Peter Jones: Czechs have a lot to teach Scotland

Source: The Scotsman / By Peter Jones /

Prague airport is a bit of a shock for those of us who like to think that Scotland, and indeed Britain, are open cosmopolitan nations keen to engage with the world, especially emerging economies such as China and Russia.

Prague’s confidence too is a shock, when you compare it to politically-troubled Britain in 2016, tremulously debating whether to stay in or quit the EU.

All the airport signage, and not just a perfunctory welcome notice, has English at the top in big letters. Underneath in smaller script is Czech, then Russian, and then Chinese. As a statement of whole-hearted engagement with the world, it could hardly be clearer. Prague’s surprises don’t stop there. Before travelling, I learned a few words of Czech – please, thank you, etc – language courtesy, in my experience, goes a long way. Complete waste of time; nobody I spoke to did not speak extremely good English or was anything other than incredibly helpful.

Also surprising is that after half a century enduring Nazi and then Soviet oppression, there is little obvious evidence that it happened. There is a mournful Jewish museum and a few plaques on walls commemorating victims of Nazi atrocities, but there is hardly anything to tell you about the decades of Communist rule.
A small, dowdy, and not much Vaclav Havel advertised, free enterprise Museum of Communism full of sombre texts and red bric-a-brac is squeezed in between a McDonalds and a casino on National Street. Nothing points out the balcony (now jutting from a Marks and Spencer store) on Wenceslas Square from where playwright and civic forum leader Vaclav Havel proclaimed a joyous freedom and the victory of the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

It’s understandable. Coming out of that oppression, you would want to reduce it to a bad memory and concentrate on a much better future. Knowledge of the past is there, but below the surface, even the good and heroic parts. Though there is some nastiness in political debate, the Czechs, for the most part, see little need to wallow in hero-nostalgia, or in villain-hatred (Havel is commemorated in the name of the airport, but the language of the former oppressor is pragmatically displayed).
That pragmatism seems to be serving the Czechs well. They have the second lowest unemployment rate in the EU and one of the fastest growing economies, both rates at about 4.5 per cent at the end of 2015. Prague is clearly wealthy: the streets are full of glitzy shops selling, to me at any rate, unaffordable glamour while numerous and vast central shopping malls cater to the middle classes.

It makes Edinburgh and Glasgow city centre shopping seems distinctly provincial town centre stuff by comparison, perhaps lessons of the downsides of permitting too much out-of-town shopping and the upside of having an efficient bus/tram/metro system.

There is little doubt that all this wealth has been greatly enhanced by EU membership, gained in 2004. Without the free trade and the security the EU brings, and the Czech nation has been trampled over more than most, it simply would not be the confident and prosperous country it is today.

Within three decades, trade has switched from being 90 per cent reliant on the Soviet Union to being two-thirds dependent on the EU. Skoda vehicles, admittedly partly because of Volkswagen ownership since the 1990s, stopped being a joke long ago; the company is now one of Europe’s biggest vehicle manufacturers.

Why? It is not just a matter of taste or price. We can buy Skoda cars (they make buses, trucks, trams and metro trains too) because of the European regulations that some of us complain about so much. Because of EU regulations, we can be confident that a car made on the other side of Europe will be as safe as any made here and (VW emissions scandals apart) will comply with the regulatory standards we demand.

The same goes for the Scotch whisky which is prominently on sale in any Prague off-licence. It isn’t just freedom to travel to and enjoy the many different cultures which make up the EU which is the delight of Europe, it is the freedom to buy and sell to other European countries a great deal more easily for our mutual enrichment which is the EU’s achievement.
Yet, now we are about to put that at risk with our in-or-out referendum. An out-vote would not just mean having to fill in landing cards and be subject to greater inspections every time we travelled to a place like Prague, it would also mean greater difficulties in getting the things we want to sell into the European market place.

No doubt, there will be a lot to say about this in the coming months. And if the referendum is to be held in either June or September it will have an immense impact on May’s Holyrood elections because of the simple fact that the SNP are best-placed to lead the in-campaign.

Such polling as there has been suggests that Scots are pro-EU, one recent survey suggesting by as much as a 74-26 margin when don’t knows are excluded. That is way ahead of the 45 per cent who have voted either recently for the SNP or for independence. Labour, judging by Jeremy Corbyn’s initial announcements, seems a bit wobbly, while the Conservatives are divided and the LibDems, although valiantly pro-EU, struggle to be heard on anything.

And of course, the SNP has the perfect all-weather strategy.

If Scotland votes “in” and Britain votes “out”, Scotland can always vote for independence to stay in the EU. A June in-out vote will see the SNP push that to the fore, consigning to the margins the many questions that the SNP ought to be facing over their record on health, education and other issues, pretty much guaranteeing them another, and probably bigger, Holyrood majority.

I look at the Czechs, and am actually quite envious that they know where they are going. And, as I am sure certain readers are itching to remind me, they used to be part of the bigger state of Czechoslovakia until it dissolved to produce two separate states in the Velvet Divorce of 1993. Perhaps we have a lot more yet to learn from the Czechs and the Slovaks.