Scotland is brilliant. But…

by | 18 Aug 2023

Scotland has real brilliance all over the place, but the wider policy infrastructure which would let us make the most of that brilliance is instead visionless and needy. Until that changes, we'll keep squandering our brilliance.

With thanks to everyone at the Eden Campus – clearly my views here are not intended to represent theirs.

Scotland is brilliant. No, wait, that doesn’t tally. Lots of things in Scotland are going wrong. In fact so many things are going wrong that it doesn’t feel like we’re brilliant much. But everyone keeps saying we’re brilliant, and they’ve got all these statistics to prove it. I mean, goodness me, we talk about our universities a lot because they are genuinely world class.

And they’re filled with generally world-class people, doing world-leading things. We’ve got energy and natural resources coming out of our ears, undeveloped land galore, an educated population and an advanced economy. Put it all together and we should be brilliant.

But we’re not really, are we? We’re a middling economic region in one of the most centralised nation states in the world – and the bigger economy of which we are part is failing. In turn, that is part of a global neoliberal economic order which is also failing. Our lives are beset by this. Shop with a corporation and we often just expect bad service (‘our chatbot will be with you in a minute’). Access a public service and you will find just how limited they’re becoming.

(If you don’t know what’s wrong with the global economy, read about Craig Murray’s discovery that the Guardian newspaper was operating drones over his house on behalf of the Chinese Government which unbeknown to him was his insurer.)

So does that mean our failures aren’t our fault? Of course it’s not all our fault – no-one really runs a successful regional economy in Britain except London and of course corporations are delivering shit customer service everywhere. But that does not let us off the hook. We should be better than we are. So what are we doing wrong?

The reason this is at the forefront of my mind is because I spent last Friday at St Andrews University’s really impressive new Eden Campus to visit battery and fuel cell research laboratories. It was amazing – an exciting day which left my head absolutely buzzing with possibilities. The geek in me wants to tell you all about it, but what I really want you to know is that, in the UK, this is a Scottish monopoly.

Basically there are two serious battery research labs in Britain and they’re both in Scotland (one private sector, the other public sector). These are the bridge between battery technology and industrial battery production. It’s worth explaining this.

China has no real advantage in battery production other than ‘first mover’ status (and yes, a shrewd strategy of buying the rights to most of the relevant rare earth minerals). Battery production is mostly automated so there isn’t really any low labour cost advantages. If Scotland created a major battery factory we could produce them competitively.

But Britain just tried that, no? The post-Brexit ‘great hope’ was British Volt, a proposed, massive battery manufacturing company that attracted a lot of funding. And then totally failed. And this is the whole point – British Volt was the most British thing ever. It was driven by venture capitalists who thought they could back-fill the science – and failed.

Why? Why can’t money alone build a battery factory? It’s because the physics and the chemistry of batteries are very well understood and none of it is proprietary. The range of possible lithium salts, the chemical composition of the electrolyte – all of this is public domain.

But that’s just like saying ‘everyone knows bread is flour, yeast and water’ – but I can assure you, understanding that chemistry alone won’t make you a loaf. I’ve been baking bread for many years and I keep finding ways to do it just a little bit better – and I’m not as good as a professional baker.

London kowtows to the powerful interests which are already there, we shop for them and then call it ‘inward investment’

And that’s the point; building a successful battery industry is all about what the person who showed me round the lab described as ‘the black arts’. It’s not the chemical composition of ‘carbon black’ you need to know (pure carbon), it’s finding the production method that creates a film of it with just the right porosity. It’s not a chemical formula you can write down, it’s a set of production practices you learn through trial and error.

British Volt thought it could scale up from zero to giant with money but without quality. Scotland is the other way round – we have the quality but not the ability to scale. Our economy just doesn’t scale promising business on its own, so we’re reliant on the extent to which public policy addresses this scaling issue.

But it doesn’t, because Scottish economic policy is just UK economic policy with a slight accent. We lack vision, have a servile attitude to people with money, believe that only the free market delivers and are far too complacent. The Scottish accent is that where London is arrogant and self-certain, we’re needy.

In Britain they kowtow to London’s corporations (especially Big Finance) because they believe in their infallibility. In Scotland we… kowtow to London’s corporations. And Spain’s. And Norway’s. And America’s. But while we also think of them as infallible, more we’re just desperate to be noticed by ‘the big boys’. Scotland’s economic policy is mostly a slightly pathetic attempt to ‘hang out with the cool kids’ and hope some of the coolness rubs off.

