Tram graphic

Scottish referendum: business opinions from both sides

On the eve of the Independence referendum we hitch an imaginary ride on one of Scotland’s engineering novelties – a Spanish-built Edinburgh tram – and take our own straw poll of what the passengers think.

In November 2002, I joined Glasgow’s The Herald newspaper as a writer at large. I worked from the paper’s Edinburgh offices, and my first column was triggered by a real-life incident at Waverley station: an engine got somehow uncoupled from its train and travelled several miles without a driver. The Flying Scotsman turned the Fleeing Scotsman, so to speak...

What, or who, was it fleeing from? And where was it heading for?

I used this incident as a metaphor to compare Scotland of the early 2000s to a driverless locomotive. It appeared then that the country, in the throes of devolution and with its parliament controlling a meagre 10 per cent of the budget, had largely lost its direction and was developing haphazardly: one step forward, two steps back.

Another, even more relevant, railway incident occurred in 2003: an Edinburgh-Glasgow shuttle, on which I was travelling, got stuck at Falkirk High – and then backed all the way down to Waverley, the explanation being that the driver made a “wrong turn”. Of course, I hurried to use that episode as another metaphor, for I had come to see Scotland as a “shuttle” that went half-way towards the junction of independence (read: devolution), but then, due to uncertain and inexperienced driving, made a wrong turn and was forced to reverse to where it had started from.

In June 2014, the mood in Edinburgh and in the whole of pre-referendum Scotland was very different. The uncertainty about the future was still there, for 100 days prior to 18 September (the polling day) it was still difficult to predict the result, but at least both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ camps seemed to know what they were doing and were sure about the direction in which each of them was heading.

I didn’t have to go far in search of yet another transport metaphor to reflect the state of Scotland in the run up to the referendum. On arrival, having puffed up three steep flights of steps from Waverley Station to Princes Street with my suitcase, I looked up – and here they were: two brand-new Edinburgh trams, sliding past each other in opposite directions. ‘St Andrew Square’ ran the destination plate above the driver’s cabin of one of them; ‘Edinburgh Airport’, went the other. To my metaphor-hungry eyes, they could just as well say ‘Yes’ and ‘No’. Or ‘Union’ and ‘Independence’, if you wish.

I was aware of the Edinburgh trams’ ‘hell on wheels’ engineering saga: skyrocketing costs, which rose from £375m to nearly £1bn (£776m plus £200m in loan interest), and huge disruption to the city centre for nearly six years, while Edinburgh’s Lothian Buses were (and still are) cheaper and much faster. I knew of the ongoing inquiry into the ill-fated tram project. And yet, I couldn’t help admiring those gleaming Spanish-built electrical newcomers. Possibly because I have always had a soft spot for trams. In the city where I grew up trams were part and parcel of everyday life, and one of the most memorable sounds of my childhood was that of a tram screechingly turning the corner. I had my first date at a tram stop. It was snowing heavily and she didn’t turn up. The trams were rattling past trying to reassure me with their bells. Having lost all hope, I boarded one myself at last. It was freezing inside and clouds of vapour were coming out of the passengers’ mouths, as if they had small internal combustion engines hidden under their coats.

While on a tram, I was always looking for a lucky ticket. The secret was simple: you had to add the two first digits of the ticket’s number, and then the two last ones. If they added up to the same sum, the ticket was lucky, and you were supposed to... eat it!

Back in Edinburgh, the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ Referendum trams are travelling in opposite directions. The drivers are easily recognisable: Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond backing independence and former Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling heading the ‘No’ campaign.

Glory to the intrepid passengers bravely looking out of the windows and not trying to cover their faces. As for the more cautious ones, not quite ready to stick their heads out for fear of post-referendum repercussions, we will refer to them generically: Engineer, Scientist, Islander etc. After all, it is the voters’ opinions, not their names, that count.

Apart from Drivers and Passengers, each tram carries Conductors (social scientists, journalists and researchers). They can be found on both types of tram and are not supposed to take sides.
Attention: the doors are closing. Welcome on board the Referendum trams!

On a ‘Yes’ tram to St Andrew Square

“Referen-dum... referen-dum-dum...” rattle the wheels. The salon of the ‘Yes’ tram is noisy. It is carrying a large group of senior Edinburgh school children, the participants in the 2014 Donald Corrie Schools Debating Competition. “This house believes that by the year 2025 it will be clear that independence has been beneficial for the majority of Scots” was the motion, confidently won by the ‘Yes’ vote supporters despite some reservations as to whether the Scottish students would still enjoy free higher education in an independent Scotland. I attended the debate and was pleasantly surprised by how well-informed and passionate the protagonists seemed to be. Unlike many adults, they were not afraid to speak out and make their opinions heard publicly.

The Conductors are busy making sure the kids, most of whom appear to be over 16 and hence eligible to vote in the referendum, have paid their full fares.

“What do you think of these new trams?” I ask Dr William Duncan, chief executive of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE), who is also one of the Conductors.

