerating and then developing what was primarily an old industrial region.

SOME of the figures speak for themselves as to the Basque Country’s forward momentum. Here unemployment is far below the Spanish average, albeit still high compared to Northern Europe. But as detailed by the online media platform openDemocracy, in 2017 the Basque Country ranked eighth in the EU in per capita income, 21% above the EU average, ahead of France, the UK, Belgium and Finland, and Spain as a whole.

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By 2019 average incomes per head in the Basque Country too were close to Germany’s. As if this were not impressive enough for a region that only a few decades earlier was in decline, today in terms of wellbeing this is a pretty good place to live.

In recent years, the region has soared through the international ranks to having the fifth highest life expectancy on the planet at 83.5, almost five years longer than the US.

Among industrialised nations the Basque Country also ranks highly in standards of education, sits near the top of the EU in innovation capacity and is consistently high among the world nations in the Environmental Performance Index (EPI).

So, to what can we attribute this glowing report card and sharp lesson in “levelling up”?

Well, as FT writer Wolf points out – and Scotland should sit up and note of his words – this rebirth, has been the result of what he describes as two necessary conditions, the first being the “desire to succeed” and the second “the freedom to do so”.

“Probably the most important lesson is that those who live in and are responsible for the region should have both the resources and the freedom to make decisions,” explains Wolf. “This is not just because they are likely to do it better. It is also because that is a way to foster the needed boldness.”

Drawing parallels with the UK, Wolf also goes on to acknowledge what many Scots desirous of the capacity to make our own way in the world have long since realised. In short, in Britain “too much has depended for so long on decisions coming out of London”. That, says Wolf, “is not how the Basque Country prospered. A utonomy matters”.

At a time when devolution is under systemic attack, we would do well to heed these words in Scotland. Better still we should recognise that if this is what the Basque Country can achieve given the will and freedom to do so, what potential there is for Scotland with full independence.

While there are many reasons for the Basque success story, among the most significant is undoubtedly a solidarity born out of adversity and deeply enmeshed in a culture of national identity.

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These are characteristics Scotland shares with the Basque Country along with a sustained history of trade and entrepreneurship.

AS the American writer and lawyer Bruce Rich rightly pointed out in openDemocarcy, the Basque Country over the course of a few decades “has transformed itself into one of the most internationally competitive, socially inclusive, environmentally progressive economies in the world”.

It’s a polity he says, “that welcomes economic globalisation as an opportunity, while reaffirming local community and cultural identity”.

I’m biased of course, but I can’t for the life of me see anything standing in the way of Scotland realising those same ambitions and goals – apart that is, from the obvious.