It’s been interesting being in England and Scotland during these weeks of global financial crisis. I’ve felt the presence of history all around us, the history of a country repeatedly fighting for its own independence. Clive’s ancestors lived in Stirling, home of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, two of Scotland’s greatest heroes. We read that in the early 1300’s, the poet John Barbour wrote of freedom and Robert the Bruce:
Freedom all solace to man givis;
He livis at ease that freely livis!
We arrived in England just as Gordon Brown, often described as a characteristically “dour Scot,” gave a rousing speech intended to assert his leadership to his party, the opposition, and the citizens of the UK. The speech was widely reported as his most inspirational, and personal, since he succeeded Tony Blair as Prime Minister. We’ve seen Brown regularly on Australian world news reports, and when we saw excerpts of his speech on British TV, we agreed he seemed to demonstrate unusual energy, determination, and even eloquence in claiming his place at the head of not only the Labor Party but also all of the United Kingdom.
In the days since Brown’s speech, we’ve travelled in England and Scotland. During this same time, while we’ve been learning about Scotland’s many battles for independence, the world’s banks and financial systems have been collapsing. In the UK, the two banks in the most trouble are based in Scotland: Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), and Halifax Bank of Scotland (HBoS). In England, individual savers who had e-accounts with a bank in Iceland have been told their deposits are frozen and they cannot access their funds.
It’s about Money
We knew that Scotland established its own administrative Parliament after Tony Blair took office. With respect to economics, we read in multiple places that after the 1707 union of the crowns with England, the Scottish desire for independence lived on in the hearts of many (including Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites), but the practical, thrifty Scots also understood the economic advantages of the union, especially in the early Victorian period. Clive tells me copper wire was invented by two Scotsman fighting over a penny.
Since the 1930’s, much of Scotland has benefitted from financial assistance from the British government to attract new employment. One statistic we read was that this assistance was over a third of the total for all Britain, while Scotland’s population was one tenth. And now, in the year 2008, Scotland will once again benefit economically from being part of the United Kingdom
Now, too, it’s the dour Scot, Gordon Brown, previously Chancellor of the Exchequer (Treasurer)and currently Prime Minister, who has taken the lead not only in Europe, but also on the world stage, to quickly and effectively address the issues. The U.S. has followed the lead, and economics have become front and center in the U.S. Presidential election.
Here in Scotland, I wonder if there are unspoken feelings of “we’re lucky to be in the UK,” or if Scottish pride would not allow those thoughts to be voiced even internally. The Scottish National Party previously used Iceland as a role model for independence, urging Scotland to join Iceland in an “arc of prosperity.” With the failure of Iceland bank(s), critics of that view are now dismissing its advocates as those who would have put Scotland into an “arc of insolvency.”
These are such trying times for many people, in many ways. Being in Scotland specifically and Europe more generally gives me a longer-term perspective than I might have if we were home in Sydney or watching nightly election news in the U.S. No-one knows exactly where or when the current economic crisis will bottom out. But being in Europe during these weeks makes me appreciate once again that the world is a very big place and no single country is the source of all global leadership or all the answers.
Maybe I have a bit of Scottish blood in me after all, or maybe it’s just normal that anyone in the UK during this time would feel pride and admiration for Gordon Brown. May he continue to be as inspirational going forward has he’s been lately, and may Scotland continue to prosper as part of the UK while retaining its independence of character, culture, and spirit.