Last week I wondered if 2014 would bring anything different for us from our politicians. I came to a rather lamentable conclusion, born of much experience, that even if some things changed everything would remain the same.
Despite this I remain an optimist. My glass is always half full-to brimming over, for I believe in the ability of humankind to overcome adversity through a blend of creativity, ingenuity and indomitable perseverance.
So this week I thought I would write about how change is indeed possible – but with a warning for those that think the grass is always greener on the other side I suggest we should always be careful about what we wish for.
This year I spent Hogmanay in France. We had a great party seeing in the New Year; for a little while the corner of Gaul that we occupied became a part of Caledonia. Our house was decked with Saltires, the tartans of our guests hung as pennants from the rafters and my wife and I laid on a Scottish feast.
I had made my own haggis from the pluck of a French Lamb and some imported Scottish oatmeal and suet. You could call it a new twist on the Auld Alliance. My wife Jackie baked a super clootie dumpling and black bun, and together we made some whisky cocktails to get our guests in the mood. For entertainment we laid on some Scottish country dancing between a playlist of Scottish bands from Average White Band to Stone the Crows to Wet, Wet, Wet. Our English visitors entered into the spirit with some creative use of tartan attire and we gave them some Edinburgh rock as a little thank you.
The television was not switched on until the afternoon of second of January.
Being the only Scots present, Jackie and I were often asked what we expect to happen in the referendum. Our answer is simple and undeviating, if a little tongue-in-cheek for English ears, that Scots would be daft to settle for running only Scotland when we have the opportunity to run the whole of Britain. Inside the UK Scotland punches above its weight and while we may not always get what we want we often direct British institutions from the front or from behind the scenes – be it government, the civil service (especially the Foreign Office), the BBC and all sorts of British companies, charities, sports bodies, cultural organisations and the media.
I have travelled a lot and over the last seven years I have worked a good deal overseas; what I have witnessed is the significant presence Scots have as players in business, industry and government through British channels of influence.
What I also believe – and have seen – is that nationalism has a corrosive side to it that has to be restrained; it is one thing to be proud of one’s country’s successes but there has to be humility too. Be it British or Scottish (or, say, Chinese or American) nationalism it has to be kept in check.
In France the mood is now rather sullen. After the presidential elections of 2012 there was great hope that the new socialist president Francois Hollande would be the answer to the nation’s problems.
His mantra sounds rather similar to that coming from those advocating a brave new Scotland; Hollande would reject economic austerity as the solution to a debt-fuelled recession, he would employ more public servants funded by the taxpayer and he would fund this and achieve greater equality by raising the taxes on the the rich.
That’s pretty much what the SNP’s White Paper argued for – greater public spending on a long wish-list of things our parents never had but we are told we cannot live without; a convenient oversight that Scotland (and, by the way, also Britain) continues to spend beyond its means – requiring the freedom to tax more and to fill the gap; with the narrative that the new free services and taxes on the rich will make us more equal than the rest of Britain.
French socialism, like Scottish nationalism, is a direct challenge to the austerity policies of London and Berlin. Free at last, we will be able to beat our chests and say “whae’s like us”.
Well, certainly not the French, for there the dreams have quickly turned sour.
French unemployment has hit a 16-year high at 11 per cent and nearly a million more than the UK where we have record levels of employment and the jobless rate of 7.4 per cent is the lowest since 2009.
Emigration is in vogue; the number of French now working in Britain has climbed by 25 per cent since 2010 and London is the sixth largest “French City”.
So poor is the French economy that Moody’s has downgraded the French credit rating for the second time in two years – and with Hollande’s approval rating the lowest of any president since the beginning of the Fifth Republic in 1958 – that a new programme of tax and spending cuts has been announced.
Somebody once said things can only get better, but the truth is things can also get worse.
We should always be careful about what we wish for.