Scotland quo vadis?

Scotland is a country facing challenges while heading for several transitions simultaneously, but also blessed by opportunities. Working to realise them is urgent to make Scotland future-proof – a green country with a clean economy and solidarity society. Transforming the economy by physical degrowth would be active work towards independence, first within the political restrictions of the UK, then possibly with extended competences in devolution (usually the offer to buy off independence votes), and finally in an independent state. Political independence might even come too early if the journey towards degrowth and sufficiency has not made sufficient progress by that date.

By Joachim Spangenberg. Vice President, Sustainable Europe Research Institute | Scientific Committee Chair, BUND/Friends of The Earth Germany

This is from #2 of LESS – our journal of degrowth, radical sufficiency and decolonisation in Scotland. Details of how to get a print copy here.

Independence? Which independence?

If the majority of Scottish citizens will support independence, in a democratic country, the way forward would be obvious. Or is it? 

Let’s first scrutinise what “independence”, this totemic catchword, really means, and then have a look at processes, strategies and results. Totems symbolise important desires, but rarely give the full picture as believers in “sovereignty” south of the Scottish border are just realising.

First of all, independence is neither a state nor an act, but a process, as the fuK (formerly united Kingdom) is just experiencing; it comprises at least cultural, economic and political independence plus an established independent reputation. 

Cultural independence without political independence is only possible with a high degree of autonomy, while the UK is probably the most centralised state in Western and Central Europe (an achievement given the competition of France, Spain, Poland and Hungary). It requires respecting mutually diverging preferences and not imposing those of one side upon the other, an option evaporated at the latest since the Westminster government decision to leave the EU and take Scotland (unlike Northern Ireland) with it. 

So the call for political independence is plausible, but not enough: political independence without economic independence is but a chimera, and how difficult it can be to gain that status is something the UK government is just learning on the fly (to avoid misunderstandings, economic independence does not imply a strive for autarky, but trade between independent states with their own national economies, not of one state with its appendix). An established independent reputation requires a distinguishable profile in all three dimensions, and targeted action and communication for its establishment.

Cultural independence

Regarding the cultural independence, Scotland has gained its own profile as a rather normal northern European nation with an inclination for social justice, a green (and blue) environment, participatory democracy and a functioning welfare state. Productivity is as high as in England, the population is well educated, and many universities are world-beating. However, it is suffering a bit from its political environment, a Little England nation which is an extreme outlier compared to the rest of Europe. In England, neoliberal attitudes are running deep (according to a Kings College London study, about half of the Britons – 84% of them English – blame people becoming unemployed in the COVID crisis that losing their job was their own fault: The Guardian, Feb. 25th, 2021). This attitude has been propagated and exploited by an undemocratic and increasingly illiberal, cronyism driven political-economic system on top of a weak and shrinking industrial base (accelerated by Brexit) and a dominating financial industry mainly located in London. Unfortunately, there have been some spill-overs into Scotland, partly enforced by UK law, but also partly adopted by mainstream politics. 

For instance, as a result of UK politics, local communities have been suffering from austerity like communities across the UK, and have been transformed geographically and functionally through the introduction of the new public management in 1975. 

In the higher education system, Scotland does not only host the best university in the UK, but also many of its more fragile and most commercialised ones. In both economic cases the effective provision of public services – higher education is an almost cost-free service in most European countries – are hampered by budget constraints. 

The neoliberal obsession with economic growth prevents rational analysis of needs, and undermines key environmental and social policy requirements. Fortunately for Scotland, some of its traditions also in these fields have deep roots and high resilience – its local jurisdiction, for example, reaching back 700 years, and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities some 500 years, with 1975 marking the transition of local authorities from a model resembling European traditions to the New Public Management approach preferred in the Anglosphere since the Thatcher and Reagan times.

Political independence

So while a political divorce may be as long away as Mr. Johnson stays his course, there is some repair work to be done in the Scottish society and its institutional structures. Dismantling (part of) the Wheatley reforms, complementing the reminder with a maximum of local citizen participation would overcome an important legacy of Thatcherite times. 

Other elements – constrained by resources for the time being, but groundwork is possible – would be doing whatever is possible to restore the public services slashed under austerity, in particular at the local level, including functioning, decentralised health care system. Or take the higher education: if it is considered not a market good but a public good, it should be as freely accessible as the NHS. 

