from the Scotsman
whole world in Scottish hands
|Who owns the global economy? It lacks
human ties, shows no loyalty to any country, workforce or product.
Like the Proteus of Greek myth it takes what shape it wants, at what
time it wants, in what place it wants. And it does so with little
reference even to those who hold shares in the multinational companies.
Everything is in the hands of managers, of chief executive officers who
themselves seem to think a couple of years with one company is quite
enough before they shoot off for still more stupendous rewards in
another. The global economy is a metaphysical entity, everywhere and
nowhere at once.
It is mainly American. But as with many American things we can seek
Scottish origins for it, and find that the metaphysical Scotland of old
has left in it some tangible traces. By metaphysical Scotland we mean
Scotland after the Union of 1707, the country which had ceased to be a
state but had not become a province. The nation itself was colonised
while colonising others; the people wandering the world but rooted in
their native earth, with big ideas which they could not realise for
themselves but made real through humanity. Metaphysical Scotland, too,
was everywhere and nowhere at once.
Adam Smith makes its perfect patron saint. He spent much of his life at
home with his mother in Kirkcaldy, so perhaps was not diverted by too
many excitements. Anyway, there is nothing in his books to tell us where
they were written or what prompted their writing. Except for the odd,
brief reference, not just Kirkcaldy but Scotland altogether are missing
from The Wealth of Nations. It is a disembodied argument addressed to
Yet it does reflect the history of a nation which before 1707 had been
closed in on itself, but by 1776 was open to the world. Scotland offered
an exemplary case of the blessings of free trade, even if too small a
case to be worth mentioning. What had happened in Scotland helped to lay
down the intellectual framework for the global economy we live in more
than 200 years later.
Metaphysical Scotland was good at these mental constructs. In 1707 most
people, and most states they belonged to, were convinced that to be rich
they had to have gold. They devoted immense energy to accumulating gold,
without necessarily always feeling rich in consequence. Scots had no
gold, so did not have to bother about this.
They had other things, perhaps unimpressive to foreigners: land,
produce, brains and hands, as well as ideas of how to create wealth.
Some value could be assigned to these, the value could be written down
and then traded. This was how Scots invented modern paper money and the
credit underpinning it. Without a credit system, we would have no global
Until metaphysical Scots took a hand, a man was inseparable from his
business. He founded a factory with his own money, and prospered with
it. But if it went bankrupt, so did he. The problem waxed with the scale
of capitalist enterprise, and the demands for more investment than any
one person could provide. In crises, whole communities could be ruined.
It was Scots law that proposed a distinction between a business and its
owners, so it could go bust but they need not. This allowed the
formation of partnerships into and out of which the partners moved as
they wished, so the partnerships might long outlive their original
founders. Some are still with us - James Finlay, the oldest, dates from
about 1745. There are others disguised today as joint-stock companies,
which is just a statutory form of that novel type of economic
organisation the Scots first invented. Without it, again, there could be
no global economy.
Equity is a form of property, and rights to property are normally
exclusive. When the Spaniards conquered Latin America, they took it as
their right to keep all foreigners out - that was one of the problems
for Scotland’s Darien Scheme in 1700. The English also kept
foreigners, including Scots, out of their North American colonies. This
was not behaviour Scots could hope to emulate. They had no armed forces
equal to conquering territory overseas, and no surplus of people to
occupy it. Their answer was Darien: an emporium where anyone could come
to trade and nobody was excluded. Darien failed. But Scots still liked
Once the Union solved the political problem, they tried it elsewhere.
Hong Kong was founded for the sake of Jardine Matheson, the original
drug barons, and Singapore for the sake of Guthrie’s, today the
world’s largest owner of plantations. Calcutta and Montreal were
already there but Scots built them up as huge emporiums for manufactured
products and raw materials. Hong Kong is the most metaphysical of these.
It now belongs to China, but in a sense it also does not. Perhaps it is
better to think of all such cities as successful Dariens. Without
commercial centres of that kind, we would have no global economy.
A global economy needs not just commercial centres but also links among
them. Until Scots moved in, the world’s shipping was run on naval
principles. Convoys brought the wealth of South America to Spain, or of
India to England; goods to enrich the mother country, again exclusively.
