It is often said we should from time to time take a step back and try to” see ourselves as others see us”. This is much easier said than done, however last week I was able to experience it in a small way experience that, when I got to see Latvia through the eyes of an educated and worldly British Journalist.
I was asked by one of the major Scottish newspapers to arrange a trip for their Business Editor to Latvia. The angle for the story was that if Scotland voted for independence it too would become a small Northern European country at the edge of Europe, and as such would be subject to the same sorts of pressures and opportunities as Latvia.
There was also a sub plot, which was why on earth would any country still be considering applying for membership of the Euro. This perhaps was more down to the British prejudice against the single currency rather than a detailed examination of the economic facts.
I wanted to give the Journalist as full a picture as I could over a three day visit, and was able to arrange a number of meetings with politicians (including the Prime Minister) senior business people, academics and ordinary Latvians.
I of course wanted to present as positive picture as I could of the country, but realised soon into the trip I was going to be unable to control the journalists questioning or perhaps more worryingly the Latvian propensity to always paint any picture as darkly as possible.
It is a character trait I often wish I could change, there is nothing more frustrating, than working hard to persuade an international company that Latvia is a market they should seriously consider, and then for an educated Latvian to sit down with them and tell them that the country is “going to hell in a hand basket”.
However I was fascinated to see the country again through the eyes of someone else, my visitor’s view of Latvia was that of a country with so much to look forward too, with so much going for it, and with a political maturity which some of the more developed democracies could learn from.
He was truly amazed at the Latvian government and people’s ability to knuckle down and cope with a crisis which relatively speaking dwarfs those facing other countries. The cuts made and accepted would cause civil unrest in a country like Scotland, where a threat to freeze teachers’ pay for a year is enough to bring people out onto the streets.
He also liked the pragmatic realism of the business leaders he met, realising there were still issues to be tackled, but also understanding that with the right vision the country can truly create a niche for itself that will allow the economy to grow and prosper.
The almost universal acceptance by all the people he met that the Euro was the only way to go impressed him, and made him understand that small countries need to anchor themselves to something; otherwise they will be tossed around on the massive waves of the global economy.
But perhaps most interestingly, despite the positive view of Latvia, it also underlined to him that Scotland is not and probably never will be able to cope with becoming independent, the idea of is appealing, but the trials and tribulations which Latvia has been through and successfully negotiated show a country with an entitlement culture like Scotland would simply be unable to make the decisions needed when the tough times come.
So I take two lessons from the visit, firstly those of us who live in or work in and care about Latvia have a duty to be more positive about what Latvia has achieved through the crisis, and secondly this type of austerity independence is only for a certain type of society, and in Scotland we simply could not cope with it.