Have in mind that the classification of goods, whether as public, meritocratic, common pool or private market goods is a societal decision, and independence includes rethinking the current patterns, based on Scottish values and preferences. Strengthening local authorities would also release civil society from a major burden and permit focussing its energies more on the future than on plastering over the cracks of a broken system: as admirable as the efforts of NGOs and charities are, it is a shame that they have to substitute for lacking public services instead of offering innovation and added value. 

All of this implies that winning a referendum is not the only strategy to pursue independence – it may even be more important to do the basic preparations now which would permit, once self-determination over the tax income has been achieved, to build new and better. Admittedly, it is a bit like refurbishing a ship while sailing it – but better to do it before the storms resulting from the divorce will sink the boat. However, redesigning governance and institutions, under the limitations prevailing, requires fresh thinking and public discourses regarding societal preferences and social practices. The symptoms of aspects of English conservatism cannot be overcome – not even after political independence – if the Scottish government still feels bound to neoliberal politics of deregulation, free markets and balanced budgets. The tide has turned in Europe in this respect (witness the European Green Deal and the growing discussions about Degrowth or the role of the state): the SNP should rethink what is an appropriate economic policy perspective for Scotland, in particular when the scheduled path leads back into the EU. 

With degrowth and sufficiency from problem-causing to problem-solving policies

According to the recent study of the London School of Economics, leaving the UK would be twice to thrice as expensive for Scotland as having been taken out of the EU via Brexit. However, such figures are always based on assumptions, and in this case the assumption is a rather unchanged economic structure and policy, and continued economic dependence on England. However, if these assumptions are changed, the result will be different. I here argue that a sustainable transformation of the economy, significantly reducing its resource consumption, i.e. with physical degrowth, can be a game changer for a transition towards both sustainability and economic independence.

So what does ‘physical degrowth’ mean? 

It is generally known that fossil fuel consumption drives the climate crisis, land use change drives biodiversity loss in particular in agricultural areas, and material flows destroy landscape and habitats while underpinning climate and biodiversity problems. Hence without a significant reduction of the environmental pressures from resource consumption, it will neither be possible to reach the UN Sustainable Development Goals, nor to guard the natural assets making up for a significant part of the wealth of Scotland. Current policies, however, are not dedicated to safeguarding assets, but to liquidate the stocks of natural wealth as only the sales but not the stocks count for the GDP, and GDP growth is the fetish of (neo)liberal policies. Consequently, degrowth is not about decreasing the GDP but rejects this fetish. Instead degrowth aims at reducing resource consumption to enable people to “living well within planetary boundaries” (Jonathon Porritt) or “living well, within the limits of our planet” (the EU 2050 target). This requires to complement the decarbonisation of the energy system with a dematerialisation of production and consumption, and efficiency with sufficiency.

As this may appear as if explaining one dubious new term by using other, just as dubious ones, let me give another round of explanations. While efficiency is well known as ‘making more output from the same input’ (hardly ever ‘using less input for the same output’, a way to describe dematerialisation), sufficiency policy can be defined as ‘enough for every need’. This implies that neither insufficient resource access like energy poverty, nor the squandering of resources beyond human needs is accepted. While human needs are limited, what is infinite is the number of potential satisfiers for these needs. Sufficiency is then to find resource light satisfiers for human needs, many of which will be communication, social bounds and other social processes, rather than market goods. And even the definition of good consumer goods and their value would change: if an industrial quality vacuum cleaner survives 20 times as many uses as a household cleaner, but costs twice as much, the equipment cost per use decreases by 90%. Cars are essentially not automobiles but autostabiles, standing uselessly around and occupying public space between 22 and 23 ½ hours per day; over a lifetime of 12 years they are used 3 months to 1 year. Sharing could increase the daily use time from one to ten hours, driving the cost of cars per km down 80% even if a doubling of prices for better quality is assumed. Significant reductions in resource consumption (and sales, and hence GDP) would occur without any decrease in services enjoyed. Of course, such a transformation would require creating new decent employment opportunities for idle production workers in the reproduction sector of care, maintenance and repair. The higher price of better quality goods is an opportunity for the Scottish banking sector to come forward with loan and credit schemes which finance the extra cost with payback coming from the subsequent savings.

