The in­de­pen­dent so­lu­tion

Scots should stop com­par­ing them­selves with their neigh­bours down south and look in­stead to an­other Euro­pean coun­try, writes Michael Fry

The Scotsman - - Front Page -

“I doubt the English will tol­er­ate their coun­try be­ing di­vided up to please a lot of Celts. The in­de­pen­dence of Scot­land would solve more prob­lems than any other so­lu­tion.”

ThIS col­umn is about to go on a Ger­man walk­a­bout, and it would like to take its read­ers with it. I am my­self em­bark­ing on a com­par­a­tive study of Ed­in­burgh and Leipzig dur­ing the 18th cen­tury. The job is to pick out com­mon el­e­ments in the his­tory of two cities which in that pe­riod saw both an in­tel­lec­tual flow­er­ing and an ar­chi­tec­tural trans­for­ma­tion. I hope the project will fin­ish in a book. But even some of my best friends say they would rather wait for the movie.

There is, any­way, a good deal for me to get out of liv­ing for a year in Ger­many, first in Frank­furt, where a na­tional in­sti­tute for le­gal his­tory is based, then in Leipzig it­self. More to the point for this col­umn, both places of­fer points of com­par­i­son with my home here. Frank­furt is, like Ed­in­burgh, a big fi­nan­cial cen­tre. Both claim a sec­ond place to London, though that de­pends which mea­sures you choose. For a cer­tainty, both are strug­gling to over­come the credit crunch. Leipzig was the ma­jor re­gional cen­tre in the failed state of East Ger­many, with a his­tory of an­tag­o­nism to the cap­i­tal in Ber­lin: one rea­son why the revo­lu­tion of 1989 started in Leipzig. The cit­i­zens went on the streets in their thou­sands, chant­ing “Wir sind das Volk” (“We are the peo­ple”). Yet a new lib­eral demo­cratic or­der has fallen short of ful­fill­ing all their ex­pec­ta­tions. Par­al­lels with Scot­land need not be laboured.

I es­pe­cially look for­ward to writ­ing com­par­a­tive col­umns on these lines be­cause com­par­i­son with Ger­many is not some­thing we in Scot­land usu­ally do. There is per­haps too much com­par­i­son with Eng­land, of­ten in terms con­demn­ing Scot­land to come off the worse. Al­ter­na­tive com­para­tors among the other small na­tions of north­ern Europe seem a good deal less use­ful af­ter their own eco­nomic dis­as­ters of the past cou­ple of years.

But one valu­able po­lit­i­cal ex­am­ple that Ger­many might set us is of a suc­cess­ful fed­eral sys­tem. The sole episode of cen­tralised govern­ment in its his­tory came dur­ing the Third Re­ich, and no­body is likely to want a re­peat of that. When the Al­lies over­saw the cre­ation of a new con­sti­tu­tion af­ter the Sec­ond World War, they sought to make sure power could never again con­cen­trated in any sin­gle Ger­man’s or set of Ger­mans’ hands. Power was in­stead care­fully dis­trib­uted among dif­fer­ent or­gans of cen­tral govern­ment, and be­tween the cen­tre and the 16 Ger­man states.

Of course, the con­sti­tu­tion has not re­mained static, and cen­tral govern­ment has grabbed power in Ger­many just as it has grabbed power in ev­ery other western coun­try over the past half-cen­tury. It still has to be used with more re­straint than the power avail­able un­der Bri­tain’s doc­trine of ab­so­lute par­lia­men­tary sovereignty. That re­mains in place even af­ter the ef­forts since 1997 to de­volve from West­min­ster. Look­ing back, it is clear we have ad­vanced far from the se­cu­ri­ties of the old Bri­tish con­sti­tu­tion, yet it is hard to see in the re­sults to date any­thing other than a dog’s break­fast. The Welsh come clos­est to con­tent­ment with it, but both Scot­land and Eng­land grum­ble with­out ceas­ing, while Ul­ster is scarcely be­ing gov­erned at all in a nor­mal sense (not that it seems to be the worse for that).

