By Michael Fry
Mrs Margaret Thatcher was the basic cause of the descent into drink and drugs of the old Scottish male working class, according to Alex Neil, health secretary in the Scottish government, during a speech at the weekend.
By robbing them of their jobs in the traditional heavy industries she also took away their sense of personal worth, and they chose the only way out available to the communities which had shaped them and which they had shaped.
The chain of cause-and-effect is perhaps a little over-simplified, as Neil's critics have already remarked. But perhaps a better point, getting on for a quarter-century after Mrs Thatcher left office, would be to ask why the members of that old working class, or even their sons, have at the end of all this time still not rediscovered an economic role.
For nearly half the period Labour was in power in London, since 2007 the SNP has been in power in Edinburgh – and there have anyway been booms as well as busts. Yet throughout, a drive down the tatty high streets of small towns especially in the west of Scotland would have revealed groups of idle men hanging about on street corners with no better way of passing their time, much as men used to do in Communist Eastern Europe.
If the state, or public spending, could have solved such problems, then in 20 and more years the problems would surely have been solved. It is not as if these depressed corners of the country have lacked public spending, or attention from agencies of the state. I suspect that in fact a lot of the present Scottish government's rhetoric on these matters is a mere pandering to political assumptions that have gone unquestioned for far too long.
After all, the Scottish government runs a fiscal policy as tight as any to be found in the world, and more prudent than many. Since 2007, taxation (business rates, council tax) has been held down or cut in real terms. Yet the Scottish public sector continues to function much as normal. The nation actually reaps an advantage if its spending has become more efficient and more focussed on essentials than before.
It is to help us break out of cobwebbed economic thinking in Scotland that I and a group of like-minded men and women have just set up Wealthy Nation, in the first place to fight for a Yes vote in the referendum on September 18. We are completely committed to Scottish independence, as the quickest and shortest way to make the nation stand on its own feet. Within that framework we believe in free markets and libertarian politics.
'I suppose you believe in Trident too!', one kneejerk critic has already challenged us. Well no, we don't, because it is a waste of money.
'And you want to abolish the welfare state!' challenged another. Wrong again, though we do argue that money for better welfare needs first to be earned from a more productive economy. An independent country doing anything else will just make itself poorer. Instead Scotland and the Scots should grow their already impressive wealth.
The right policies are important, and we would urge the Scottish government to continue its present policies of prudence. But more important are structures, and independence offers Scotland a unique chance to create better political and economic structures than those which have been steadily turning the UK into a failed state.
On this point the Scottish government's white paper, Scotland's Future, is encouraging. One of the first moves by the independent nation will be to call a constitutional convention with the aim of finding the right means to govern itself in the twenty-first century (rather than trying to update the conventions of the eighteenth century, as the UK constantly seeks to do).
The most important element of the present unwritten constitution of the UK is the absolute sovereignty of Parliament. It is a sonorous phrase, but it what it has meant in the period since the Second World War has been an overwhelming bias in favour of executive power, the power of Westminster and Whitehall. This power has replicated itself in the devolved institutions – and not, in Wealthy Nation's view, to the benefit of Scotland.
The main constraint on the Scottish government at the moment lies in the Scotland Act, which formally subordinates Holyrood to Westminster; in any conflict between the two, the will of Westminster would be bound to prevail. Presumably for that reason, the Scotland Act never thought to erect any barriers to executive authority inside Scotland: there is no division between executive and legislature, no second chamber, no independent judiciary.
The Scottish government regularly steps into quite minor matters which might better be left to the judgment of its citizens, or at least of the existing institutions in civil society: how high hedges should be, what price should be charged for drinks, which songs can be sung at football matches. It is apparently assumed there is, in theory or in practice, no limit to what politicians can do. A natural conclusion is that this must be right for the economy as well.
But perhaps the very concept of absolute sovereignty is what has made the UK work more and more badly, most of all in Scotland. That isolates the governing elite from the country at large. In the economy it has favoured the financial establishment in the City of London at the expense of manufacturing industry out in the sticks.
It is one of the many forces that have steadily sapped the entrepreneurial traditions of the Scots and led them to look for subsidies from the state rather than to rely on themselves. That chain of causes is a much wider and deeper one than anything done by Mrs Thatcher, and that chain is what we must break to maintain ourselves as a wealthy nation.