Scotland isn’t different, it’s Britain that’s bizarre


Britain is in a state of self denial, sitting at the bottom of European league tables, but convinced it still rules the waves. The aspirations of the SNP may seem ambitious, but all they are really proposing is to be a normal European country.

Renewable energy use across the EU

There is a trope I hear a lot at the moment: “Scotland is different”. Left to lie, on its own, with no explanation, it’s a sort of petty nationalism. The idea that any one group of people is intrinsically unlike any other strikes me as a perverse way to understand humanity.

The context, usually, is political. Scotland has free education “because it’s different”. Scotland hasn’t privatised its NHS, “because its different”. It’s utter bunkum. The truth is that Scotland is, basically, a very normal Northern European country.

Across Northern Europe, university education is either free (in Germany and the Nordic countries) or costs only a few hundred Euros (in the Netherlands and France, for example). Most of Europe has much lower levels of income inequality than the UK. Apart from the Benelux countries and Cyprus, all of Europe’s countries use more renewable energy than the UK, despite Britain having more potential than almost any of them.

In most of Europe, in fact, in most of the world, the idea that significant portions of your economy would be publicly owned is quite standard. In Northern Europe, it’s not abnormal to have decent childcare provision, to work a sensible number of hours a day, and to be more productive in total as a result.

No, when people say that Scotland is different, that the social democratic aspirations of Scots are an anomaly, they are missing the point entirely. The social attitudes of Scots, and the policies of the Scottish Parliament, are pretty much standard for a European country. Scotland isn’t the exception, it’s the rule.

The thing that’s weird isn’t even England. Most English people are against privatisation, and though there is a small difference in attitudes towards social security, it’s nothing that won’t change over the years.

No, the thing that’s an outlier is Britain. As the Radical Independence Campaign has pointed out, it’s Britain that is the fourth most unequal developed country on earth, in which pay has in recent years fallen faster than in all but three EU countries, in which people work the third longest hours in Europe for the second lowest wages in the OECD despite having Europe’s third highest housing costs, highest train fairs and the second worst levels of fuel poverty.

It’s Britain which has the least happy children in the developed world, the highest infant mortality rate in Western Europe and some of the worst child poverty in the industrialised world. It’s British elderly people who are the fourth poorest pensioners in the EU. It’s Britain which has the eighth biggest gender pay gap in Europe and child care costs much higher than most European countries.

It’s Britain which has a wealth gap twice as wide as any other EU country, Europe’s greatest regional inequality, productivity 16% behind the average for advanced economies and the worst record on industrial production of the rich world. It’s Britain whose elite has a radical ideology: 40% of the total value of all privatisations in the Western world between 1980 and 1996 happened in the UK; and it’s Britain’s parliament which is uniquely undemocratic, with its noxious combination of first past the post and an unelected second chamber, yet holds more centralised power than almost any other legislature in the developed world. With all that, it should be no surprise that Britain has the lowest level of trust in our politicians.

Most people in the South East of England never seem to understand this. Caught in the headlights of post imperial UK nationalism, the idea that “Britain is Great” pervades. We (I live in the South East at the moment) cling with white fisted knuckles to the notion that Britannia rules, unwilling to let go of our imperial past for fear that we might find we are just another European country. It’s a myth which works much more in England, and which helps explain differences in the tendancy to believe immigrant scapegoating North and South of the border “if Britain is uniquely great” people infer “it can’t be the system that’s to blame, it must be outsiders”.

But the truth is that this is a very sick country indeed. We are investing a net figure of nothing in our future economy, and instead just about keep our head above water by flogging off our assets at a rate which would astonish almost any other country and re-inflating speculative bubbles which suck any wealth we do create into an unproductive black hole London housing market which eats wealth out of the rest of the country, hoovering any investment away from anything productive and then complaining when it’s asked to redistribute crumbs from its table.

A metropolis once at the centre of the biggest empire in human history and now at the centre of a global revolution of money-men over making things, of the wealthy over the rest is disguised by a blanket of post-imperial false confidence. Post-imperial Britain is a very strange, very damaged place. And before the people of these islands, the English in particular, can move on, and find a new place in the world, they need someone to finally point out that not only is this former emperor naked, not only does he no longer rule the waves, but his failure to grapple sensibly with either these facts has led to some pretty unhealthy habits. Telling a difficult truth is what friends are for. In part, that’s what Scotland’s referendum will be about.

