Scotland’s economic policy is now a national embarrassment

by | 2 Mar 2022

The benefit of the doubt is over; the Scottish Government has no economic credibility and unless Scotland says so with one voice it seems we will never get the change we desperately need

Yesterday’s launch of an economic development strategy for Scotland, which has been almost universally panned, should act as a turning-point in Scotland. When both the STUC and Tom Hunter (and everyone in between) are calling this report terrible, that represent a consensus position. So it should; it is a pitifully bad strategy (I explained the basics yesterday).

Most people recognise that the constant bleeding away of Scottish control of the economy is an accelerating economic failure and that the seemingly endless strings of indicators that something is deeply wrong cannot be ignored. Government tells us we are into the ‘green industrial revolution’ and yet the number of green jobs is actually falling.

Scotland seems incapable of building a ship or a wind turbine. Regions like Dumfries and Galloway or Fife are the subjects of malign neglect. It is national policy to ensure all of our most valuable productive assets are sold cheap to overseas interests. We seem to go through two or three economic advisory bodies a year with no discernable impact.

The two crucial economic development bodies (Scottish Enterprise and the Scottish National Investment Bank) shed credible leaders in under two years. No-one pretends our ‘enterprise network’ is fit for purpose. We make unhinged statements about being ‘a world leader in 5G’ as if people who know anything about it aren’t watching, like the world isn’t watching us.

The long and short of it is that Scotland’s economic policy isn’t just weak, or bad, or vague; it is an embarrassment. A national embarrassment.

Every previous attempt by this administration to produce an economic report or pursue an economic strategy has fizzled out within minutes of the fanfare. Another one is promised to take your mind off the last one. It fizzles out and so on. It is becoming farcical – don’t like our strategy? Give us six months and we’ll knock up another with even more adjectives.

There is a claim in this new strategy that it ‘could’ help us grow by a ‘whopping’ 4.9 per cent in ten years. I tried to find out what this was based on. It is one of the few assertions which has a reference attached, but follow the reference and it basically says ‘according to our modelling’. What assumptions? What growth projections for each component part of the input/output model?*

I was looking to see what of the emerging economic debate, theorising or commentary that’s everywhere in the post-pandemic world is picked up. This proved futile as no economic literature of any sort is alluded to, even implicitly. It is (in a literal a sense) economically illiterate.

Every previous attempt by this administration to produce an economic report or pursue an economic strategy has fizzled out within minutes of the fanfare

This sense is compounded the further you delve. The main report has no analysis of what is wrong, what can be improved, what reality it is engaging with. It refers people onwards to an ‘evidence paper’ where it claims we will find the analysis. But it’s a list of numbers, a lengthy compendium of basic facts and figures.

It is almost as if the Scottish Government doesn’t know what an analysis is. Measuring data is measuring data, it is ‘what?’ and ‘how much?’. And alone it is broadly useless, in the same way that ‘the sea seems to be rising’ is useless information without cross-referencing the additional information ‘because we’re in a boat and there’s a big hole in the hull’.

Why? Why are these indicators as they are? What do they mean? How do we change them? On this, nothing. No analysis, no understanding, no intellectual underpinning.

Make no mistake, this is primarily the fault of the very nature of this administration. It really is long past the point where people should be describing it as ‘tired’ or ‘out of ideas’ or ‘accident prone’ and time people accepted that from building ferries to ventilating classrooms, if this Scottish Government is involved it unquestionably will go wrong.

I’ve explained in detail why this is and I urge you to read it.

But that isn’t the end of the story of how this embarrassment is possible. This strategy is the calling card of Kate Forbes and it suggests she should be moved on immediately. She was promoted to the post with no experience or CV that suggested she was up to it and appears to be there for reasons other than that she is the best candidate for the job.

No-one had to look far to identify a better option – Ivan McKee is a Minister, has a serious and credible business background, a string of genuine successes behind him in government and is taken seriously by the business community. That he was overlooked in favour of Forbes is 100 per cent to do with the pre-succession paranoia of the First Minister.

But that doesn’t explain enough. How is something this low-grade making it out of the civil service? Surely Scotland’s economic development officials ought to be as embarrassed by this as the rest of us? Are they the problem, or at least a part of the problem? It is hard to conclude anything other than ‘yes, they are’.

I have a generally high regard for the civil service but that does not mean there are not large pockets of it which are clearly sub-par. They seem to be congregating around economic policy these days. Scotland’s sprawling agency network I have much less regard for and Scottish Enterprise has been failing to deliver even mediocrity for a good 10 or 15 years at least.

Then again, they don’t stand a chance with the leadership they are given, both politically and internally. There is an appalling smug satisfaction that hovers around the agency sprawl. It is almost as if a long track record of dismal performance that brings no consequences has made them complacent…

But as much as who is involved perhaps the problem is who isn’t involved. When the Scottish Government says ‘business’ they really mean two things. They mean ‘Charlotte Street’, the lobbyists and financiers who work for ‘the big boys’ (the global corporations). And they mean the Big Four accountancy firms who act as a proxy for ‘business’.

This Scottish Government has reached the end of the road in terms of benefit of the doubt about its economic competence – it has none

I was recently talking to a successful Scottish business leader who has, over the last five or six years, built up a successful and genuinely innovative business model. She had one question for me – ‘wouldn’t you think that someone in the Scottish Government would be interested in talking to me?’.

They aren’t, because she doesn’t have the blue-chip credentials that the Scottish Government thinks will rub off on it if there is sufficient contact. I can think of five other significant businesses I’ve been in contact with in the last 12 months and the story is the same. They are Scotland’s future but the government would rather talk to its corporate past.

This creates an unrealistic, unrepresentative view of what business in Scotland actually is. And with Common Weal or the Wellbeing Alliance or the Poverty Alliance or any of the Just Transition bodies and most of academia permanently excluded from these discussions and the STUC quite clearly dropped in as a tokenistic move (the SNP was heavily criticised for not talking to them when developing the Growth Commission), there are few fresh ideas.

There is so much more to explain, to analyse, to cover here – but little point. Scotland is now drowning in bad economic strategies developed by the Scottish Government, each one a reaction to criticism of the last. Another one would be a farce. The Scottish Government must wake up to the fact that it can’t spin its way out of this.

We must now reach a turning point. This Scottish Government cannot be trusted to provide Scotland with economic leadership. This isn’t ideological – I have problems with the neoliberal bent of the latest strategy but my objections are overwhelmingly to do with quality and credibility and people who in no way share my political beliefs agree.

Something else has to happen, something different. But before it can there must be a collective realisation that crosses all the political boundaries of Scotland. It is a simple one.

This Scottish Government has reached the end of the road in terms of benefit of the doubt about its economic competence. It has none. Once this message is echoed loudly enough by enough voices from all corners of Scotland, then perhaps we have some hope of change. Until then, see if you can digest yet another pointless word salad – and weep.


*Addendum – I have now found the modelling document on which the 4.9 per cent is based, published along with but not referenced from the main report. I might as well not have. It is simply an arbitrary measure of what would happen if basic things got five per cent better based on what we’re already doing.

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