The Scottish Government published it’s ten-year economic strategy today. It claims it is ‘transformational’ – but can that be justified by the content?
Matters start with a mercifully brief Foreword by Kate Forbes (Scottish Government forewords have often become lengthy essays comprised of marketing speak) but tail off quite quickly from there. The strategy’s opening statement is that their “ambition for 2032 is for Scotland to be successful” which really shouldn’t need to be stated.
The definition of ‘success’ is equally banal, gathering together every fashionable buzz-word in a list. Many of these are straight lifts from Common Weal work but without the serious policy solutions. Words like ‘brave’ and ‘bold’ are everywhere. In fact, the use of words in this strategy could legitimately be described as being in inverse proportion to any justification for their use.
There are a number themes which can be drawn from what follows. Let’s group the content under six of these themes.
Theme one would be ‘completely unsupported statement with only tenuous links to reality’. From the ‘underpinning strategy’ section onwards the strategy continually throws around adjectives and claims which carry no discernable justification (there are almost no references in this document, only bald statements).
Perhaps even worse, there are statements presented here as fact which are not only not referenced or justified but which simply couldn’t be. As an example of that it would be impossible to produce persuasive evidence to square off the claim both explicit and implicit that an entrepreneurial culture (think business leaders mentoring school pupils again) leads to a wellbeing economy. It doesn’t.
This category involves lots of use of adjectives such as ‘bold’, ‘brave’ and ‘transformational’ which have no substance and aren’t even nearly sustained by the quality of the content. Cautious, repetitive and old-hat would be much more accurate.
Theme two would be that the theoretical underpinning of this document is pretty-well non-existent. It is absolutely filled with the boilerplate marketing speak, tables and vague graphics which are usually the preserve of low-level business consultancy tasked with boring the participants of low-level business meetings the world over.
What is entirely absent is anything approaching an intellectual analysis of Scotland’s economy, the world or current developments in economic theory globally. There is a lot of magical thinking, the process of saying ‘a’ and therefore inferring that ‘z’ must follow.
The use of words in this strategy could legitimately be described as being in inverse proportion to any justification for their use
Theme three is about recycling – ideas, that is. A very large proportion of what is contained here is virtually line for line what the Scottish Executive under Jack McConnell was doing in the mid-2000s, right down to ‘attracting entrepreneurial students’ and ‘enhancing Scotland’s profile at international set-piece events’.
This retro-futurism continues with pretty well the same catch-phrases about ‘creative industries’, ‘innovative food and drink’, ‘life sciences’ and ‘financial services’ appearing in the ’emerging opportunities’. These were identified as the emerging opportunities in about 2003. It even reheats McConnell’s ‘cluster’ strategy.
Beyond that quite a lot of the content sums up as ‘continue to’ or ‘expand what we’re already doing’. More is the perennial favourites ‘inward investment’ or ‘training and apprenticeships’ or ‘have a review’ or ‘start an ambassador programme’.
Another obvious theme isn’t ‘cluster’ but ‘clutter’. One table sets out the gargantuan list of the existing strategies with which this strategy is going to ‘dovetail’. Most of these strategies are themselves word-salads of catchphrases, promises ‘to continue to’ and statements that consist of no substance or analysis.
This sense of a sprawling mess is exacerbated by an entire section dedicated to ‘a culture of delivery’. It may not have been wise for the Scottish Government to draw attention to its track record of delivery and yet more unsubstantiated claims about great strides being taken in making economic agencies work seem isolated from the experience of the business sector.
That this section’s recommendations really boil down to reorganising the ‘Enterprise and Skills Strategic Board so that it becomes the National Strategy for Economic Transformation Delivery Board’ makes it read a little bit like something Armando Iannucci might have drafted.
And in addition to the tangled mess of boards and advisory groups that currently exist there is to be a new one, a Economic Leadership Group which will be chaired by the First Minister. This sounds like something invented by someone for the sole purpose of placing ‘First Minister’, ‘Leadership’ and ‘Economy’ in the same sentence.
A small group of elite business figures are to be given open access to the machinery of government; that is a chilling thought
Theme four is how lacking in ambition its ambition is. The target for the economic growth it thinks possible is in itself is kind of remarkable, a really pitiful (and strangely specific given there are no calculations involved) 4.9 per cent possible increase in GDP by 2032, or less than half a percentage point a year. Calling that ‘bold’, ‘ambitious’ or ‘transformation’ is much more than a stretch.
Theme five would be sheer cynicism. This strategy throws out concepts it wishes to be attached to without a shred of underlying content to justify the words. This occurs over and over again – community wealth building, wellbeing economy, resilient supply chains, quality jobs, culture of delivery. Anything the Scottish Government has been challenged over is simply thrown into this as if no-one will notice they don’t belong in the document.
Two example; the term ‘wellbeing economy’ is used repeatedly throughout and handily the strategy sets out a definition. Sadly the definition bears no relationship to the theory of wellbeing economics. Rather it redefines them as ‘the trickle-down benefits of an entrepreneurial culture driving GDP growth’.
But an even more egregious use of terminology relates to ‘ensuring resilient supply chains’. This is almost wholly a Common Weal-driven idea that we were pushing before the pandemic but even more so during. The report name-checks it – but it is about 30 pages later before anything is provided to support the assertion. And when it does it is… homeworking. It’s link to supply chain resilience is impossible to divine.
Theme five is simple; the Scottish Government is not planning for independence. There are two token mentions of independence and they are dispensed with early on. Absolutely none of the strategy is based on an assumption that independence is achieved in the next decade.
Finally theme six is the right-wing ideology. As far as there is any theoretical underpinning of this strategy it is provided by Thatcher. ‘Wellbeing and poverty reduction’ are seen as functions of entrepreneurial education, ‘good, well-paid jobs’ are seen solely as functions of economic growth and so on. This is pure trickle-down economics. It even has a specific statement about economic redistribution not being the solution.
It claims not to be absorbing the stereotype of a few thrusting business figures being the key to solving everything and then appears to do the opposite by adopting that assumption in virtually everything else. At one point it claims ‘our citizens’ will drive economic investment, but this is never mentioned again and instead it is back to asset-sales (always in the code ‘inwards investment’ or ‘green investment portfolio’).
But the real heart of this strategy is the following statement: “To ensure that the actions described in the strategy are taken, we will establish a robust governance structure co-led by business, with immediate access to Scottish Ministers, that will hold the public sector and the business sector directly to account for delivery of this strategy”.
This is the key. Because the overriding theme to be drawn out from this report is a question: how could such low-grade material make it into the public domain? The strategy reads like a student was asked to quickly summarise centre-right economic thinking from the late 1990s and a second one asked to edit in some contemporary buzzwords to disguise the right-wing nature of the approach.
If businesses were relying on this to see a genuine transformation of the economy over the coming decade they would be deeply concerned (and many will). But the lengthy sentence above is crucial in understanding that a small group of elite business figures are to be given open access to the machinery of government. That is a chilling thought.
The corporate and financial sectors will be seamlessly integrated into government ‘for the good of all of us’. This is already an insidious problem as the fire-sale of ScotWind showed. Accelerating this further will be a disaster for Scottish businesses and Scottish citizens.
This report is woeful – and yet it still manages to be a major problem for Scotland’s future.