Alex Salmond, Scotland's First Minister, gives an interview following an addressing a Business for Scotland event on February 17, 2014 in Aberdeen. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Even if Scotland votes No, the status quo will not hold

Whatever the outcome in September, Scotland won't have to wait too long for even greater autonomy

A couple of weeks before the 2011 Scottish Parliament election, I wrote a leading article in the New Statesman warning Labour that they were facing a defeat that would have profound consequences for the party, Scotland and the United Kingdom. Labour leader Ed Miliband was baffled. He said to a colleague of mine (and I paraphrase): "Why is Jason warning us about Scotland?" He got his answer when Labour were deservedly routed and the SNP won a landslide victory.

For far too long, the Westminster establishment has been complacent about Scotland and the aspirations of the Scottish people. It’s as if they misunderstood or hadn’t bothered even seriously to think about why so many Scots were restless for change. Or why so many Scots felt alienated from the globalised quasi-city state that is London and from the Westminster jamboree. A politician such as the clownish UKIP leader Nigel Farage has huge influence in England, even though his party does not hold a single Westminster seat. His populist anti-immigrant, anti-European rhetoric is shaping Conservative and Labour party policy. In Scotland, UKIP are an irrelevance.

In the 1955 general election, the Conservative and Unionist Party won a majority of seats in Scotland. In 1997, in the last general election before the introduction of devolution, they won none out of 72 seats. A spectacular decline.The harshness and cruelty of the Thatcher years destroyed the Tories north of the Border. They dumped the poll tax on Scotland first and myopically opposed devolution. Today, PM David Cameron would rather lecture the Scots from the safety of an empty velodrome in east London than dare to speak in Edinburgh or debate directly with the First Minister. If he did, he knows he would be traduced and ridiculed.

Labour have big problems, too. They have lost the support in Scotland of many intellectuals, writers and artists who now favour independence, if not the SNP. These people matter because they create a culture and a climate of opinion. Meanwhile, among the poorest fifth of Scots, Alex Salmond has an extraordinary approval rating of +26. The battle for independence is increasingly dividing along class lines. For decades, Labour treated Scotland as if it was their personal fiefdom. The party became bloated and the talent pool more shallow as the most able Labour politicians – Donald Dewar, Robin Cook, John Smith, Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling, Douglas Alexander – all headed south.

At Westminster, Salmond is respected as a dangerous and formidable opponent but until very recently the standard line on Scottish independence was: "It won’t happen." But now there is a palpable sense of panic among English elites. London-based liberal media commentators are writing plaintive pleas for the Scots not to go. Even veteran rocker David Bowie has a view – from New York. There is growing anxiety, certainly among Labour supporters, that independence would result in an increasingly Eurosceptic, permanently Tory-dominated, rump-UK. Meanwhile, Scotland would be free to forge a new identity as a Nordic-style social democracy.

In a New Statesman essay last week, Salmond writes of how an independent Scotland could act as a progressive beacon for those in these islands who yearn for a fairer society. On Tuesday evening, he will, at our invitation, come south to give a lecture making the case for independence in the heart of Westminster. The English are belatedly waking up to the threat he poses to the unity of these islands. His long-held mission is to break up the British state. The British state is fighting back, hence George Osborne’s declaration –supported by Labour and the Liberal Democrats – that the UK would not enter into monetary union with an independent Scotland.

When I visited the FM at Bute House in Edinburgh last summer, he told me we were in the early stages of a "phoney war". "We are just clearing the ground," he said. Well, the ground has been cleared and battle begun in earnest. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, the status quo is unacceptable. I expect Salmond will lose narrowly in September but be able to claim a kind of victory. He must sense the UK is moving inexorably towards federalism. Even if it remains inside the Union, Scotland will not have to wait too long for even greater autonomy.

This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Mail

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

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Industrial Strategy: Ensuring digital skills are included

The opportunities for efficiency, adaptability and growth offered by digital skills have never been so important to British businesses. The New Statesman asked a panel of experts, including Digital Minister Matt Hancock, Tinder Foundation CEO Helen Milner, Tech City CEO Gerard Grech and Google Policy Manager Katie O’Donovan, to pinpoint the weak spots and the opportunities for a smarter digital skills strategy.

British people spend more per capita online than any other country in the developed world. With 82 per cent of adults using the internet on a daily basis and more than 20 per cent of retail sales taking place online, it would appear that most British businesses are digitally capable. A closer look, however, reveals a significant digital skills gap between larger companies and the small businesses that make up 60 per cent of the private sector – comprising a workforce of over 15 million people, with a turnover in excess of £1.6trillion. Of these small enterprises, a third don’t have a website and more than half are unable to sell goods online. So, are digital skills taking priority in the government’s industrial strategy?

Matt Hancock, Minister of State for Digital and Culture, said digital education from an early age will be a cross-party objective for years to come: “We’re making some progress on this, and one of the most exciting things we did in the last parliament was to put coding into the curriculum from age eight. We’ve recognised that there are down-the-track requirements for digital skills, as much as with English and Maths, and we’ve got a huge array of initiatives to corral the enthusiasm for digital and make sure that it is best used.”

Hancock added that participation in the digital economy is important at every level of business and society: “I can group the facts and figures; 23 per cent of people currently lack basic digital skills, and about 90 per cent of new jobs now need some form of them. I think that what we’ve learnt following the Brexit vote is that the need to engage everybody is more demonstrable than ever before. This is a very important part of the Prime Minister’s agenda, and wider digital engagement is a key part of the broader issue to make an economy that works for everyone.” 