Degrowth and sufficiency would restructure input and output, supply and demand, reducing resource consumption and hence import needs, and moderate the export volumes required for a balanced trade. Currently about 2/3 of all Scottish imports come from the rest of the UK, and 60% of its exports go there – degrowth and sufficiency would change that. Regarding imports, the collapse and subsequent re-establishment of supply chains in the Corona crisis, and following Brexit, has shown that import restructuring is indeed possible, while some more proximate production in regional clusters is helpful for enhanced resilience. Finding new export markets is not as serious a challenge as the LSE assumed, as products for sustainable consumption are new and meet the demands of growing consumer groups; they are also in line with the recent developments of EU law to make repairability of a range of consumer goods and the extended availability of spare parts mandatory. These are but first steps of ‘Turning the Trends Together’, as the 8th EU Environmental Action Programme is titled.

Economic independence: minimising risks 

Independence needs to change Scotland’s dependence on England’s economy. This implies that structural change, happening anyway all over the world, must be given a direction supporting both sustainability and enhanced economic independence.

To make an independent Scotland truly independent, it must gain economic self-determination as well – which of course would not be a splendid isolation from the outside world, no ‘Scotland first’ as some opponents might assert; the dedication to join the Single Market again demonstrates how nonsensical such suspicions are. But is should have its own industrial policy and development, and beyond fishing, tourism and whisky an economic portfolio which is attractive to EU partners, oriented towards the 2050 EU vision of the 7th Environmental Action Programme (7th EAP) titled ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’, motivated by the 8th EAP ‘Turning the Trends Together’ and in compliance with the European Green Deal.

Both tasks are deeply intertwined. A big income source of the past has been the oil industry, which is in decline since the beginning of the century and must be phased out by 2050 in a climate neutral EU – 2040 would be a better target line from a climate policy perspective. This means that not only a significant number of jobs will be lost in that sector, but it is very well paid jobs – something to have in mind when looking for substitutes.

This is also the challenge when jobs in the financial industry sector are lost. Although having been shrinking significantly in the last decade, and although in Scotland financial services have a lower share of GDP than for the UK as a whole, the sector is still outsized for Scotland’s own economy, and a risk for its economic resilience. By 2020, Edinburgh was ranked 17th in the world for its financial services sector, and 6th in Western Europe, according to the Global Financial Services Centres Index, with more than 80,000 professionals employed directly by Scottish financial services industry. 

Throughout history, the financial sector has been an assertion of national identity, a source of some pride and a bulwark for the Scottish economy against being run from London. However, since 1979, management of the UK economy (including Scotland) has followed a broadly laissez-faire approach, including the financial sector and the Bank of England as Scotland’s central bank. The thrive for deregulation the economy, including the banking sector, was one of the reasons for the financial crisis starting 2008 – Adam Smith, having experienced the 1772 banking crash in Edinburgh, had warned not to include banking into the deregulation processes he favoured. In a currency union with the rest of the UK, the Bank of England would remain the lender of last resort (an option the Tories reject) – but an independent Scotland would have to turn to the Bank of England and the Treasury to protect its savers. In the longer turn, despite its strength in fintech and multiple start-ups, an oversized and vibrant financial industry is a risk as much as an asset, and to become rather dull and conservative again would safeguard the Scottish economy against the risks of volatile financial markets Hence a capable central bank acting in line with Scottish interests is required to avoid threats to the national budget. Let the banks move their headquarters, their top management and with it the risks and responsibilities – but keep the back offices jobs in Scotland where rents are a little more than half the price of London, and qualified personnel is abundant. However, that implies a new strategy: not growth of volume and risks, but degrowth of the sector.

Finally, there is another sector to be mentioned which is hardly compatible with a sustainable, environmentally benign future development: mining and quarrying. Globally mining is one of the most destructive industries, causing massive energy consumption, material flows and biodiversity loss. Scottish industrial policy should aim at phasing out such dinosaurs as mining zinc, and minerals, even if that due to their local economic importance may require targeted measures to provide alternatives.

