The divide between Scotland's people and its political class has never been greater

While the SNP obsesses over independence, voters are more concerned with an unemployed population the size of Dundee.

The 1707 Act of Union between Scotland and England was described by Daniel Defoe as one "of policy" and "less [a] union of affection". The author of Robinson Crusoe was arguing that the economic benefits for both countries were what sustained the Union. Last week, Alex Salmond was inadvertently trying to reverse this settlement. But if he proved anything, it was not that there is a policy-based case for independence, rather that he deems such issues to be esoteric.

One of the big economic arguments unveiled last Tuesday to entice Scots to vote for separation was to acquire "economic levers" such as corporation tax, which they would subsequently reduce by 3% in order to undercut the UK rate. This 3% cut, the SNP claims, would increase productivity by over 1% and create 27,000 jobs after 20 years. So vote Yes in 2014 and then wait 20 years.

Even if you ignore the moral arguments about a race to the bottom in corporation tax, or that Joseph Stieglitz, one of the Scottish government's own economic advisors opposes the idea, or the fact that this modelling was based on a 3% reduction when the UK rate at the time was 26%, or the fact that the British government now plans to cut the main rate of corporation tax to 20% by 2015, the idea that 27,000 jobs after 20 years, around the same amount of time it took to build the Taj Mahal, is some sort of economic lever worth ending a 300-year-old Union for is clearly absurd.

This is best highlighted when you consider the economic problems facing Scots. For example, in the past fortnight we’ve seen that unemployment in Scotland stands at around 199,000, which is greater than the population of Dundee, Scotland’s fourth largest city. The dole queue in Scotland is so long that if it was assembled in one straight line it could stretch from Edinburgh to Glasgow. The suggestion that voting for independence in 2014, so that by 2034 this figure would still continue to be larger than the population of Dundee is simply laughable.

It is not surprising to discover that unemployment, not independence, is the top concern among Scots in numerous polls. In Scotland, as in most parts of the UK, constitutional issues like referendums, rank low among most voters’ concerns. Well-respected pollsters like Peter Kelner have observed that separatism is a "minority passion north of the border".

Only at the start of the year, the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey found support for independence at its lowest since devolution – it’s barely changed since. In fact, support for independence is so low that when separatist campaigners get even within 10 points of the opposite camp, not only do the SNP see this as a "boost" but they also send out a press release. I honestly can’t imagine any other mainstream party highlighting the fact they are so far behind their rival in a political race.

Nevertheless, when one considers that Scottish public’s opinion on separation has barely moved any further in the last 12 months than it has in the previous 168, it becomes clear that the divide between the people and the political class in Scotland could not be any further apart. All the referendum is doing is providing a Scotch Mist that conceals the real issues afflicting Scots.

20 years from now, if the referendum outcome is as all the polls suggest, Scots will not look back and count the 27,000 jobs announced last week. They will instead wonder why, when their country’s politicians were confronted by a city’s worth of unemployed Scots, they chose to ignore the public’s main policy concern and focus on their antipathy towards the Union.

James Mills is a Labour researcher and led the Save EMA campaign

Alex Salmond speaks at the launch of the Scottish independence White Paper last week in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.
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An unmatched font of knowledge

Edinburgh’s global reputation as a knowledge economy is rooted in the performance and international outlook of its four universities.

As sociologist-turned US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan recognised when asked how to create a world-class city, a strong academic offering is pivotal to any forward-looking, ambitious city. “Build a university,” he said, “and wait 200 years.” He recognised the long-term return such an investment can deliver; how a renowned academic institution can help attract the world. However, in today’s increasingly globalised higher education sector, world-class universities no longer rely on the world coming to come to them – their outlook is increasingly international.

Boasting four world-class universities, Edinburgh not only attracts and retains students from around the world, but also increasingly exports its own distinctively Scottish brand of academic excellence. In fact, 53.9% of the city’s working age population is educated to degree level.

In the most recent QS World University Rankings, the University of Edinburgh was named as the 21st best university in the world, reflecting its reputation for research and teaching. It’s a fact reflected in the latest UK Research Exercise Framework (REF), conducted in 2014, which judged 96% of its academic departments to be producing world-leading research.

Innovation engine

Measured across the UK, annual Gross Value Added (GVA) by University of Edinburgh start-ups contributes more than £164m to the UK economy. In fact, of 262 companies to emerge from the university since the 1960s, 81% remain active today, employing more than 2,700 staff globally. That performance places the University of Edinburgh ahead of institutions such as MIT in terms of the number of start-ups it generates; an innovation hothouse that underlines why one in four graduates remain in Edinburgh and why blue chip brands such as Amazon, IBM and Microsoft all have R&D facilities in the city.

