Problems facing Scotland in Europe

The Herald c 1989

...At Westminster Scottish opinion is organised on party lines; Parliament speaks for Scotland only as part of the UK, not as an entity with preoccupations of its own. It cannot even muster a Scottish Select Committee and English MPs are drafted in as cannon fodder. Our disagreements ease the path of our political rulers, the Tory Ministers in Scotland, who enjoy constitutional legality but lack popular authority.

Yet it is becoming clearer as we move towards the economic and political development of the European Community that the enunciation of a Scottish viewpoint will be increasingly vital if we are not to become peripheral or even second-class citizens.

These reflections are in a sense unseasonal. The forums usually take place in autumn or early winter. This year, however, as an adjunct to the first Edinburgh International Science Festival, the council has been holding an international science forum dealing with the connection between technological change and industry, between research and its consequences for society.

Two themes of particular Scottish interest emerged. The first came in formal session from a paper presented by Harald Richter, the personnel director of the major West German company Bayer. He gave a bleak but compelling analysis of the problems in the labour market being thrown up by the second industrial revolution and the impact in the workplace of new technology.

He predicted a declining demand for unskilled workers and a shortage of skilled staff. Without skills, or the ability to acquire them, therefore, people face a lifetime either in low-paid and insecure employment or else life without work altogether. One might add that they will also need a willingness to travel and speak other languages.

This analysis is confirmed by current experience in Scotland, where buoyant demand for experienced qualified staff, to which the pages of situations vacant bear witness, co-exists with persistently high long-term unemployment. It is almost impossible, for example, for a small accounting practice in a town like Perth to find qualified staff: yet the male unemployment rate in the city stands at 11% (by no means one of the worst in Scotland).

And although it is widely agreed that a generalist education, of which the Scottish tradition is an example, is the best basis on which to build specific skills, the ordinary Scottish MA is no longer a passport to employment, as many graduates have found. In many cases a specific qualification has to be added, and in a stirring address to the conference Sir Graham Hills, the principal of Strathclyde University, denounced the British prejudice against skills (and the bias in favour of knowledge).

Yet skills must change as industries rise and fall. In West Germany the old rigid apprenticeship system has been cast aside and replaced by a broad-based technological training which can be the foundation of a variety of careers.

Too many people will sink below these levels of education, and the vision of 20 million long-term unemployed in the Community is not a happy one. Nor is there much reassurance to be found in the prospect of an unskilled and relatively impoverished underclass.

Such questions cropped up in the informal discussions of a small group chaired by Professor Mike Cooley, whose academic discipline is engineering. He is technical director of Axiom Systems Design Ltd, consultant to many companies and a visiting professor at Bremen and other universities throughout the developed world. A Galway man who throws out ideas with Irish exuberance, he well understands the problems of peripheral regions.

His main interest is in finding ways of fighting the de-humanising impact of technology. The idea of factories operated almost entirely by robots and computers is not an appealing one, even though Sir Graham argued that the creation of wealth was entirely separate from the creation of jobs, that the wealth produced by automated manufacture should be used to generate demand, for example, in the support of arts and leisure industries.

Even the Japanese, however, are retreating from the concept of the completely automated factory, and are beginning to build products and systems round the need to give people employment. Professor Cooley is the prime initiator of the Community’s Esprit Project to design a human-centred advanced manufacturing system, and is the project’s chief consultant.

He was worried that Scotland, Ireland, the North of England and other places on the edge of Europe would be marginalised by strong economic growth in the centre. West Germany, for example, might become the focus for quality car manufacture, France for electronics, London for financial services and so on.

There was, he reported, sympathy in Brussels for the problems of small cultures and groupings in Europe. There was indeed a political movement which he called the ”regionalisation” of Europe. The German Lander, which share sovereignty with the Federal Government, already have the right to be heard in Brussels.

But the case of the regions and the small nations would go by default if it were not asserted. As ever in the setting of a Scottish Council forum, the political implications of this comment were not explored, but they are clear enough: they involve Scotland’s representation in Europe.

Mr Rifkind and Mr Dewar both believe that Scotland’s best interests will be served by its representation by the UK Government, one of the three major players at the EC table. Mr Sillars and the SNP have made considerable progress with the opposite concept of independence within Europe.

If Professor Cooley and others are correct and if the impact of European development is indeed to marginalise places like Scotland, then the SNP line is likely to grow in popular appeal. It is in any case intellectually difficult for Mr Rifkind and those who believe in the unitary state to argue a special case for Scotland in Europe.

An optimistic view was that adversity might stimulate the Scots into more resolute entrepreneurial action. Why was it, Professor Cooley asked, that with Scotland’s tradition of medical and engineering excellence it had been left to Fiat of Italy to develop a portable dialysis machine?

Why is it, as the Financial Times noted yesterday, that Scotland is reckoned to have contributed only 4% of new entrants to the Stock Exchange and the Unlisted Securities Market since 1980? Why is it that in private conversation what is left of Glasgow’s stockbroking profession laments the dearth of new Scottish public companies?

The answer must have something to do with inexorable march of the branch economy in Scotland, stripping us of discretionary capacity. Yet Europe is going to require, the professor believes, a whole new generation of environment-friendly products. There is no reason why the Scots, with their skills and traditions, should not design and develop them.

Scotland’s assets include its large university sector, its reservoir of brainpower. It has twice the national average of young people in higher education (one of our ”invisible exports”). Yet the academic community is under persistent attack. The threat to close a major intellectual asset, the Glasgow Vet School, is still on the table as the new University Funding Council takes over from the UGC.

Even when the academic community comes up with a viable new product, as Professor W. H. Stimson of Strathclyde University explained with his account of casting his bread upon the waters of food diagnostics, there are formidable obstacles to its successful launch. These include the lack of suitable indigenous venture capital.

The depth of the challenge presented to Scotland by the new Europe is beginning to become apparent. The ”regions” of Europe, Professor Cooley believes, must make their influence felt. If Scotland’s voice is muted then the political consequences can scarcely be avoided.