As the English navy will not have its ships built in an independent Scotland, Glasgow as the hub of the UK’s shipbuilding industry must look out for new niches (anyway, the Westminster U-turn to increasing the stock of nuclear missiles and placing them in Scotland is a toxic gift). Fortunately, there are alternatives: take for instance ship recycling which is so far mostly done under horrible environmental and working conditions in South Asia. It could turn into a clean source of employment and resources for the industry, in particular when ‘ships’ includes the oil platforms and installations being dismantled and recycled when the North Sea oil production is phased out, and the offshore wind and wave power installations when they meet their time.

Economic independence: seizing opportunities

Europe is undergoing massive societal and industrial change, with the European Green Deal just the tip of the iceberg (a large tip, admittedly). A European Scotland must be prepared to re-enter a changed community, and for the role to play within it. Striving for economic independence for Scotland implies pursuing a productive, resilient and fairer economic model, delivering long-term sustainability and economic opportunity for all. Fortunately, the prevailing structure of the Scottish industry offers a variety of opportunities for this, and for playing an important role in a changing Europe.  

Scotland was one of the industrial powerhouses of Europe from the time of the Industrial Revolution onwards. This left a legacy in the diversity of goods and services which Scotland produces, from traditional ones like textiles and whisky to jet engines, buses and ships, computer software and microelectronics, as well as banking, insurance, investment management and other related financial services. This history, if modernised, offers opportunities for the future (but the ‘modernised’ is crucial – think of the huge tracks of land for hunting and shooting for a tiny percentage of people, often at the expense of Scottish biodiversity). For instance, the food industry sector is a quality producer, and with the EU “Farm to Fork” strategy, the Chemical Strategy and the Zero Pollution Strategy aiming at reducing pesticide use and toxicity by half in the next decade, moving to sustainable farming now, or even already being doing so, is a clear first mover advantage. This is an opportunity to reduce inputs, a physical degrowth, which need not imply economic losses due to quality premiums consumers are ready to pay. Scotland already has a vibrant food industry, and home-made brands which have – or could have – European and international appeal. The sustainable production of beef and mutton with grazing rather than agro-industrial mass production generates premium products and is not only well-suited to the Scottish landscape, but also caters for health food trends all over Europe (the still neo-feudalistic land ownership structure may require further measures than the competencies given to local authorities half a decade ago, also to enhance reforestation where appropriate instead of wood export). Refraining from importing protein-rich feedstock is not only good for the nutrient balance of national lands and rivers, but is also a significant contribution to future-proofing the system by dematerialising it. Agriculture may be of minor importance for the Scottish GDP (about 2%), but it affects ¾ of Scotland’s landscape and thus its biodiversity, making it a crucial sector for a sustainable Scotland. Other high quality food, from salmon and other smoked fish to cheese and fruit contribute to the domestic quality of life, but are also promising export goods – already the food industry earns more revenues than oil, and the Scottish smoked salmon industry is worth more than all of the UK fishing industry. Whisky is probably the best known of Scotland’s manufactured products. Despite international competition (now even from English whisky) production soars with new distilleries coming to the market, supporting about 35,000 jobs. Exports have continuously increased, and Scotch whisky is now one of the UK’s overall top five manufacturing export earners. As a dedicated Scotch malt whisky enthusiast, this is the one sector I personally consider degrowth undesirable… 

Fisheries is another traditional sector of low economic but high cultural and social importance, at least in coastal areas. The waters surrounding Scotland are some of the richest in Europe; however in the last decade permanent overfishing has led to historically low abundances of commercially valuable fish in the North Sea and parts of the North Atlantic, although cod is now relocating from English to Scottish waters due to climate change. European fishing ministers are to blame for much of that loss as they have set quota continuously higher than the maximum sustainable ones determined by science – here the only potential for positive impact from Brexit, significantly reducing the overall quota to let the fish stocks recover, has been spoiled by Westminster. Britain has two specific problems with fishing quota the UK government does not address, failures the Scottish government should emphasize and push to revert as soon as possible, independent or not yet. One is that free-market Britain, unlike others, let fishers sell their quotas abroad. In 2018 the Dutch ship Cornelis Vrolijk, registered in Caterham, owned 23% of the entire UK quota – not an issue caused by the Fisheries Policy, but a property deal. The other one is that in Britain, 77% of the boats are less than 10 metres long, employing most of the UK’s 12,000 fishers, yet owning just 4% of local quota. The British government could have changed that, redistributing quotas between British big ships and small boats. Such a change was even advocated by the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy which called for including “social, economic and environmental criteria” in quota allocation, but it was not implemented in Britain. As small boats matter most for coastal life and do least environmental harm, they should take priority, with quota taken from the big boats and given to the under-10 m flotilla – a measure to degrow the fishing industry in a socially and environmentally sustainable way. Besides reducing catches, to let stocks recover, scaling down is advisable: banning large swimming fish factories, banning dredging and other unsustainable forms of fisheries. Most of this would be possible under the current legal situation – the villain sits in Westminster, not in Brussels, and should be exposed to more pressure to address the real reasons of small-fishers’ problems.

