By Douglas Chapman

BEFORE Covid-19, the Scottish Government was active in fostering existing and new relationships with our Nordic and Baltic neighbours. Now that the world has been turned upside down by the horror of this pandemic, connections with these smaller northern nations seem all the more important in terms of what we can learn from their individual responses to the crisis.

Estonia is a case in point, a small nation state with a population of 1.3million, with one of the fastest-growing economies in the EU and one of the highest standards of living in the world. This success is in no small part due to its digitisation and e-governance revolution since becoming independent in the 1990s, adding leading digital nation status to its many accolades.

You can do everything online in Estonia, from working from home, to paying your taxes, to voting, to ordering prescriptions, with universal access to quality broadband. Each citizen has a unique ID card used for electronic identification and secure digital signing with strict laws on privacy of individual data. In addition, government business conducted online is the norm, with e-Cabinet meetings in place since the turn of the century, meaning democracy can continue to function despite vital social distancing measures.

This innovative reimagining of their society has involved co-operation across the board from the private and public sector, where trust and transparency are key to its success. Most importantly, it has increased Estonia’s capacity to tackle the Covid-19 health crisis.

One example of this is home schooling. Back in 2015, they started a five-year project to digitise educational materials, so were able to make the switch to full online learning for school pupils and those in further education. Estonia is currently offering to share all of its digital education tools for free to other countries, so they too can support distance learning during the pandemic.

Resilience is the key issue here. As a small and agile autonomous nation, they reacted quickly to the crisis. A robust economy through existing digitisation of work practices where life can continue successfully online has meant that Estonia has not had the same loss in efficiency or capability as other nations.

However, there is no one-size fits all blueprint for creating a digitised nation. Every country has its individual issues and unique obstacles to overcome. Now that the coronavirus crisis has highlighted inequalities in access to broadband and digital devices across the UK, it’s imperative that innovative solutions are found to address this imbalance. The Scottish Government’s new Connecting Scotland scheme is one such solution and aims to provide around 9,000 “shielded” citizens currently without online access during the health crisis with free broadband, laptops, training and support.

Now the Faroe Islands are hoping to emulate Estonia’s digital success and become another role model in e-governance. For these small countries, size and self-esteem are the X-factors that give them the advantage, allowing clarity and drive in setting up new models across society.

Scotland is reaching out to these small nations in solidarity at a time of crisis. We are eager to learn from their experiences in order to build our own national resilience. While Covid-19 has highlighted our vulnerability it also provides us with a unique opportunity to discuss changes that might have seemed impossible in the past but are now crucial to our survival and long-term prosperity. Estonia dared to dream and took that leap of faith; Scotland should be next.

Douglas Chapman is SNP MP for Dunfermline and West Fife and the party’s spokesperson for SME and Innovation