Over the next few weeks, we (me and @EmilyStDenny) will be collecting a marvellous set of blogs, news stories and campaign statements about Scottish independence. We will focus on the discussion of Scotland’s potential to learn from other countries. For example, it feels like a long time since Alex Salmond mentioned the ‘Arc of Prosperity’ but, more recently, the Jimmy Reid Foundation has gained a lot of traction with its focus on the Common Weal. In both cases, the idea is that we can learn a lot from, and become more like, the Nordic countries (the Scandinavians – Sweden, Denmark, Norway – and, in some cases, Iceland and Finland). Indeed, this is the direct focus of Nordic Horizons.
The problem, in many cases, is that no-one really knows much about these countries and, therefore, what they might learn. In some cases, that’s OK since the romantic references to better countries is there primarily as a reinforcement for one’s own ideas. In other cases, it seems odd that we’d give so much attention to these ideas without doing proper research about what ideas we can gather and how we might adapt those experiences to our own.
Scotland has form in this regard. In the run up to devolution you could hear similarly vague references to the Nordic experience as an example for our own. Yet, it didn’t go far beyond the vague. I have said, in a few academic articles and books, that we should reflect on the extent to which Scotland went down the intended Nordic route. However, to be honest, I have struggled to find more than a passing reference in documents written before devolution (such as by the SCC). People talked about ‘new Scottish politics’ as an antidote to ‘old Westminster’ but, in truth, we mostly imported a Westminster system. It would be a shame if we repeated that mistake this time round. If we want to simply continue the Westminster tradition, let’s do it with our eyes open. If we want to go Nordic, let’s learn a bit more about them.
I say this after spending time trying to do some work in the opposite direction. I was asked by the National Diet of Japan to reflect on the lessons that UK devolution/ regionalism might give to policymakers in Japan. At first, I could not really see the connection. The two countries seemed so different that I could not work out why they would be interested. Then, I spent some time looking into their political system and, more importantly, their reasons for pursuing regionalism – and I still wasn’t sure! Then, I looked again and talked to a few people in Japan while I was visiting last month (and while one researcher spoke to me when visiting Scotland). That discussion, plus the questions they asked, helped me understand the links and make some sensible points about the UK experience.
I hope the comparison is clear. Our contemporaries in the Nordic countries may currently have the same initial sense of bewilderment: ‘they keep mentioning us, but why?’. ‘What is it about our experience that they think they understand?’ So, if we are serious about learning from other countries, including the Nordics (and maybe the lesser-discussed but possibly important New Zealand), we need to be serious about drilling down into the details. We need to consider why their systems operate in the way they do. We need to know how and why they pursued the policies and institutions that have grabbed our attention. We need to talk with them, to show them why we are interested and what we are trying to do, so that they know how to translate their experience into meaningful lessons for us. We might have a good image of their experience from the outside, only to learn that they have a different experience from the inside.
In other words, the world is full of examples of failed policy transfer. Some countries emulate other countries because they think they are successful – but they don’t spend enough time working out why they are considered to be successful and if their success could be repeated; if their policy programmes could be imported in a useful and meaningful way.
Let’s not do that.