No victory robbed Scotland of a chance to regain status as a nation of innovators

A little less than half of Scotland is disappointed this morning, though for economic reasons, even some of the 45 per cent who voted Yes, may be breathing a sigh of relief.

The warnings of financial doom if Scotland went its own way were intimidating.  

It was interesting to observe how many Canadians took a strong view on the matter. My wife and I, our Scottish heritage watered down after generations this side of the pond, stayed up late flipping between CBC on the TV and BBC Scotland on the iPad, listening in full to former prime minister Gordon Brown’s old-fashioned barn burner of a speech.

Even with the vote over, for political junkies especially, it is well worth a watch.

Like many of the No side speeches, Brown’s was filled with noble concepts like sharing and solidarity and warnings about what a bad example it would set for the world if such a long-married couple were to divorce, but the hammer blow was economic.

A Yes would have been disruptive but exciting

In the financial community, everyone seemed to agree. Had the vote gone the other way, almost certainly Scotland, Britain and Europe would have gone through a period of political and economic chaos. As the chief economist at TD Bank, Craig Alexander, predicted before the vote, that chaos would have spread, shaking the bond and commodity markets, including here in Canada.

“In today’s globalized financial system, if you have a major event in a G7 county, it’s going to have some ripple effects,” Alexander said.

‘It feels as if Scotland lost — by a few percentage points — the chance to regain its place as one of the great intellectual and economic innovators.’– Don Pittis

Disruptive as that may have been in the short term, I find it hard to shake off the feeling that by voting No, both Scotland and the world have missed out on a unique opportunity. 

Perhaps it is unfair, sitting here safe in Canada with no real stake if things went horribly wrong, but it feels as if Scotland lost — by a few percentage points — the chance to regain its place as one of the great intellectual and economic innovators.

I say regain, because it wouldn’t have been the first time that the Scots were at the forefront of social invention. Nor would it have been the first time economic chaos had offered the nation an opportunity.

Tariff-free trade opened Scotland to the world

As Arthur Herman said at the beginning of his book How the Scots Invented the Modern World, “in 1700, Scotland was Europe’s poorest independent country.”

Less than a decade before its union with England, a doomed national project to create a Scottish colony called Darien, in what is now Panama, sucked the country dry of capital as Scots invested up to half of the money circulating in Scotland in the scheme — and lost it all.


Scotland turned its back on independence – and with that on a chance to reinvent its economy and society, writes Don Pittis. (Stefan Rousseau/Associated Press)

Colonists dropped like flies, unprepared for the climate, tropical diseases and angry Spaniards. The goods they took to trade with their neighbours included “4,000 powdered wigs,” writes Herman. 

Destitute after the colonial fiasco, the country caved in to an offer of a union with England. The union wiped out Scotland’s chances of an independent future, but it permitted tariff-free trade with all of England and its colonies. That new trading opportunity thrust Scotland into a period of explosive growth. And it did something more: it handed the reins of the British empire to Scots, all due to a strange Scottish innovation. 

Scotland independence referendum

Scots established themselves early as well-educated innovators. The University of St. Andrews, above, was founded in 1413 and is one of the oldest universities in the English-speaking world. (David Moir/Reuters)

Despite its poverty, bad climate and poor, rocky soil, Scotland had a highly developed university system and a long-standing respect for education. Some say general literacy was aided by fanatical Presbyterians who thought everyone should read the bible for themselves.

As well as being tough, poor and footloose, Scots were literate and numerate. So, as expanding British commerce needed qualified people to run the empire, Scots were over-represented. In Canada, for example, Scots became the backbone of the fur trade. In the history of trade in India and China, Scottish names proliferate. When I lived in Hong Kong, Scots still ran the banks.

Stagnant Europe could use a change

Back home, the same high levels of education and growing wealth created the Scottish Enlightenment, an explosion in the arts, sciences and philosophy. Economist Adam Smith was just one of many bright lights of the time whose innovations were transmitted by the expanding British Empire to the entire world.

Scotland Independence Referendum Alex Salmond

Scotland ‘s first minister, Alex Salmond, pointed the way to a new future – but failed to convince enough Scots to follow him there. (Andrew Milligan/Associated Press)

It is unlikely that Scots will ever regain the status they earned as the brains and technicians of the world’s largest empire, but a Yes vote in Thursday’s referendum could have launched a new economic experiment that had a chance of affecting the world.

Today’s Europe —  calcified in a system that is not working, where change seems impossible — could have used such an experiment

A new, independent Scotland, without a central bank, without a currency, with companies threatening to leave, with a raft of British tax and social laws to replace, would have been a tabula rasa, a blank slate.

‘Liberated from the shackles of English conservatism, Scotland would have been a crucible of new ideas.’– Don Pittis

Liberated from the shackles of English conservatism, Scotland would have been a crucible of new ideas. It would have been a first-world industrialized nation of more than five million people able to set aside conventional wisdom and reinvent the rules for making an economy work.

Land reform, social justice, a rethink of education and banking, of what parts of globalization really were good for its people. It would have been risky, but it would have been an exciting experiment.

And the things that Scotland learned and invented would no longer have needed the Empire to transmit them to the rest of the world. The English language and the internet would have done that.

Innovation not completely off the table

Of course, the grand experiment may not be entirely over. While the majority voted for economic safety rather than a high-wire act of economic innovation, a large minority showed how seriously they wanted change. 

Scotland Independence Referendum David Cameron

British Prime Minister David Cameron has promised dramatic changes that will give Scotland an unprecedented level of autonomy within the union and could allow room for innovation. (Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press)

In the final days before the referendum, the government in London offered Scotland more power in a last-minute pledge to keep the United Kingdom together. Although it remains unclear what those changes will entail, political and economic innovation are not entirely off the table. 

It may be that Thursday’s referendum, its huge voter turnout, the politicization of 16- and 17-year-olds, the global focus on Scotland as a place unique from England, will galvanize the Scottish nation in a way that can help it transform itself socially and economically within the British union.

The experiment will be less radical and perhaps therefore less risky. But for the nation that gave Canada its first traders, its first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, our first rebel, William Lyon Mackenzie, our traditions of education and business and banking and the right to be heard, the referendum was a vote for change.

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