Look­ing for­ward, it is dif­fi­cult to dis­cern where the whole busi­ness might end. Is fed­er­al­ism the an­swer? I do not think so my­self be­cause the United King­dom is so lop­sided, with Eng­land hav­ing 80 per cent of the peo­ple and even more of the wealth. And I doubt if the English will tol­er­ate their coun­try, with its thou­sand years of unity, be­ing di­vided up to please a lot of Celts. In fact, I be­lieve the in­de­pen­dence of Scot­land would solve more of the prob­lems than any other con­ceiv­able so­lu­tion.

But at least go­ing to live un­der the Ger­man fed­eral sys­tem will al­low my scep­ti­cism to be tested. The dif­fer­ences be­tween the north and south, and now be­tween the west and east, of Ger­many are as large as any within these is­lands. If I re­main unim­pressed by the for­mal con­cep­tion that holds the lot to­gether, the men­tal­ity and meth­ods of de­fus­ing con­flict within it may well prove in­struc­tive.

Es­pe­cially in eco­nom­ics, the year ahead will of­fer in­ter­est­ing com­par­isons. The Ger­mans’ tremen­dous post-war re­cov­ery had made them rather scorn­ful of the an­ti­quated el­e­ments of our in­dus­trial sys­tem that per­sisted up to the Thatcherite era. Then the ta­bles were turned. For a good while, the Bri­tish econ­omy grew faster than the Ger­man one, till, by the time of the credit crunch, in­comes per head in each

Dark clouds loom over Frank­furt just as they loom over Ed­in­burgh, per­haps less gloomily than last year

coun­try were al­most at par (with the Ger­mans still just a whisker ahead).

To­day, ev­ery­thing is in the melt­ing pot again. Nearly all western na­tions were guilty of ex­cess in the boom of the past decade, but the Bri­tish much more than the Ger­mans. Now the Ger­mans are among those who praise the firm­ness of David Cameron’s coali­tion in cut­ting its deficit. Yet even when the im­me­di­ate fi­nan­cial cri­sis is over, there will re­main the ques­tion of just how the UK is go­ing to earn its liv­ing in fu­ture. The boom came in the ser­vice in­dus­tries, while the de­cline of man­u­fac­tur­ing ac­cel­er­ated. The even longer ex­pe­ri­ence of de­cline in­side Scot­land in par­tic­u­lar shows it will not be eas­ily re­versed. Given how spec­tac­u­larly the ser­vices have gone bust, what ex­actly, once the smoke has cleared, are we all go­ing to do next?

By con­trast, Ger­many re­mains one of the world’s lead­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing coun­tries, kept that way by a de­gree of co-op­er­a­tion be­tween man­age­ment and trade unions that we have never come near achiev­ing, or per­haps even want­ing. And un­like Bri­tish gov­ern­ments, Ger­man gov­ern­ments have suc­cess­fully held the ring be­tween the two sides of in­dus­try. All have been af­fected by the credit crunch, too, but that will make the Ger­mans more in­tent than ever on stick­ing to their tried and trusted meth­ods of work­ing.

The present cri­sis as it looks from Frank­furt is much more one of the cur­rency than of in­dus­try or govern­ment. A never wholly en­thu­si­as­tic mem­ber of the eu­ro­zone, Ger­many has seen the guar­an­tees it sought on en­try nul­li­fied by the need for joint ac­tion to pre­vent the col­lapse of the Greek econ­omy and the chain re­ac­tion that would have fol­lowed.

So dark clouds loom over Frank­furt just as they loom over Ed­in­burgh, per­haps a lit­tle less gloomily now than last year but still threat­en­ing to re­lease an­other del­uge. I will try to pro­vide reg­u­lar up­dates on the weather.

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