One such spin out making its mark is PureLiFi, founded by Professor Harald Haas to commercialise his groundbreaking research on data transmission using the visible light spectrum. With data transfer speeds 10,000 times faster than radio waves, LiFi not only enables bandwidths of 1 Gigabit/sec but is also far more secure.

Edinburgh’s universities play a pivotal role in the local economy. Through its core operations, knowledge transfer activities and world-class research the University generated £4.9bn in GVA and 44,500 jobs globally, when accounting for international alumni.

With £1.4bn earmarked for estate development over the next 10 years, the University of Edinburgh remains the city’s largest property developer. Its extensive programme of investment includes the soon-to-open Higgs Centre for Innovation. A partnership with the UK Astronomy Technology Centre, the new centre will open next year and will supply business incubation support for potential big data and space technology applications, enabling start-ups to realise the commercial potential of applied research in subjects such as particle physics.

It’s a story of innovation that is mirrored across Edinburgh’s academic landscape. Each university has carved its own areas of academic excellence and research expertise, such as the University of Edinburgh’s renowned School of Informatics, ranked among the world’s elite institutions for Computer Science. 

The future of energy

Research conducted into the economic impact of Heriot-Watt University demonstrated that it generates £278m in annual GVA for the Scottish economy and directly supports more than 6,000 jobs.

Set in 380-acres of picturesque parkland, Heriot-Watt University incorporates the Edinburgh Research Park, the first science park of its kind in the UK and now home to more than 40 companies.

Consistently ranked in the top 25% of UK universities, Heriot-Watt University enjoys an increasingly international reputation underpinned by a strong track record in research. 82% of the institution’s research is considered world-class (REF) – a fact reflected in a record breaking year for the university, attracting £40.6m in research funding in 2015. With an expanding campus in Dubai and last year’s opening of a £35m campus in Malaysia, Heriot-Watt is now among the UK’s top five universities in terms of international presence and numbers of international students.

"In 2015, Heriot-Watt University was ranked 34th overall in the QS ‘Top 50 under 50’ world rankings." 

Its established strengths in industry-related research will be further boosted with the imminent opening of the £20m Lyell Centre. It will become the Scottish headquarters of the British Geological Survey, and research will focus on global issues such as energy supply, environmental impact and climate change. As well as providing laboratory facilities, the new centre will feature a 50,000 litre climate change research aquarium, the UK Natural Environment Research Council Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Oil and Gas, and the Shell Centre for Exploration Geoscience.

International appeal

An increasingly global outlook, supported by a bold international strategy, is helping to drive Edinburgh Napier University’s growth. The university now has more than 4,500 students studying its overseas programmes, through partnerships with institutions in Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Sri Lanka and India.

Edinburgh Napier has been present in Hong Kong for more than 20 years and its impact grows year-on-year. Already the UK’s largest higher education provider in the territory, more than 1,500 students graduated in 2015 alone.

In terms of world-leading research, Edinburgh Napier continues to make its mark, with the REF judging 54% of its research to be either world-class or internationally excellent in 2014. The assessment singled out particular strengths in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences, where it was rated the top UK modern university for research impact. Taking into account research, knowledge exchange, as well as student and staff spending, Edinburgh Napier University generates in excess of £201.9m GVA and supports 2,897 jobs in the city economy.

On the south-east side of Edinburgh, Queen Margaret University is Scotland’s first university to have an on-campus Business Gateway, highlighting the emphasis placed on business creation and innovation.

QMU moved up 49 places overall in the 2014 REF, taking it to 80th place in The Times’ rankings for research excellence in the UK. The Framework scored 58% of Queen Margaret’s research as either world-leading or internationally excellent, especially in relation to Speech and Language Sciences, where the University is ranked 2nd in the UK.

In terms of its international appeal, one in five of Queen Margaret’s students now comes from outside the EU, and it is also expanding its overseas programme offer, which already sees courses delivered in Greece, India, Nepal, Saudi Arabia and Singapore.

With 820 years of collective academic excellence to export to the world, Edinburgh enjoys a truly privileged position in the evolving story of academic globalisation and the commercialisation of world-class research and innovation. If he were still around today, Senator Moynihan would no doubt agree – a world-class city indeed.

For further information www.investinedinburgh.com