In Scotland, Change Comes Dripping Slowly
By HARRY McGRATH
EDINBURGH – When I tell people in Scotland that I lived in Vancouver for 20 years (regular summer trips to the auld sod notwithstanding), they often inform me that I “must” notice a lot of changes in my home country after such a long absence.
Umbrage is occasionally taken when I respond that the most striking thing about Scotland from my point of view is not what has changed, but what hasn’t. If you want to see a place that has changed beyond recognition in 20 years, I opine, try Vancouver.
When I first moved to Vancouver it still had a post-colonial feel to it. The Vancouver Whitecaps had an English world cup winner on the team and at least two former Scottish international players.
You could buy morning rolls from Laidlaw’s Scottish bakery in Kerrisdale, grab a few sausages in the afternoon from James Inglis Reid’s butcher on Granville Street (“we hae meat that ye can eat”), and flesh out your culinary day with some Marks and Spencer’s biscuits. If you chose to, you could act as if you never left Scotland.
I am not sure how you would describe Vancouver today, but post-modern would be a lot closer than post-colonial. The only thing more striking than the change of atmosphere is, perhaps, the change of look. Vancouver’s infrastructure is in constant flux.
This struck me again when I stepped out of Vancouver’s spectacular airport two weeks ago and directly on to the new SkyTrain connector to downtown. While I moved smoothly above and below ground, I couldn’t help but compare this remarkable transport innovation to what I left behind in Scotland.
There the proposed airport link to Glasgow Airport has been abandoned due to cost worries and the new Edinburgh tram system has hoovered up public money while forcing journalists to search for new puns so that they won’t constantly have to say that the project “has come off the rails.”
There is one tram on Princes Street but it is a mock version placed there so that people can imagine what a real one would be like if it ever arrived.
Later that day, from my perch on the deck of the Rowing Club in Stanley Park, I looked across at the Vancouver skyline and tried to pick out buildings that were there when I first arrived in the 1980s.
It was easier to spot those that had appeared since my last visit to Vancouver. The Vancouver Convention Centre, for instance, had risen as if from the sea.
In Scotland, change comes dripping slow by comparison. In the past this was part of the country’s strength – a kind of stone solidity that underpinned a culture of innovation born at home and taken abroad.
This has given way recently to a feeling that Scotland is being left behind despite the one great change that has been made – the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.
From a Canadian perspective, it is difficult not to notice that, 11 years later, the Scottish Parliament still doesn’t have the powers enjoyed by a provincial parliament.
This is creating an awkward situation for the current Scottish Government which has no control over the country’s economic levers but, nevertheless, gets the blame for economic conditions it had no part in creating and has no power to address.
In a week’s time I’ll turn again to Scotland. Massive public spending cuts are on the way and this will hit hard in a country that is disproportionately dependent on the public service for employment.
The so-called “Third World Scotland” (i.e. areas of mass deprivation and multi-generational unemployment) seems to be entrenching, even spreading.
The once grand cathedral town of Paisley, for instance, which led the world in weaving and was home to the poet Robert Tannahill, has a downtown area of empty shops and blighted sidewalks.
The local council, in a strange echo of the mute Edinburgh tram, has come up with the idea of erecting false shop fronts to show what Paisley would look like if it could attract any investment.
The fact that they are hoping to make Paisley the “cost-cutter” centre of Scotland makes the whole thing inexpressibly sad.
Despite constant debate and the various commissions looking into extending the powers of the Scottish Parliament, the only radical idea on offer is that of independence for the country.
Notions of independence in Scotland are complicated, to say the least. A few months ago I heard a prospective future first minister say that if he ascended to that position he would make sure that independence was killed off once and for all.
This seemed like a remarkable thing to say about a quality that, in many other countries, is celebrated as a birthright or something achieved by struggle and sacrifice.
It is stranger still when you consider that Scottish politicians of all stripes travelling abroad have repeatedly invoked the idea that the American Declaration of Independence drew some of its inspiration from the Declaration of Arbroath.
The idea of independence petrifies many in Scotland. “Where’s the money going to come from?” is the most common reaction.
That’s a question that is going to be asked now anyway, even under the prevailing political arrangement.
Without independence “Where’s the change going to come from?” is the most pertinent question. Scotland, it seems to me, is at the point where it requires something drastic to release its energy and rediscover the spirit of enterprise it was once famous for.
The Scottish National Party recently announced that it will put independence at the centre of its campaign in the Scottish elections next May. Various polls showing a majority of Scots against independence may indicate that this is political suicide but, under the circumstances, it seems like the only thing to do.