Saturday 8 December 2007

The best wee act of hegemony in the world

We're all familiar with Jack McConnell's slogan for Scotland's airports. We're all familiar with the incoming nationalist government's dislike of it, and rapid deletion of it. But Jack McConnell must be laughing up his sleeve; we, the nationalists, have missed a trick - badly - and Jack has achieved all he set out to achieve.

Because we didn't challenge the truth of the slogan; we didn't notice that it needed to be challenged. So the idea - the meme - the hegemonic masterstroke that McConnell set out to achieve has been achieved. We have cast our national debate in terms of being a small nation. If you went out in any street in Scotland and asked ten passers by whether Scotland was a big country, a middle sized country, or a small country, all ten would agree, Scotland is 'wee'.

We like the notion. It's romantic, the small band against the world. Our national myth - our stories of Wallace and Bruce are cast as the brave few against the might of a much more powerful hostile world. And so we let it pass unchallenged, and thus give an unnecessary gift to the unionists. Like James the Fourth at Flodden Field, we march down off the strong hill to face our opponents on their territory.

The unionists, of course, are all too happy to present Scotland as a wee nation. Awfy cute, of course; Awfy couthie. But ower wee to stand on its own two feet in the world. Needing the generously offered protection - oh, and 'subsidy' - of our larger, stronger, more viable neighbour.

So what's the truth of it?

Scotland has a population of 5.1 million people.

That's small, isn't it?


Scotland is just slightly smaller than Finland, one hudred and eleventh in the world, and slightly bigger than Turkmenistan, one hundred and twelth. One hundred and twelth? Isn't that awfy far down the league? No, actually, it's not. There are two hundred and twenty one nations and self governing territories in the world, ranging from the Republic of China (1.3 billion people) to the Pitcairn Islands (50 people). One hundred and twelth places us exactly - exactly - in the middle. The median population of all the countries in the world is 5,299,000.

So those 110 countries that are smaller than Scotland, are they all 'too wee' to be viable? Iceland (population 312,851), is that big enough to defend its cod stocks against the combined might of Britain and Spain? Errr... yes, actually. Malta (population 407,000) and Luxembourg (467,000), are they big enough to be full members of the European Union, with seats on the Council of Ministers? Errr... yes, they are, actually.

Looking at the European Union as a whole, Finland, as I said earlier, is just one place up the table from Scotland. Below us are Ireland, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovenia, Estonia and Cyprus, not to mention Malta and Luxembourg. Are all these ower wee to govern themselves? Ower wee to be full members of the European Union? They do not seem to think so. And among our other European neighbours outside the union (and in no hurry to join it) are Iceland (see above), Norway (4,727,777) and Switzerland (slightly bigger than us at 7,508,700). Are they 'ower wee' to stand alone in the world? They, clearly, don't think so.

Indeed, if you look at those three European nations outside the EU, each plays a very significant role in the world. Iceland provided the neutral venue for the USA and the Soviet Union to meet and negotiate the end of the cold war. Norway has made significant and very positive interventions in the Middle East. Switzerland hosts the Red Cross and many United Nations agencies. They can do these things precisely because they're not great powers and don't pretend to be great powers; and thus can be trusted to be honest brokers.

So let's squash this 'small nation' nonsense. Scotland is not 'wee', no matter how couthie and romantic that may feel. Mid table respectability - or mediocrity - is our position, at least on size. We're exactly average. 'The least self-confident medium sized country in the world' may sound a lot less romantic than 'the best wee country', but that's what we are. Medium sized, with well above average resources, well above average potential, well above average wealth. And we lack the courage to take our independence, because we allow other people to characterise us as 'wee'.

It's time that stopped.

Monday 21 May 2007

Of Size, and Governance

If you set out from Langholm, in Eskdale, and drive in a car to Drummore in the Rhinns of Galloway, you will drive 119 miles, and - according to Google's mapping system - it will take you 4 hours and eight minutes. If you didn't fancy Drummore, you could get to Stafford, in Staffordshire, in one minute less; or Dunkeld, in Perthshire, in five minutes less.
From Drummore, driving by road (and taking ferries where appropriate), you could get to Dunoon in Argyle or Dunblane in Perthshire quicker than you could get to Langholm. Even with the ferry, getting to Dundalk in the Republic or Ireland would only take 21 minutes longer.
So what's amazing or shocking about that?
Well, to get from Langholm to Stafford you pass through Dumfries and Galloway, Cumbria, Lancashire, Manchester, Cheshire and finally Staffordshire. Six separate local government units. To get to Dunkeld you pass through Dumfries and Galloway, South Lanarkshire, Glasgow, East Dumbartonshire, Stirling, and Perth and Kinross; again, six local government areas.
To get from Drummore to Dunoon, you pass through five separate local government areas. Drummore to Dunblane is eight...
But Drummore to Langholm is only one: Dumfries and Galloway all the way. It's simply a perversion of language that a councillor from Langholm overseeing decisions which affect Drummore (or vice versa) is in any sense 'local' government. Dumfries and Galloway, if it were a nation, would be by no means the worlds smallest. At 6500 square kilometres it's larger than Palestine; larger than Brunei; larger than Trinidad and Tobago; more than twice as large as Samoa or Luxembourg; more than six times as large as Hong Kong; more than ten times as large as Singapore or Bahrain; more than 40 times as large as Liechtenstein; more than four thousand times the size of Monaco. In fact quarter of all the nations and self governing territories in the world have a land area smaller than Dumfries and Galloway.
Ah, you might say, but we have a sparse population. That's true, of course. Only 43 nations and self governing territories are less populous than Dumfries and Galloway.
But that's talking about nations, about independence. We don't have independence and we don't aspire to it. Let's look at how other small northern European countries organise local democracy. Take Iceland, for example. Iceland has a population twice the size of Dumfries and Galloway. It is divided into 'municipalities' which have responsibility for  kindergartens, elementary schools, waste management, social services, public housing, public transportation, services to senior citizens and handicapped people and so on. Not so very different, in fact, from the responsibilities of our local government. So, with a population twice that of Dumfries and Galloway, how many of these municipalities does Iceland have?
The answer is seventy nine.
Iceland is an extreme case, of course; a nation of proud and independent people with an ancient history of democratic organisation, and strong civil society. But Denmark, with a population roughly equal to Scotland's, has three times as many local authorities. Norway, with three quarters our population, has 400 more local authorities than Scotland has.
Put it differently: Dumfries and Galloway has three times the population of the average Danish local authority; four times of the average Swedish or Dutch; twelve times the average for Norway; thirty six times the average for Iceland. I said Iceland was an extreme case, didn't I? Get this. Dumfries and Galloway has eighty four times the population of the average - the average - French commune.

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