Like in all industrialised economies, over the last 40 years both manufacturing and extractive industries have been losing importance. This applies for instance to the textile industry, which surprisingly is still a major employer in Scotland, with a workforce of more than 20,000. Here again the key to survival besides modern production technology, qualified jobs and good work is occupying a niche in the high quality sector – producing not more but continuing to earn a decent income from the high end of the textile market is a strategy in line with past efforts. Not growth of volume (fast fashion), but of quality is a future-proof option. However, in this sector as well it should be accompanied by branding, maybe stimulated and coordinated by the Scottish government, making ‘Scottish quality’ a household name all over Europe and beyond.

One of the growing economic sectors in Scotland is the services sector (including hospitality), representing already ¾ of the Scottish economy. From a sustainability point of view, this is a positive trend, as the energy and resource intensity in services is lower than in the average industry (but less than many suspect as services depend on material and energy intensive infrastructures). The open question is the way services are provided: by profit-oriented companies, by the state or by the third sector of local initiatives and not-for-profit businesses? In a country with less dense population and only few big cities, the latter appears to be the most effective way to bring services directly to the people – again a question of appropriate structuring of local administrations, and of providing them with the financial means to do so, e.g. by local taxes for local services.

Part of the services industry is tourism. While battered by the COVID crisis and in urgent need of recovery (like many of the hospitality businesses for domestic enjoyment), tourism is a double edged sword. Witness the anti-tourism sentiments and campaigns in Venice or Barcelona, and tipping points become obvious, with tourism going from a blessing to a nightmare when crossing them. Arguably, the “disneyfication” of Scotland’s capital city has reached and occasionally crossed that threshold, with disneyfication meaning to take culturally significant stories, trivialising and marketing them, depriving them of meaning for increased profit. Beyond Edinburgh, hiking in the Highlands would be less of an enjoyment in an overcrowded landscape, and the Ring of Brodgar as overcrowded as Stonehenge would be a nightmare. So sure there is an opportunity for growth in tourism, in certain places and at certain times, but it should be focussed on sustainable, culturally embedded tourism, and it has its limits. 

The most modern sector, and rather unknown to European customers, is the IT and high tech industry – who knows how large a share of tablets, laptops and equipment bought in Europe comes from Scotland? High quality research, not only in Edinburgh, and multiple spin-offs promise solid economic prospects in the digital age. However, given the limitations of resource supply, the escalating energy demand of the IT infrastructure, and the need for digital sufficiency, many of the growth prognoses appear overblown. Again most promising are market niches – for instance, the idea of the circular economy, now central to the EU’s industrial policy, has not really penetrated the hard- and software industry, while in the field of energy saving incremental progress has been made but disruptive new ideas are lacking. Such concepts could reconcile physical degrowth, zero carbon targets, and good work in a profitable industrial sector. Will Scotland offer solutions?

Finally, there is the energy sector, probably the most promising one despite the transformation it is undergoing. While oil and gas will be phased out rather soon, they will in many applications – while having the structural change in mind – be replaced by electricity from renewable sources. Scotland’s continental shelf area, where the sea is shallow enough to build sea-floor anchored wind energy installations is huge, and the wind is strong and quasi-permanent. Scotland could provide a quarter of the EU’s off-shore wind electricity production, and a comparably reliable part of it. Beyond the continental shelf, sea floor based wind turbines cannot be built; wind energy farms would have to be floating – and Scotland hosts the world’s biggest floating offshore wind farm, the 50MW Kincardine installation. Wave Energy Scotland, formed at the request of the Scottish Government, is a world leader in the development of marine energy – so who now rules the waves? Besides the up and down of waves, the coming and going of tides is another reliable and regular natural process which can be exploited for energy generation; one of the world’s oldest tidal energy power plants is located on Islay. Although in terms of direct solar energy, Scotland is not really privileged, by exploiting its indirect effects it has huge potential – given its onshore and offshore potentials, Scotland has the capability of becoming one of the biggest clean energy suppliers in the EU. 

