THE SNP have just been given their annual kicking for ministers' international travel expenses.
And they deserved it too. But not, as is often the penny-wise, pound-foolish way of Scottish politics, for gallivanting too much. No, we should be seriously asking why our leaders are such stick-in-the-muds. Ministers, according to some titles, "blew" £220,000 on foreign trips in three years. Blew? That's less than £75,000 a year. Peanuts. Glasgow used to spend twice that subsidising bacon butties for its councillors.
The reality is that, after a decade and a half of devolution, Scotland's Government is only just beginning to engage directly with the rest of the world, even the closest bits. Take Scandinavia. Sure, ministers visit the Nordics. But not enough. And when they come back, they don't tell us what, if anything, they have learned, good or bad. Nationalist politicians never seem to tire of telling us that our neighbours to the east, such as Norway and Denmark, are more successful than we are. But they rarely tell us how they are more successful. That, to my ears, can make a lot of Yes campaign rhetoric sound pretty hollow. At times it's as if just being independent and having a population of five million, about medium size in world terms, is the recipe for a high quality of life and standard of living. Of course it isn't. So if we want to emulate the Nordics, we need to get to know what makes them tick, warts and all.
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And we should do so whether we vote Yes or No because many successful Scandinavian policies are in areas over which Scotland already has devolved powers, such as health and education. Outside mainstream politics there have been valiant efforts to swot up on the Nordic world. Special mention must go to Lesley Riddoch for championing the Nordic Horizon group and to Michael Keating and Malcolm Harvey for their new book Small Nations in a Big World.
Elsewhere, the Jimmy Reid Foundation has looked east for inspiration in its Common Weal project. But where are the paid politicians in this? Absent, basically.
Holyrood has a cross-party group studying the Caribbean. It has another on Cuba. Norway? No. Denmark? No. Sweden? No. Finland? No. A government serious about placing Scotland in the "arc of prosperity"(snide jibes aside, the arc is real enough) would be looking to see one of our universities establish a cross-disciplinary centre for Nordic studies. We already have a couple of departments teaching Scandinavian languages. This minimal capacity needs beefed up. Why? Because we can't pretend we'll learn Nordic lessons without a cadre of hundreds who know Nordic languages, including non-Scandinavian Finnish.
So how can the SNP live up to their rhetoric? Perhaps the Government could back bursaries to pay the hefty beer bills of graduates willing to cross the North Sea for a year to learn a Nordic language and produce a report on best practice in their field of study. Perhaps it could fund and promote exchanges for professionals from the public and the private sectors.
Ministers might want to avoid "junket" headlines? Let's send some ordinary Scots east instead.