London kowtows to the powerful interests which are already there, we shop for them and then call it ‘inward investment’. But, as Common Weal will soon show in a major report, it’s actually ‘outwards impoverishing’ because every time we do this the corporation concerned takes more out of Scotland’s economy than it puts in (this is known as profit).

You only gain as a nation if someone comes and starts doing something we weren’t already doing – but that’s not how we operate. We sell off things we’re already doing like whisky production (now almost all foreign-owned) or assets we have like our wind for energy generation. We’ve been doing this for so long now we have gradually dismantled Scottish ownership of the Scottish economy.

If you then project forward, what this means for an exciting, cutting-edge project like battery research is that if Scotland’s economic development agencies get involved, they’ll try and find a buyer for the IP. Why? Because that will count as ‘inward investment’, even though it is wealth-stripping.

If anyone involved had any vision, any ambition, even just a little self-awareness, they’d be in a room right now asking why the last 30 years of Scottish economic policy has mainly resulted in more and more failures in major Scottish-owned companies. (I’m considering ‘wholly bought out by foreign investors’ as a failure.)

They’d be saying ‘right, if for a second we don’t run our entire, bloated empire for the purpose of producing an inward investment statistic each year that makes us look like we’re brilliant because most people don’t understand that actually this is really wealth extraction which is making us poorer, what would our strategy here be?’.

It needs a politician to stand up and say ‘the whole of public policy has become a giant PR agency for politicians and officials and it’s not good enough – I demand that public policy is about delivering a vision and doing it well’

I don’t know if battery manufacture is what Scotland should do. Actually, I suspect the biggest value to come out of this research facility may be its work on sodium-ion batteries (batteries you can basically make out of sea water). But let’s for a second imagine that we think that having a major, exporting battery industry in Scotland is a good idea. What would we do?

First of all, we’d build up that industry in Scotland in a way that ‘anchors’ it into our economy. Yes Scottish ownership, but also maximising Scottish supply chains to build connectivity and self-reliance in an emerging industry. That’s what keeps it healthy long-term.

I don’t really give a monkeys what form that takes. It could be a domestic consortium, a public company, a co-investment project – it doesn’t greatly matter. The point is that the strategy would ask ‘what does success really look like?’ and then work out how to achieve it. Now. Before it is time to commercialise this research properly and not a scramble afterwards.

Scotland is brilliant except its connecting tissue. It’s individual bits are brilliant but the stuff that joins them together is not. That’s everything from an economic strategy which should reach out and assemble component parts in the economy so the sum is worth much more than the parts through to the fact that transport infrastructure in Scotland is often a Kafkaesque nightmare.

But economic development policy in Scotland seems to see ‘success’ as just enough media releases and photo opportunities for politicians so the money keeps flowing. And for the politicians ‘success’ is any photo opportunity anyone will offer them. Tell them to take a ten-year timeframe and they will probably nod sagely before ignoring you.

This has been going on for so long that we think this is normal, but it isn’t. It’s failure. It’s failure at a national level – not because we’re rubbish but because we’re not. If we were just rubbish, this wouldn’t be a failure but a sad indication of our place in the world. Frankly the rubbish bit is our politics and our public sector empires. That is where the desire for vision should come from.

But it doesn’t; the desire is for the appearance of vision. So long as people think you’re a ‘great leader’ or ‘have the right values’ or ‘want the best for your country’, delivery doesn’t matter. No-one bothers about delivery during elections. It’s photos mate, it’s photos the punters like.

Changing this could happen quickly. For what it’s worth, we’ve got some brilliant economic development professionals too, and most would broadly agree with what I’ve written here. But it needs a politician to stand up and say ‘the whole of public policy has become a giant PR agency for politicians and officials and it’s not good enough – I demand that public policy is about delivering a vision and doing it well’. That politician would then simply stop incentivising everyone in the public sector to cover up failures and instead come up with workable plans for delivering that vision.

Scotland is this close to being brilliant. There is little that we need that we don’t have. Except vision, determination – and competence from the people whose job it is supposed to be to wring national advantage and public good out of all that brilliance.

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