But being an electricity producer is not the end of the line – on the input side, green energy requires the mechanical work of building turbines and other installation, which is already a relevant sector of the Scottish economy. Extending the capabilities to producing, maintaining and recycling all these marine installations offers opportunities for a plethora of qualified and well-paid jobs. Add to this the up- and downstream potentials, and the effects can be enormous. Upstream, smart IT solutions are sought, and offer opportunities for start-ups and established firms, with personnel available from Scotland’s first class academic faculties. Downstream electricity is the basis of the emerging hydrogen and Power to Liquid (PtL) industries which supply their customers with renewable (“blue” or “green”) hydrogen, i.e. not based on processing methane or other fossil fuels. Hydrogen as such, or hydrogen-based synthetic fuels are one of the big hopes of the aviation and hauling sectors where some fossil fuel applications are otherwise hard to replace (probably less so for the private car market), and if produced locally and shipped by boat or pipeline, a significant share of the value added could remain in Scotland. This is all the more the case when basic chemicals produced by using “green hydrogen” are processes to higher value chemical products – an option for the Scottish chemicals industry to transform itself into a carbon-negative post-fossil industrial sector, in line with dematerialisation and sufficiency criteria.

Anchoring Scotland in Europe

As mentioned before, an independent country needs a distinct profile, a brand – ‘Scottish quality’ may be an example, communicating both identity and a dedication sounding attractive to potential customers. However, beyond a marketing and branding campaign to be initiated and supported by the Scottish government involving all sectors, there are more outreach measures Holyrood could consider for profiling. If there were Scottish cultural centres in major cities, offering music performances, fashion presentations by Scottish designers and art exhibitions of Scottish artists and museums, poets and writers, philosophers and scientists, but also cooking courses for Scottish cuisine, the profile would be diversified.

But as important for a lasting relation as presenting oneself frankly is understanding the other side, and that begins in education, in learning about history, philosophy, literature, arts, science, politics. For instance, history book chapters jointly authored by French and Scottish authors about the Napoléon wars, or by German, French, Russian and Scottish authors on the world wars would help put national narratives in a broader context. Similar efforts with others from former colonies would also be welcome. The same applies to philosophy: without knowing the difference between European consequentialism and Anglo-Saxon utilitarism it is hard to understand the different modes of governance, and without having read at least a bit of Dante, Cervantes and Schiller it will be difficult to understand the imaginaries motivating European citizens – who in turn should read Burns and Common Sense Philosophy. Reading such authors, but also the daily news works much better when understanding the language. In Switzerland or Luxemburg, three languages are mandatory, four usual, and three to four in Portugal. In Germany only two to three, sadly. Offering incentives to take language courses would be a great step, as would be a replacement for the Erasmus Programme with a more European focus than the Westminster suggestions. Such programmes are the launch platform for lasting private networks, complementing the institutional European networks with Scottish members, for cultural associations, consumer organisations (BEUC), professional organisation in all fields, trade unions (ETUC), environmentalists (e.g. European Environment Bureau, FoE Europe) and bird watchers (Birdlife Europe). 

On the government level, there are non-regulatory European institutions which are not part of the EU apparatus and welcome non-EU members like the Dublin Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions run by employers and unions, or European Environment Agency EEA which has members from the EU, EFTA and the Balkan countries. Interestingly, the EEA is open to membership for all European countries, and as “country” is the legal state of Scotland, the EEA Scientific Committee has already encouraged Scotland to join the institution.


In old friendship to Scotland’s southern neighbour, Scots might be willing to do the English a big favour by saying farewell: a UK having shrunk by a third would (hopefully) enable England to first time reflect on its own identity, its potentials and their limits, beyond imperial fantasies. It might be painful, but would be a healing process.

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