Think of a country with a similar population to Scotland and around two thirds of our land area. A country which tops the human development league on its continent. A country which decided to abolish its armed forces in 1949 and ‘have an army of teachers instead’. A country which has not been involved in wars or been invaded since then. A country which has had over sixty years of democratic elections. A country which is highly respected for its work in the United Nations and has been elected three times to the Security Council. A country which has been outstanding in its environmental achievements with 25% of its land in special biodiversity protection, zero deforestation since 2005 and 90% of its electricity from renewables. A country with higher life expectancy and lower perinatal mortality than Scotland. A country with good education and medical services for its citizens. A country which has been generous in receiving refugees from violent conflicts in the region. A country whose main foreign policy objectives are described as promoting human rights and sustainable development.
It is, of course, Costa Rica and because it is on a different continent and regarded as part of the ‘poorer’ world, we tend not to look at the achievements. Per capita income is certainly much lower than here and the global recession led to a growth rate of 3% rather than the previous 8% but that rate would be regarded as a big success for Scotland. It is no longer an economy based on coffee and bananas although agriculture is still important. It has attracted substantial investment in pharmaceuticals, financial outsourcing, software development and now has a large ecotourism industry. All of this helped by having a well-educated labour force.
The liberating factor in independence would be the ‘Why not?’ question. Changes which would be inconceivable to debate seriously in the context of the British state would suddenly be for real. We can look anywhere in the world and ask ‘Why couldn’t we do this?’ Different cultures and histories mean that what works in one society may not be easily transferable. But it may work here. It can be worth trying. In international and environmental affairs, Costa Rica is as close as we are likely to find to a Commonweal model. It chose to invest in public services rather than military forces. As a result it posed no threat to other states and it reduced the risk of civil discontent by improving living standards. It has managed to end deforestation and to achieve very high levels of protection for natural habitats with a carrot and stick approach. It has turned environmental virtue into economic advantage by developing a significant ecotourism industry.
It is also another example of small countries which have earned a respected international position. It was Finland which initiated the Helsinki process and helped to ease the Cold War and establish the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Norway and Ireland took the initiative that saved the Cluster Bomb Treaty. It was Sweden which established the most respected peace research institute and Austria and Switzerland have provided a base for many international organisations. Costa Rica, in addition to its environmental work, has been one of the group of states promoting a UN Nuclear Weapons Convention to plan for their abolition. Scotland would fit well into the group of virtuous small states with the commitment to introduce a constitutional ban on nuclear weapons and to switch at least a third of its current share of UK military expenditure to public services.