Deborah Orr: Give Scotland its economic independence and it will start to flourish like Ireland

Scotland shouldn't be doing as badly as it is, given its natural resources and its educated population
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The Independent Online

There are not many practical things I feel I'm actually trained up to do. But running a pre-industrial small-holding near Inverness is one of them.

I could build the plough, push it around in the manner prescribed for hilly land, rotate the crops in a fashion designed to get the best from the challenging soil (I could in fact provide a complex diagram projecting same in a five-year plan), and manage fairly well the business of salting down, laying up and placing in drawers enough comestibles to get me and my limited livestock through the winter. (Though, believe me, the life is tough. Unbelievably tough. You have to sew yourself into your underwear, for the cold. Not that I've done it, any of it, of course.)

Why do I know this useless stuff so well? Because I'm Scottish, and in Scotland you're taught how to run a 17th century farm according to the run-rig system at school. In fact, you're taught in minute detail absolutely everything there is to know about what it is and ever was to be Scottish, including what weird and expedient deals the Union of Crowns and the Union of Parliaments really were.

If I learned anything at all about being British during 15 years of education, then I've forgotten it. Something to do with Empire, was it, and all of the colonies wanting their independence? Whatever.

Maybe it's his Scottish education that inhibits Gordon Brown in his own agonised efforts to express his Britishness. This time last year, in the wake of the July 7 bombings, he stood before the Fabian Society's annual conference, banging on about our "shared values", which include liberty for all, commitment to social responsibility for all, and commitment to fairness for all.

These distinctively British values, erecting an impressive firewall against Europe, say, or the US, ought to be shored up with a reclaiming of the union flag from the far-right, the inauguration of a national day in which we celebrate our Britishness and the launching of some kind of youth community service team that would be very British too. I don't think many people considered it his finest hour, apart from that funny Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission For All Things Being Equal.

A year on, and Britishness (great word in itself - trips off the tongue) has become a lot more personal for Brown. Not much at all has been planned in state marking of the Union of 1707, except a special £2 coin, minted, of course, by the Bank of England (oops). So all the thunder has been stolen by one Alex Salmond, whose resurgent Scottish National Party is making a grand push for Scottish parliament seats in the May elections.

Total disaster for Brown, of course, not to mention the entire Labour party, if Scotland starts thinking about standing alone again. But not, as it happens, such a bad thing for Scotland.

Not that one is without a sense of weariness over the whole matter. We heard all the same stuff in 1979, when there was a fever of nationalistic spirit in Scotland that culminated, despite all the hysteria, in a definite "No" in a referendum and it still considered to have been "unfair". This round may also end up as a storm in a teacup, with Salmond having already modified his independence rhetoric, and standing instead on a platform that appeared to promise another referendum instead, and now has been further refined to guarantee a white paper on the "issues".

There does not, in truth, appear to be an overwhelming appetite for independence in Scotland. Polls vary quite wildly, but some indicate that there is barely an appetite at all. The English, however, love the idea, blind as they are to the bloody great favours Scotland has been doing Britain for all these centuries - of which there have been many.

David Cameron is dreadfully riven over the matter. On the one hand he's keen to berate the Government for stirring things up by bringing in devolution in the first place, and starting the drift towards the Union's break-up. On the other, he sees that a Westminster election in 2009 might be a bit of a shoo-in for him if only he could chop away Scotland and float it out to Norway forthwith.

As for Brown himself, local campaigning in Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath might be tricky if he has to go around explaining to all his constituents that a vote for him means a vote for a national day of Britishness. It might be even more tricky if he has to explain why, if economic decisions made in London are right for Scotland too, the Scottish economy has been lagging so far behind London's for so many decades, even with a Scottish Chancellor at the helm.

Because the truth is that the endless spats over whether it is Scotland that subsidises England, or England that subsidises Scotland, are beside the point. Scotland simply shouldn't be doing as badly as it is given its natural resources, its educated population, its solid financial sector, its access to English and EU export markets, its success in branding its national products, its cultural renaissance and so on.

In many ways, as The Independent's economics commentator Hamish McRae has pointed out, Scotland is in a better position than Ireland was around 15 years ago, if only it could release the mechanisms that could kickstart its economy. What Scotland needs is fiscal autonomy, whether this is granted federally or through dissolution of Great Britain. And not just because of the money either.

Scotland is a strange country because, despite its passionate pride in itself, it is a country that lacks confidence. It looks forever inward, seeking endless affirmation of its unique spirit, and is unwilling to look critically at the way in which it conducts itself. Scotland clings to its plucky history, and to the idea that it is a small country that has always punched above its weight. This very preoccupation fosters parochialism which, in turn, leads to a defensive lack of real engagement of what part Scotland plays in Britain, in Europe and in the world.

Scotland is torn by internecine squabbling, whether it is the tired and tiresome sectarian posturing that partly inspired both the Union of Crowns and of Parliaments in the first place, or the crude, tribal England-hating that makes so many other Scots recoil from the nationalist project as simply jingoistic.

Scotland really doesn't need more grandstanding squabbles about independence, any more than it needs its five million citizens to retain lifelong knowledge of Highland peasant farming methods.

Instead, it needs to wake up to the fact that there's a yawning gap between what sort of country it is and what sort of country it should be. It doesn't need to leave Britain to sort that out, and it doesn't need to stay in. But it does need to start holding its own purse-strings, wherever that takes it.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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