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28 February 2000

The capital is not always an asset

New Statesman Scotland

By Alistair Moffat

In Bishkek they talk of Edinburgh; on the shores of Lake Ozera Issyk-Kul they muse on the doings of the Scottish Parliament; and in the mountains of Khrebet Moldo-Too, the Highlands of Scotland find a ready comparison. Bishkek is the capital city of Kyrgyzstan. This week the Kyrgyz foreign minister appointed Meg Luckins of the Scottish Agricultural College as the country’s honorary consul in Edinburgh. Kyrgyzsrtan’s five million, mainly Sunni, Muslims – in a country landlocked by China to the east, Tajikistan to the south, Uzbekistan to the west and Kazakhstan to the north – feel that they have things in common with the Scots. But more important is that, several worlds away, in the midst of the Tien-Shien mountains, a people almost totally unknown in Scotland took a decision to have diplomatic representation in Edinburgh. Kyrgyzstan already has an embassy in London, but the creation of the Scottish Parliament, and the immediate and comfortable assumption of the role of a capital city by Edinburgh, persuaded the Kyrgyz people to create one part-time job in a country that had never heard of them.

There are now 41 consulates in Edinburgh, with Bulgaria, Ireland, Bangladesh, Brazil, Mongolia and the Czech Republic all acquiring representation since the devolution referendum. More will come because there is a developing external judgement that, if it is not already, Edinburgh will become a capital city de facto if not de jure. The Bulgarians, the Bangladeshis and the others know that key decisions are made in the city, and that business, prosperity and jobs will follow. The Irish consul should know that better than any because Dublin has boomed since it became a capital, particularly since Ireland joined the EEC (as it then was) in the early 1970s.

All of the familiar indicators are rising in Edinburgh: house prices are soaring, new restaurants are opening at the rate of one a week, unemployment is diving and cranes swing over the rooftops as building works gobble up every spare site.

But the Irish comparison should give pause to the gleeful burghers of Edinburgh. Dublin has sucked much of the heart’s-blood of the Irish economy to within its boundaries. There are real fears that the prosperity of Dublin creates a see-saw effect that tips down the rest of the country.

The most spectacular capital-effect is London. George Rosie’s research has shown that a relatively centralised government attracts all sorts of non-governmental spending to its base. The decisions by business to locate offices in seats of government, where decisions that affect that business are taken, are obvious. But less clear are the assumptions that put the headquarters of, for example, the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 in London. And given that the government controls the allocation of the broadcasting bandwidth, it could insist that the BBC or ITV move to Sheffield or Manchester or Newcastle. There is no logistical reason why that could not work as well. But there is a species of centrist thinking that prevents this sort of devolution from being considered seriously. Because Westminster government ministers live and work in London, they eventually acquire a metrocentric mindset that expects everyone and everything of importance to be there, too. And that in turn takes on a momentum that is difficult to divert. It rarely occurs to politicians with the power to do it to think radically about altering the centralising effects of government. If the Driver and Vehicle Licencing Centre (DVLC) can be in Swansea, why not headquarter the British army in Catterick instead of Aldershot?

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The Dublin and London effects are salutary for Edinburgh. All the signs of a centralising Scottish economy are assembling. And those who spent their political careers arguing that Westminster was an inappropriate place for the domestic government of Scotland to be located cannot allow Edinburgh simply to replace it. If, in the past, Edinburgh felt patronised by London or, even worse, by Hampstead and Highgate, it must not allow Aberdeen or Inverness to feel the same way about Holyrood or, even worse, Marchmont and Morningside.

The Scottish Parliament is young and still flexible, and action can be taken to mitigate any metrocentric drag into Edinburgh. Why not locate some ministries outside the city? Transport in Perth and Agriculture in Galashiels, for example. The restaurants and hotels will quickly follow. In an age of e-mail and e-commerce, there is no good reason why we cannot have a degree of e-government. And if people still feel the need to meet in groups, let them travel. When the Kyrgyz foreign minister flies in from Bishkek, he could be offered a short tour of the countryside instead of Edinburgh’s corridors.

Alistair Moffat