It is this wider opportunity to access and education that forms the bedrock of a new partnership between Google and the Tinder Foundation, aiming to deliver digital skills training to those in society who are most in need. Cue the Digital Garage. The project sees community organisations across the country provide skills support to small businesses, sole traders and indviduals, helping them to make the most of their resources.

Katie O’Donovan, Policy Manager at Google, explained: “Google has a longstanding commitment to train 250,000 people across the UK in digital skills. Since launching the Digital Garage in 2015 we’ve provided mentoring and digital skills training in Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Glasgow.  But as the UK faces a new chapter we want to ensure, whether you’re a student looking for your first job, a small business looking to attract new customers or a musician looking to promote your music, the right digital skills are freely available in your local community.

Tinder Foundation CEO Helen Milner recognised that a wider proliferation of digital skills would release a surprising amount of value into the economy. “Some of our research showed that every £1 invested in growing people’s basic digital skills put £10 back into the economy. But it’s not enough to save money - you’ve got to show how you can make money out of it as well.”    

The Labour MP for Aberavon, Stephen Kinnock, has seen at first hand the benefits of support for digital skills, and welcomes opportunities for partnership in his constituency. The shift from manufacturing, he accepts, needs direction and following the depletion of his local steel works he views digitisation as “the only way forward.” Kinnock added that exciting projects such as the Swansea bay region or ‘internet coast’ becoming a testbed for 5G could serve to re-energise communities which are in many ways in a state of decline. Kinnock said: “I’m absolutely delighted that we’re going to have pop-up versions of the Digital Garage in Port Talbot.”

CEO for TeenTech Maggie Philbin, meanwhile, stressed that digital education at school level must be taught through the lens of practical application. She warned: “Many young people aren’t greeted by any coherent messaging in school, so they don’t see why they’d need digital skills in the workplace. We’ve got to start getting a better message across and improve the opportunities for actual work experience that harnesses these skills.”

Karen Price, CEO at The Tech Partnership shares this view. For Price, adapting apprenticeships to incorporate digital skills will help to inspire a culture of innovation. She suggested that “if that's part of an apprenticeship that could be polished to use in a business environment, you'd have a digitally capable young person who could probably move that business on in a different way.”

Nick Williams, Consumer Digital Director for Lloyds Banking Group, views improving people’s digital skills as a matter of urgency and brought up research conducted by the company’s new Business Digital Index for 2016 which found that 38 per cent of small businesses and 49 per cent of charities are currently lacking digital maturity. “It’s no longer a matter of choice,” Williams said, “for organisations to survive, we must focus on a digital message.  Technology’s moved on and people just haven’t kept up. We have to show how these new skills can translate to greater productivity. Ability and access are the two variables to address. We are on the brink of going down the route of a digital divide – those who are capable and those who aren’t – and we’ve got to stop that.”

Rachel Neaman, Director of Skills and Partnerships at Doteveryone, was quick to pick up on this point. She warned that any digital training must not simply be for future generations’ benefit, but also be afforded to those already in work. “What are we doing for the people who currently lack these skills? How do we stop people from being left behind?” Neaman called for an “equal emphasis” on updating and upgrading the existing workforce. Julian David, the CEO at Tech UK, was also keen to highlight that digitisation is “an ongoing process” and therefore “retraining” at regular intervals is needed to cope with a continually evolving demand.

While Hancock spoke of a “unit-based standard learning system”, similar to that used in American schools, to help apply digital skills training where it is most appropriate, IPPR North researcher Jack Hunter said there were real opportunities to be grasped in the coming devolution agenda: “The new mayors that are coming in next year to drive the agenda and economic growth are going to be getting a lot more funding around a variety of different skills streams that feed directly into the digital programme.”

The panel agreed that the digital divide will only grow wider if action is not taken. Director of the Action and Research Centre at the RSA Anthony Painter said that society is being split into two camps: “the confident and creative, and those who feel held back.” Painter recommended that the latter group are given a fresh chance at being empowered digitally. He said: “They don’t tend to use the internet for professional development, whereas the others do. We’ve been having a look at this locally by creating a ‘City of Learning’ which combines a digital platform built around open badges which have micro-accreditations for learning; things that if you get someone’s passionate interest and then start feeding into more formal learning opportunities then you wrap around that a sort of city-led campaign which lets them identify with a common cause – we’re a learning city.”

Tech City UK CEO Gerard Grech concurred and went to explore the link between a strong web presence and business expansion or improvement. The problem identified is that many businesses may not realise the extent of their digital capabilities and thus run the risk of missing out. Grech said: “If you ask a window cleaner if they are a digital business, they might say no, but if you ask how they might go about quoting someone, they could find the address on Google Maps or get the Street View. That’s the idea, to show how digital can be used for them.”

Ultimately, the panel concluded, that the enthusiasm to add a digital depth to Britain’s talent pool was validated by its potential advantages. “A lot of the major challenges facing the economy,” Painter summed up, “are actually rooted in skills. Whether it’s the challenges of Brexit or the challenges of broadband, I think if you fix the skills, everything else falls into place.” The panel agreed that any government has a responsibility to champion digital strategy throughout society, regardless of location or economic standing, and equip businesses with the digital skills required to perform at their best.  

The round-table discussion was chaired by Kirsty Styles.

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