But for most Scots, it’ll be about their families and their communities. And so for them, it’s important to understand this: when people say that Scotland could do better, this isn’t about some nationalist belief that the talents or the solidaristic instincts of the Scots are unique. In order to be a significantly nicer place to live, all that Scotland needs is to be normal. Compared to being in broken Britain, living in a bog-standard average Western country may seem like an impossible, utopian fairy-land, to which only naïve children conned by lying politicians would aspire. But for most of the Western world, the sort of Scotland that SNP talk about, that most yes campaigners say we can expect, isn’t exceptional, it’s not even better than average. I am a radical. I hope we can achieve much more. But the “cloud cuckoo land” aspiration of the Scottish Government is to be an average, run of the mill, bog-standard European country. Compared to where we are now, that would be a great start.

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  1. Garry Henderson says:

    Great article!

  2. NGH says:

    We have certainly reached a low point when striving for normality seems such an exciting opportunity.

  3. andygm1 says:

    Very good article. Recommended reading for anyone coming new to the debate.

  4. Well written. It’s only by becoming an independent country that we can fully realise the potential of our people. And our wealth, hidden from us for many years by Westminster, will amaze us.

  5. majormacbloodnok says:

    Thanks, great article and I think you are quite right – it’s the curse of blind British Exceptionalism – and the fact that Britain still has the political structures and economic mindset of an imperial centre, only kept going by using up oil revenue and stoking house price rises as fast as possible. It will all come to a grisly end quite soon I wager. Also, nice to see from your graphic that Turkey finally made it into the EU – I must have missed that!

  6. phuzz says:

    If only there was a way for the rest of England to separate ourselves from London.

    1. andyshall says:

      There are fewer Tory voters in London than Yorkshire/Humberside. If you mean the City of London then say so.

  7. Alex Buchan says:

    Adam I hope you can get something like this onto a Britain wide forum like Our Kingdom or Comment is Free to engage people across Britain. More importantly, how do we get this information out to people in Scotland. This is the kind of information that could really make a difference in peoples’ thinking. Could something like this be turned into a short video or a power point presentation, or has it been done already.

  8. yerkitbreeks says:

    A few years ago, after living most of my life in London and Royal Tunbridge Wells I moved back and it’s been a bit of an eye opener, since I left Aberdeenshire as a young loon and was so busy with advancement I didn’t see the attributes of this land. On return initially I was resentful of the ( Borders ) locals – they seemed to confident and happy. How could this be since I had more money than most of them ? It’s as you say ” about their families and their communities “. I’ll never be a local here as a result, despite envy – they say as an incomer you’re only a Borders local after you’ve been dead three years !

    I like your take on the issues – I too hear so much that Scotland is different, but this emphasises the dominance of the London media and its effect on the ( Scottish ) masses. I assume you’ve read ” Blossom ” and this corroborates that the Referendum is about everything except petty nationalism.

  9. Dr JM Mackintosh says:

    An excellent article.

    It explains a lot about our different views in Scotland and our mutual affinity with Europe.

    I think the major difference is that a lot of English, and some Scots, are still deluded into thinking that the UK is still a major imperial power. Scotland getting independence and taking its place among these normal European countries is one of the last inevitable steps in the “Fall of the British Empire”.

    Hence the vehemence with which the UK establishment is now opposing it.

  10. Wim van Velzen says:

    Being Dutch and following the Scottish independence debate closely (as a regular visitor to Scotland and the other parts of the British isles), I can only agree. Scotland is in many ways more like Western Europe than England and than UK government policies.
    By the way, here in the Netherlands Scotland is seen as a distinct country to England. An independent Scotland would be no surprise and very welcome in the circle of European nations.

  11. Murray Porteous says:

    Fair enough, select your comparisons carefully a nd you can win any debate. Please compare us with our north European neighbours on the following: street stabbings, alcohol abuse, sectarian attacks, drug use, death from overdose, percent of population in generational un employability, (ie won’t work, don’t work), “…………..?

    1. Dr JM Mackintosh says:

      I think you are missing the whole point of the independence debate. Scotland is by no means a great place to live for many people and it has very severe problems in many areas – some these you have listed above.

