The Blog

Looking for Our Place in the World

A hundred years will pass in the blink of an eye. And when it does, nobody will be worried about whether we're Scots, English, Irish or Welsh. We'll just be people who used to belong to a great nation but are now too poorly skilled, under-qualified and unproductive to bother about.

In recent weeks, our national identity has once again been pushed up the news agenda. The timing of a Scottish referendum has begun to cause people south of the border to consider what it means to be English.

The Scots, it would appear, are clear about who they are, as are the Welsh. The English appear to be suffering from an identity crisis.

Mr. Salmond, writing in the Guardian this week, he said: "An independent Scotland can be a beacon for progressive opinion south of the border and further afield - addressing policy challenges in ways which reflect the universal values of fairness and are capable of [being implemented] within the other jurisdictions of these islands, and beyond."

Fine words.

But while we may hear much on the national character of various parts of the UK, the values of its inhabitants, no small amount about its history (not least, in time, the 'auld enemy'), we hear little about our place as a nation in the world.

Yet, surely, that is a more important question.

The world is a place of scarce resources. And while our current model for the distribution of resources may be flawed, and may even be in crisis, it remains the only show in town. And is likely to be so for some time to come.

We, on these isles, will be competing before long with the rest of the world for scarce resources: food and fuel at the very least but in time, intellectual capital, market share and future employment.

For the moment, our obsession must be keeping the economy afloat. But when debts are paid (or at least paid down to a manageable level), what then? Are we to continue to obsess about whether Scotland should be independent or whether England should have a separate identity?

Really, who cares?

The UK is a small place. We may head up towards 60 million people but we will always be small-fry compared to other nations. The 1.3 billion people in China produce 50 million maths graduates each year - not far off the total number of people living here.

As China continues is drive to modernisation it will have the intellectual, manufacturing, creative, innovative and productive firepower to render us irrelevant to the world economy. And China is not our only competitor. We have already slipped behind Brazil - and we may lag further behind others before long.

For the moment, UK PLC has cache. We have major brands. We make a great contribution to world literature and culture. We have history. But how long will that last whilst we argue about whether we are four nations or one?

We are not even making the most of the potential that we have. There are already signs that faced with higher university fees students from working class backgrounds are eschewing study and heading into a somewhat depleted jobs market. Surely, we can't afford to lose such talent. Faced with an uncertain future, should it not be all hands on deck?

We have too many workless people. Do not see these as drains on our welfare state but people who, if they could be helped to be productive, could take up oars and help push the UK towards brighter futures.

But what might that future be? There's no point in waiting till our markets disappear or are stolen by cheaper, better, faster, brighter, more ruthless people.

Surely it's time that we, as a nation, started to focus hard on what will keep our coffers full, our talent occupied, our young people in work, our wealth flowing and our futures secure.

If history has taught us anything at all it is that everything great will come to an end. It happens to everyone.

And whilst we may enjoy that sense of inclusion and centrality that our institutions, political clout and nuclear weapons afford us, time will change all that. Irrelevance will be hard to embrace. Poverty will be far worse and much more uncomfortable.

A hundred years will pass in the blink of an eye. And when it does, nobody will be worried about whether we're Scots, English, Irish or Welsh. We'll just be people who used to belong to a great nation but are now too poorly skilled, under-qualified and unproductive to bother about.