Charles Watt: Aberdonian, former World Bank employee, and
recent 'yes' convert
Scottish independence: Profile of a ‘yes’ convert
by Jennifer Elliott
Before meeting Charles Watt, I already had a plan in my head about how to conduct the interview. My editor and I had discussed profiling voters on both sides of the Scottish independence debate as a new regular feature and I had a mental template of how this meet should go.
However, as I burst into the Fruit Market Gallery Cafe behind Edinburgh’s Waverley Station - one of Charles’ regular haunts - and introduced myself to the former World Bank official, I found myself pleasantly surprised: A witty opening exchange was followed by a short entertaining anecdote; leading to an abrupt realisation that my pre-prepared questions would do little justice to the interview which was about to unfold.
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The main topic of discussion was to focus on the responsibility the Scottish population holds in its hands as they prepare to vote in the upcoming 2014 independence referendum. A large proportion of Scots have an already deep-rooted established position, be it yae or nae, while others are open to change or biding their time before making a final decision.
A straight-talking Aberdonian, Charles makes it abundantly clear at the outset that he is predominantly an ‘a-political being’. Like many Scots today, Charles acknowledges that there are two sides to every argument. He likes to listen and contribute as factually as possible.
Charles’s thriving IT career began in London. Though his career moved from strength to strength in the capital city, he always felt a strong desire to return to his Scottish roots:
“I wanted to come back home to contribute in some way towards the economic development of Scotland. This was not any sense of pride or nationalism, or any of these words that are twisted by many; I just had a need or a yearning to come back to Scotland.”
Scottish Enterprise provided Charles with the opportunity to come home in 2000 following a job offer from Robert Crawford. (Crawford is cited by Charles as being an inspiration to others based purely on his aspirations for Scotland.)
Charles occupied a fundamental role at Scottish Enterprise, responsible for the entire ICT sector. It was during this time that he began applying ‘ebusiness’ to Scottish Enterprise and the Scottish economy as a whole - a move that was set to attract global attention.
Ebusiness grew in importance during Charles’s next four years at Scottish Enterprise, until one day he received an unexpected phone call from a representative at the World Bank. Rob Schware was visiting the United Kingdom for a few days and wanted Charles to spare him a few hours to explain exactly how he had implemented ebusiness in the Scottish Economy.
“A few hours turned into two and a half days. Rob then asked me to go to DC to give a presentation and five or six weeks later I had relocated there and was working for the World Bank.”
The next two years were spent touring the world, implementing various forms of the economic model originally cultivated in Scotland.
“What Scottish Enterprise achieved was replicated throughout the world. I went to Namibia, Kazakhstan, Russia, South Africa, Lithuania, Mexico – everywhere really.”
Throughout his travels Charles built relations with a multitude of foreign diplomats. Incrementally, it became clear to him that Scotland had fans far and wide, and in high positions of power:
“Myself and other members of the World Bank had been invited to meet with the minister for finance in Russia at the Kremlin in 2006. We were asked to go around the table and introduce ourselves. When it came to me, the Russian minister said:
“‘Ah you’re Scottish – I have a great admiration for Scotland, particularly during the beginning of the twentieth century but going all the way back to the Enlightenment at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Excuse my accent but: ‘He screw’d the pipes and gart them skirl, till roof and rafters a’ did dirl.’’” - Quoting directly from Robert Burns's Tam O’Shanter
Charles could entertain you with dozens of anecdotes concerning foreign government diplomats, ambassadors, and world leaders. The common theme among these stories is the admiration and respect foreign officials around the world have expressed for Scotland, Scottish history, and the Scottish people.
“It’s a Scottish trait that we almost do down what Scotland has achieved. Being an outsider looking in on Scotland for many years it makes my heart sink at how we manage to do ourselves down. We don’t realise the influence that Scotland has or still has. I guess the main point is that is doesn’t matter where you go; Scottish education, history, and innovation continues to influence the world.”
When questioned about his political turning point from agnostic to 'yes', Charles refers to one particular incident. He was based in Brussels at the time David Cameron vetoed a revision of the Lisbon Treaty in December last year:
“Friends and colleagues who worked for the commission and around the EU couldn’t believe it. They all began to question David Cameron’s willingness to be part of the EU. I began to realise that something was awry.”
Charles took some time to consider Union politics, and realised that out of the eight general elections he had voted in, on five of those occasions the UK elected party was not the choice the Scottish population had voted for.
Following Brussels, Charles moved to Qatar for a short time. This stint led Charles to highlight the Qatari government as a working model for an independent Scotland. The governmental administration in Qatar invests a large proportion of their huge national income on education and growing their knowledge economy.
“Therein lies the lesson which Scotland should follow. Norway has a fund which will now last one hundred years. They have taken their money earned from oil and gas and invested it wisely. Norway now own over one percent of all assets around the world.”
When he left Qatar, Charles returned home to Scotland and began to submerge himself in the referendum debate. He opined that almost all of the comments made by the ‘no campaign’ were negative, and not based on actual fact:
“All this nonsense about we would need passports to come into England. What I found when I was digging behind the comments was the ‘No campaign’ wasn’t contributing anything positive as to why we should remain part of the union. They weren’t selling it to me.
“Alistair Darling basically said we would be foreigners in England. Is that not a dreadful assumption to make about the attitudes of English people? I am not interested in this campaign based on fear, uncertainty and doubt.”
Charles has dedicated much of his time since his return to Scotland researching speculations surrounding the referendum debate, preferring to refer to the issue as ‘self-determination’:
“I refuse to be called a separatist, my views are not set in the past. It’s denigrating the views of those that believe in the ‘Yes campaign.’ Self-determination is a positive way to look at it and a natural thing for an individual within a nation to seek.”
Six months down the line, Charles believes it would take a lot for anybody to show him why Scotland should remain part of the Union. With the stance that Scots are politically and culturally different, never mind having different legal and education systems, he does not comprehend why Scotland would remain part of an ‘artificial’ Union.
Charles’s main recommendation for any future Scottish government would be to invest wisely:
“How long the oil will last is probably one of the main questions people ask with reference to independence. Depending on what you want to believe there is probably about forty or fifty years of oil left off the coast of Scotland. Here is an opportunity for Scotland to make its assets last longer than its fossil fuels.”
The former World Bank consultant seems to have an answer to all the main topics of contention. Having made up his mind on Scottish oil assets, he combats questions related to Trident by stating:
“Seventy percent of Scots don’t want Trident. We have one solitary Tory MP. Yet the Conservative government can vote and win to go ahead with the Trident replacement. Where is the democracy in that?”
When queried about Scotland’s future in the EU, he replied: “My senior legal colleagues in Brussels have basically stated that you have to accept the civil rights side of the argument that says Scottish people are citizens of Europe. If you say that Scotland has to re-join after a period of time then you are forcing them to lose their EU citizenship which is contrary to their basic rights within the EU.”
Charles maintains that he is not pushing a separatist view as he still wants Scotland to remain part of the Commonwealth, NATO and the EU. Though the future is uncertain, Charles is a proponent of the word ‘exciting’.
“We cannot give all the answers. But why are we asking for all the answers? Ireland didn’t have all the answers. Canada didn’t have all the answers. The United States didn’t have all the answers when they gained their independence.”
Charles holds the Scottish government accountable for the outcome of the referendum, labelling it their responsibility alongside the ‘yes' campaign to explain as much as they can as to what this nation is going to look like in three years’ time:
“Eighty percent of this has got to be fact. As for the other twenty percent - people criticise us for being emotional. What is wrong with being emotional about your own country?”
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