“I think they are too slow, at times travelling at 5km an hour and taking over 40 minutes to get to the airport, whereas the buses take 25. They also make loud noises at turns...”

I ask Dr Duncan about the role of the RSE in the forthcoming referendum. From his capacious Conductor’s bag he produces a thick paperback, ‘Enlightening the Constitutional Debate’, with articles on every single aspect of the independence vote. “Apart from this booklet, we have also printed a number of more specific pamphlets,” he says and reaches for his bag again. I randomly open the ‘Science and Higher Education’ pamphlet, which quotes Alex Salmond as saying (courtesy of Robert Burns) that “the rocks will meet wi’ the sun before Scottish students are required to pay university fees, like their counterparts in England”.

“Why don’t you show this to the school kids on this tram?” I suggest.

In the same brochure, I find the opinion of Professor Stephen Salter FRSE, Emeritus Professor of Engineering, University of Edinburgh, who seems to be all in favour of independence and therefore could also have a seat on the ‘Yes’ tram. Among other things, Prof Salter assures that his experience of seeking research funding from the UK had been “miserable”. I point out this comment to Dr Duncan.

“We recently had a UK Cabinet Minister addressing the Society. He said that with just 8.5 per cent of the overall population, Scotland gets 14 per cent of the UK research funding,” he shrugs before moving down the aisle towards the animatedly chatting students.

“Who said ‘funding’ here?” I am approached by another Conductor – a smartly dressed young man who introduces himself as Omidvar Tehrani, research fellow of the University of Edinburgh and one of the authors of the ‘Science, Research and Scottish Independence’ report. He tells me that to justify high levels of research funding, independent Scotland would have to improve its reputation in the field of innovation first. “There are not too many headquarters of big companies in Scotland, mainly subsidiaries,” he continues, and explains: “Subsidiaries tend to create jobs, but not innovation.”

“Shouldn’t you be riding in a ‘No’ tram?” I ask Tehrani.

“I don’t take sides,” he says. “In fact, I won’t even be voting in the referendum. I am only in Scotland on an assignment and normally live in Manchester.”

“Next stop is Haymarket,” crackles the intercom.

I wish Tehrani a good stay in Scotland and start walking along the salon, bending precariously at the road curves. This doesn’t stop some passengers from digging through piles of papers or typing on their laptops (all Edinburgh trams have free Wi-Fi).

I recognise Nigel Stein, chief executive of GKN, one of the UK’s biggest engineering companies, who had stated publicly that his business would carry on as normal after a ‘Yes’ vote. Next to him are a North Sea oil and gas executive from Aberdeen (“independence would be positive rather than negative”) and a Scottish Islander – representative of Orkney, Shetland and Western Isles, which, in the case of a ‘Yes’ vote, stand to get 100 per cent of the Crown Estate income and rent from the seabed around their shores for the likes of underwater cables, pipelines, fish farms, piers, wave, wind and tidal devices etc. No wonder the wind-beaten Islander’s face is beaming in anticipation.

Not too many Engineers on the ‘Yes’ tram, I have to conclude. That is why my old acquaintance Professor David Benyon, director of the Centre for Interaction Design at Edinburgh Napier University, is highly conspicuous by his presence in the front row, next to the driver.

On spotting me, he looks up from his laptop and says: “I think an independent Scotland could do very well on the world stage, particularly in computer science research where we have a very strong professional body – ScotlandIS – and a strong collaboration across all the universities – SICSA – making computer science in Scotland as big as Stanford in the USA with around 150 PhD students and significant amounts of world-class research.

“The issue of funding needs addressing as it is not clear that UK Research Council funding, as well as National Lottery and EU funding, would be available. An independent Scotland will have to address this. We are very good at winning competitive funding, but we have to be able to join the competition.”

I can only add here that Prof Benyon is English, not Scottish, by birth.

At the penultimate stop, Birgit Gaiser boards the ‘Yes’ tram. Gaiser is a post-doctoral research associate at Herriot-Watt School of Life Sciences, an expert in nanotoxicology and an E&T contributor. Originally from Germany, she has been living and working in Scotland for many years.

“Having been undecided for some time, I have now boarded the ‘Yes’ tram,” she says. “Not sure what exactly independence would mean for R&D, but I don’t like the way UK politics are currently going: higher university fees, strict immigration laws, threats to leave the EU, which would inevitably lead to a decrease in funding in the UK industries...”

“You must be aware that the ‘Yes’ campaign has not been doing too well in the latest opinion polls,” I tell her.

The tram driver must have overheard me. “There’s still all to fight for!” he shouts in the intercom. “Long live independent Scotland – one of the world’s wealthiest countries!”

With this, we arrive at St Andrew Square where I change for a ‘No’ tram back to Edinburgh Airport – Scotland’s gateway to the rest of the world which could soon include the rest of the UK.

On a ‘No’ tram to the airport

In fact, I should be calling this second electric vehicle a ‘No, Thanks’ tram – after a somewhat softened No-campaign logo.

