LAST week’s column ended by mentioning Sir John Sinclair’s Statistical Accounts of Scotland. His detailed fact finding was quickly taken up in North America, and India, as a method of describing the economic and social situation of a country.

In Scotland, there were also statistical accounts collated in the 19th and 20th centuries. Putting together a statistical account for the 21st century could be an important anticipation of independence.

Let me suggest ways of making this huge task a little more manageable, and then explain its potential value. I see this as the start of a conversation – and so it would be good to have readers’ thoughts.

In the 18th century, the parish was the basic unit of local government, and so Sinclair initially sent questionnaires to parish ministers.

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That provided him with much of the information he needed, but many ministers ignored him. He then went to other people, such as local landowners, to answer the questions. For some parishes, he had to send agents out to collect information.

Carrying out a similar exercise today, local authority wards would naturally take the place of parishes. There are nearly 400 wards in Scotland, typically represented by three councillors. There should also be an average of more than 30 subscribers to The National in each ward. Starting with councillors, and then appealing to subscribers to fill in the gaps seems like a good way to engage plenty of people in pulling together all the necessary information. This might begin after the elections in May, catching councillors while they are still fresh in post, and full of enthusiasm.

Rather than the detailed reports of previous statistical accounts, the invitation might be to draft material for a four-page feature in The National. The first page would be an introduction to the ward, and would include photographs, a simple map, and some background information.

In the next two pages, there would be an opportunity to set out much more about the place. The invitation would suggest a wide variety of topics, such as recent history, population structure, nature of the housing stock, availability of health services, and schools, access to public transport, and local employment.

It will be important that this isn’t just a list of neighbourhood statistics. The Scottish Government has a huge trove of information but that is all bare facts, and not the stories which lie behind them, bringing the numbers to life, and giving them context and meaning.

The fourth page would be an invitation to talk about policy developments which would affect the wellbeing of people living in the ward. It should be possible to set out ideas about how best to address local challenges without going into too much detail, and, given that this is for The National, to explain how addressing these challenges would be easier after independence.

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Thinking of the ward in which I live, the local authority website confirms that compared with Scotland as a whole, the fraction of the population claiming benefits is high, as is the fraction of the population beyond normal working age. Educational attainment in the two secondary schools is unexceptional, and the housing stock is of relatively low value.

Those basic facts do not tell us that the heart of the ward should be the town centre and the adjacent business park. The pandemic, and changing habits, have battered the shops, and there are plenty of vacant units. The business park is not operating anywhere near its capacity – and there are few high-value engineering or services businesses, so most employers will be paying relatively low wages. The council’s development plans are also shifting many services from the centre to brownfield industrial sites in a neighbouring ward. It is as if the ward has heart disease and needs treatment.

The treatment for such a chronic illness usually involves ongoing care, and support to adjust lifestyle. The problems of this ward, and many other places in Scotland, also have no easy solutions. Material produced locally would mean that people, who understand the precise situation, will be able to suggest ideas which have a reasonable chance of working well in the specific environment.

Even if they are wrong, then most likely they will be wrong in an interesting ways, and help other people to address the problems more effectively. Inclusive debate will not be enough to solve these problems, but it can play an important role in making independence seem natural, desirable, and the will of the Scottish people before a referendum is called.

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Extended conversation should demonstrate the extent to which being part of the UK is causing a worsening democratic deficit, showing what Scotland can achieve now, and how much more it might achieve with independence.

The National:

I am writing on the anniversary of the Tay rail bridge disaster. Lessons learned from that tragedy ensured that the Forth Bridge ended up being over-engineered.

Substantial constitutional changes are a little like building bridges, testing political engineers’ understanding of the forces which nature will exert on their structures. Brexit is the Tay rail bridge of our times. Scottish independence should be like the Forth Bridge – with its success an enduring monument to human ingenuity.

That’s my aspiration, and an initial idea. We will achieve independence together, or not at all. If you disagree with me, please say so. If you have other, better ideas, please share them.