      Independence is our best opportunity to change this for the better and build a better country for our future generations.

      Please vote Yes in September.

      1. Murray porteous says:

        That would be nice, but reality bites!

      2. Dr JM Mackintosh says:


        reality is what you make of it.

        There are hundreds of countries that have got their independence over the last hundred years so Scotland getting its independence is nothing unusual.

        The EU issue is not really that significant. I personally think that Scotland has so much good will in Europe that we will accepted no problem especially as many countries will see it as a method to get back at England. If it takes a few years to sort out – so what.

        The pound is a more significant issue as we risk destabilising sterling if we walk away from our share of the UK debt and that is not in anyone’s interest. So there will some careful negotiations ahead.

        There is nothing insurmountable about any of this.

        All it needs is a cross in the Yes box in September.

        1. Murray porteous says:

          Scotland MUST join the EU to benefit from significant foreign investment, as Ireland did. We might even see the likes of Toyota etc moving across the border. We will have a Scottish lion to match the Celtic tiger!

  12. Betty Lindsay says:

    Great to read such sensible comments on the Scots. Usually all we hear is how should be grateful to the English but they do not say why!! Historically speaking we have had nothing but grief from our English” Friends”

  13. If the map was adjusted to show Scotland and England separately rather than lumped together as the UK, then we would be light green like Sweden – I seem to recall we just hit 46% from renewables? England’s figure would be worse, but there’s no colour beyond red! The point of the article is well made. I look forward to being dark green like Norway very soon. Perhaps a new colour could be introduced by 2020 to show 100%

  14. norman longworth says:

    Sure the article is spot-on when it comes to the English delusion of specialness. We just have to look at the rise and rise of UKIP to see it in action. But isn’t there just a just a hint of Scottish delusionalism (just made that word up) of specialness in most of these posts. Whether or not we like it, a vibrant economy and the preservation of mass employment relies on inward investment in this globalised world. Scottish separatism isn’t going to change that. Family and community yes, but, for the sake of our grandchildren, we all also have to make an effort to help heal this rapidly deteriorating planet. Scottish separatism won’t cure that either. Some leadership from Scotland might – as it has done in the past.

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Hi Norman
      you write: ‘Whether or not we like it, a vibrant economy and the preservation of mass employment relies on inward investment in this globalised world. ‘ I really don’t agree. This has nothing to do with independence but there are alternative models of the circular economy or developing a local economy that create a far more resilient framework.

      ‘Family and community yes, but, for the sake of our grandchildren, we all also have to make an effort to help heal this rapidly deteriorating planet.’ I’m not sure what the first part means but in terms of ecology Scotland has world-leading climate change policy developed ahead of the UK govt which remains committed to new nuclear and fracking.

      Finally no is being ‘separated’ – it is not ‘separatism’ its independence like any other country.

      1. norman longworth says:

        Thank-you for your reply. While I have no love for neo-liberalism the fact remains that Scotland is a part of the global economy. If you are saying that, as an independent country, it can withdraw from that rat race and develop an alternative economy – and still satisfy the employment needs of its millions of people in the industrial central belt – I would wonder if this is based on solid evidence or wishful thinking. Either way it’s a huge risk. And it certainly is central to the independent issue.

        Regarding the individual’s responsibility to address the planet’s needs in addition to family and community. renewable energy is a governmental concern. Good for Scotland that it demonstrates action. The comment was based on the observation in this debate that Scotland tends to have a greater spirit of community. But I’m really referring to what individuals can do for the rest of the world – e.g. for the alleviation of poverty, the provision of education in the developing world or for creating links and understandings with other peoples, other creeds, other cultures. I see these as the sort of outward-looking, horizon-changing activity that opens minds and fires people and communities rather than the narrow issue of closer communities. It may, or may not, be a Scottish independence issue but it goes back to the global economy, and I do detect a wish in these pages to withdraw into a claustrophobic and sentimental Scottishness.

  15. Arne says:

    For me, as a norwegian, Scotland is a Nordic country. Here in Norway we look to Scotland and Finland when it comes to how the schools are operated. Scotland is a progressive country when it comes to education. And its the young that is the future. I’m a teacher, and I would like to say; Well done Scotland

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