It was Scots that first hit on shipping lines, metaphysical lines that
any schoolboy could find on a map (Glasgow to Cape Town, 5739 miles)
though no sailor could see them on the oceans. The concept entailed
regular runs to distant ports by vessels which were theoretically empty,
but therefore open to everybody - for traders to buy space or passengers
berths. All the great imperial shipping lines of the Victorian era -
Cunard, Peninsular & Orient and British India (now Inchcape) - were
founded and run by Scots who, in turn, made Clydeside the world’s
biggest builder of ships. Without those shipping lines, we would have no
So to the question who owns the global economy? It would by no means be
ridiculous to answer that Scots own it, in the sense of having furnished
many of its basic ideas, ideas which we now take for granted but which
were brilliant innovations in their time. It has to be said, all the
same, that the global economy seems to have let us down lately. It no
longer brings us the material rewards we consider as our due. Other
nations prosper far more from the ideas we gave them. What has gone
Is it just a matter of Scotland being a small country? That can hardly
be so when many of our richer rivals are no bigger, or only a bit
bigger. One measure of success for a country in the global economy is
how many headquarters of multinational corporations operate from its
soil. In Scotland, we have none, except one or two financial
institutions, even if a couple of privatised companies display
ambitions. Holland, Sweden and Switzerland all house major corporations
which compete with any American or Japanese counterpart.
It would be fair to point out that, unlike Scotland, those are
independent countries. Yet it is unclear why this could cause their
companies to flourish, when nearly all the companies which made Scotland
an economic power a century ago - a greater one than contemporary
Holland, Sweden or Switzerland - have somehow declined and often died.
Perhaps we need to be more metaphysical and think of independence not as
anything so concrete as sovereignty, but as the opposite of dependence.
Scotland in the guise of thrusting junior partner in the general
business of AngloScottish imperialism left an ample legacy which has
been squandered. Once the Edwardian high noon passed, and depression
between the wars thinned the corporate ranks, it became standard
practice for hard-pressed Scottish capitalists to throw themselves on
the tender mercies of the state. From then on they sought reward in
peerages rather than profits, and Scotland at large followed them in
seeing the dependency culture as the remedy for the nation’s ills.
The consequence was disaster. To cycles of sectoral decline was added a
permanent economic sluggishness compared with England, while markets in
the Empire vanished and foreign competitors reappeared whom we thought
we had beaten in war. Nationalisation was the last straw. As a Tory
leader, Walter Elliot, remarked, for Scotland it meant denationalisation.
In other words, it removed the last vestiges of economic authority to
Not until the 1980s were the frontiers of the state rolled back
somewhat. The economy did then regain a certain impetus, marking up
higher growth than England’s, not least through the contribution of
two industries, oil and finance, depending not at all on largesse from
the state. Privatisation raised native capitalism from the grave,
although the skeleton has yet to put on much flesh. Some vim is injected
through foreign investment lured by subsidy. And on the whole Scotland
remains a colony of new economic empires.
Here is perhaps reason enough for Scots to share in the impotent rage
against the global economy rising round the world from Seattle to Genoa.
It can take a farcical form in this remote corner, as in Tommy
Sheridan’s canonisation to secular saint by the quondam Bishop of
Edinburgh. But there do seem to be more serious consequences in the
popular consciousness, where the idea persists that a real Scot cannot
be working unless he is wearing a boiler suit and carrying an oilcan;
whereas in actuality a real Scot wears a designer suit and stares at a
computer screen. The damage is done when the myths cause Scotland to
It is understandable for Scots to feel they have had their fill of
change. Over and over again Scotland has been transformed beyond
recognition. We see that everywhere, from the empty glens of Sutherland
to the silent shipyards of the River Clyde.
The late Enoch Powell once made a speech about England in which he
claimed her essence had remained unchanged right through the Empire and
through the other epochs that the English had witnessed. For Scotland,
such a claim would be nonsense. The Scotland of today is utterly
different from the Scotland of 1700 or 1800, and I think we will before
long understand that it is utterly different from the Scotland of 1900
too. The difficulty of distilling any national essence may direct our
thoughts away from selfconscious inertia induced by nostalgia.
The Union was in a certain sense Scotland’s way into the expansion of
Europe, and that expansion produced today’s universal culture, in
which people, goods, money, fashions, ideas and creeds submerge
frontiers and erode the distinct marks of nations, even of civilisations
- even of the original European civilisation, now recolonised from
We face a phase in which people may fear this process more than they
welcome it. But the central dilemma of our age, of how to sustain
community amid globalism, Scots have faced since 1707 - and, we may say
in retrospect, not without success. Whatever has been lost, at the end
of those three centuries Scotland remains Scotland, recognisably
different from all other countries .
The differences may be hard to pin down. The essence of Scottish
nationhood may just lie in a history of surviving against the odds.
Certainly what survives may not be, indeed seldom is, tangible, not this
glen or that shipyard. Rather, it is metaphysical and protean, a
Caledonian antisyzygy (as the poet Hugh McDiarmid put it), an interplay
of opposites, captured only in hopes and dreams.
But there is Scottish history. Political and economic conditions have
always rendered Scotland’s sense of herself strangely intangible,
compelling Scots to search elsewhere for promises of fulfilment. There
is something new now in that the promises perhaps lie, for the first
time since 1707, within Scotland.
If there is a fulfilment, a sense of community strengthened in openness
to the global economy, it could make our history something exemplary
Thursday, 13th September 2001
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