“Referen-dum... re-fe-ren-dum...”

This tram’s salon seems more crowded (yet – strangely – much quieter) than the ‘Yes’ tram. Can it be due to the fact that it carries a number of guest riders from England, namely visitors from London, Corby and Berwick-upon-Tweed? What are they doing in Scotland, on board a ‘No’, sorry ‘No, Thanks’, tram, you may ask?

Corby, Northamptonshire, where 12.5 per cent of residents are Scottish, staged its own mock referendum on Scottish independence in July, with 414 voters rejecting it and only 162 voting in favour. 

London is represented by a small, yet posh-looking, group of the WILLIES, which, contrary to what you might have thought, stands for ‘Work In London Live In Edinburgh’. Yes, there is such a category of long-distance weekly commuters which includes, as I heard, several extremely well-paid engineers. For them, of course, Scottish independence would spell disaster and an almost certain end to their peripatetic lifestyle.

The visitors from the English border town of Berwick-upon-Tweed – an age-long apple of discord between England and Scotland (the town has changed hands 13 times) - are all directors and/or managers of the town’s engineering companies. “We don’t want any change, for most of our clients are in Scotland. We also want to keep hiring Scottish lads as our apprentices,” says Bill Parkin, managing director of SWP Engineering Services, England’s most northerly engineering company, which specialises in structural steelwork. He is also a director of the supporters club for Berwick Rangers, the town’s own football club and the only English team that competes in a Scottish football league.

Parkin’s neighbour is Simon Maden, director of Maden Eco – a low-energy construction company. He and all the other Berwick-based engineering executives on the ‘No, Thanks’ tram add their voices to the ‘No’ chorus. For them Scottish independence would be nothing short of a disaster – a natural response to expect from residents of the town that is still getting most of its electricity from Scotland and all of its gas from England, and whose most famous historic bridge, the 1820 Union Bridge over the River Tweed, along which the England-Scotland border used to run, features intertwined roses and thistles above the inscription Vis unita fortior – ‘United strength is stronger’.

There’s another closely knit group among the passengers – the Academics Together, whose name speaks for itself and for themselves too. Its members are Scottish scientists concerned about the likelihood of increased difficulties in securing research funds for their projects if Scotland votes for independence. Their rationale is simple: a large country of over 60 million people can afford more than Scotland, which is 12 times smaller – a point I find hard to argue with.

The ‘No’ tram has an impressive engineering presence. Here is Bryan Buchan, the head of Scottish Engineering, a support group for the Scottish manufacturing engineering industry, who publicly spoke against the independence on BBC Radio Scotland in June, his biggest concern being the possible loss of the pound as Scotland’s currency. He asserted that, according to the majority of his organisation members, “independence would not be in the interests of the manufacturing industry in Scotland” – a statement that was later supported by the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders wanting to keep their UK contracts intact, and by other engineering firms.

Buchan is sitting next to Keith Cochrane, CEO of Weir Engineering, who thinks that a ‘Yes’ vote would cost Scottish businesses dearly, and intends to vote ‘No’.

“Don’t lean against the glass” runs a sign above the window next to Cochrane’s seat. Well, he isn’t. Instead, he is leaning against the ‘Oxford Economics Report’, published by the FTSE 100 engineering group – all about the potential harm and the excessive costs of a ‘Yes’ vote to Scottish businesses.

As the ‘No, Thanks’ tram approaches its final stop, the airport, the driver taps his microphone gently, with a resulting ear-grating noise. “Goodbye, and don’t forget to leave behind all your doubts as to a ‘No’ vote,” he declares.

Uncertainty rules

I linger for some time at the final stop, not sure which tram to take back, and get surrounded by a crowd of equally uncertain Edinburghers. “We still don’t have any precise facts, just calculations,” says a man in a nice three-piece suit who introduces himself as Journalist.

“I am very much undecided, too,” echoes a woman next to him. She is Dr Helen Bridle, an Edinburgh-based Royal Academy of Engineering Research Fellow studying the detection of pathogens in water. “I am concerned about research funding if Scotland becomes independent. On the other hand, independence could be a welcome challenge and a great opportunity for Scotland.”

With neither ‘Yes’ nor ‘No’ trams in sight, uncertainty rules at the final tram stop. 

While in Scotland, I was invited to attend a meeting of the Engineering Policy Group Scotland in the IET’s offices in Glasgow, courtesy of the EPGS chairman Derek Elder. The Chatham House Rule prevents me from revealing who said what, but I don’t think I would seriously breach any rules if I say that everybody at the meeting agreed on one thing: no matter what the result of the referendum will be, Scotland – and the whole of the UK – would still need lots of qualified engineers.

And lots of trams and trains too (I am adding this bit myself).

Remembering my childhood’s lucky number game made me realise that 18/09 – the date of the referendum – meets the criterion: the sum of both the first and last two digits is 9. I see this as a good omen, and hope that on that day Scotland draws a very lucky ticket to the future.

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