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The Observer: Who will you be in 2020?

The Observer: Who will you be in 2020?

“It rose to threaten Exxon, the most bountiful sister of them all. Shell’s crystal ball may have grown a little cloudy in the years since”

By addressing Scotland’s future, Demos has a done us a good – and a bad – turn

Ruaridh Nicoll

Sunday July 11, 2004

It is probably true that, as a nation, we like to stare into half-empty glasses. Unfortunately, right now, half-empty sounds pretty good. Demos, the London-based thinktank associated with concepts like ‘Cool Britannia’ and ‘Democratic Renewal’, has spent the year trying to conjure up Scotland in 2020. The vision, I’m afraid, is pretty bleak.

‘A sky the colour of tarpaulin hangs over the land,’ wrote children’s author Julie Bertagna after the first session. ‘The wind that travels the ice path of the Clyde carries the death bellow of bergs, collapsing, beyond the Firth and the Sounds, making ice soup of the Atlantic and the Irish Sea.’ That’s just the weather. You should see our schools.

The concept of ‘scenario building’ is a fascinating one. Made famous by Shell in the 1970s, the idea is to sit down, look sidelong at the current trends, and try to feel for the future. Shell, the ‘ugly sister’ of the seven oil giants back in the early 1970s, pioneered the technique and managed to foresee the OPEC-induced oil crisis. It rose to threaten Exxon, the most bountiful sister of them all. Shell’s crystal ball may have grown a little cloudy in the years since, but its technique lives on.

In January, and then again in March, Demos invited people from both public services and private industry to sit down in the offices of the Scottish Book Trust, to study the data for Scotland. It asked creative writers like Bertagna and the award-winning Anne Donovan to come along and watch, in the hope that those thoughts could be turned into a recognisable world.

The results have been terrifying. The first seminar came up with three scenarios. The first was called the ‘Ticking Tartan Time Bomb’. Political short-termism mixes with lessening skill levels, contracting resources and a falling population to drive us into terminal decline. The second wasn’t quite so bad, although the public sector expanded and the education system became turgid. The third – and ain’t this peachy – was called ‘Divided Scotland Elects a Nationalist Thatcher’. We embrace Margaret, ‘but the new Thatcher is a radical nationalist politician rather than a Tory’. Sixteen years may be a long time in politics but surely Nicola Sturgeon can’t travel that far.

When looking to the future, I think there’s probably a natural instinct to imagine cataclysmic changes, played out on a sci-fi landscape. Yet thinking back to 1988, how confusing would it really have been to be lifted out of a screening of Rain Man and dumped in today’s George Square?

Obviously, there would be an initial disappointment over Glasgow’s new ‘Glasgow with Style’ slogan, but I suspect we’d feel relatively comfortable, at least for a while. The new technology wouldn’t faze us, as that was an expected marvel.

There would be many reasons for optimism. A successful Labour government. Full employment. Land Reform. A devolved parliament. Further away: a startling improvement in Northern Ireland; the collapse of the Iron Curtain; and an end to apartheid. It would be the spooky paradigm shifts that would bring on a sense of unease and of fear. Imagine being told, without the context of passing time, of pre-emptive war and the increasing threat of global terrorism.

It was clear from the beginning of the Demos session I attended – I was one of the writers – that the group was heavily populated by those whose salaries were paid, in some form or other, by the taxpayer. It was a touch startling to see manufacturing dismissed as dead in the first few minutes, even if true. You’d think public-sector workers would, if nothing else, try to look after the hand that feeds them. To be fair, though, theirs can be hard jobs, dealing with the damage in society, offering an extra inclination to extrapolate us into disaster.

What is forcing us on to this depressing road is our famously plummeting and simultaneously ageing population, an increased reliance of public-sector jobs, and an end to the Barnett formula that weighs public spending in Scotland’s favour, all occurring under a warming sky. Even lights in the darkness, like our world-class universities, would see us selling our education to other nation’s students, who would decamp after graduation and take many our educated youngsters with them. Immigration, while welcomed, would eventually eclipse our culture.

It was political analyst and commentator Gerry Hassan who brought Demos to Scotland and, despite the grim news, he’s done us good service. An event, planned for later this year, will take place in a Highland town and see more than 100 local people imagine that town is Scotland’s capital. Once the more mundane resentments have been aired, it should provide a fascinating contrast to the priorities of the central belt.

To think about our society in different ways has to be good, and Demos has proved that Scotland is small enough for such activities to be beneficial. Even if just a few of the people involved over the year decide to act positively against these futures, life might just get better.

At the end of the year, Demos plans to publish a book collecting the fictional visions together. I hope there are those out there ready to fight for Scotland’s future because, having just finished reading the stories written so far, I know I saw a good lesson there. Unfortunately, it’s to jump on the next plane and get the hell out of here.

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