Ever have one of those mornings when you just can’t get out of bed?
The alarm is blaring, the kids’ packed lunches have still to be made, and you have that important meeting at work but this big marshmallow of a duvet is just too toasty.
The snooze button is duly thwacked. You know it’s a bad idea. You have to get up eventually and you’re only making things worse for yourself. But another ten minutes of light dozing is far more appealing than leaping up and confronting the cold light of day. You’ll pay for it later.
The Scottish economy works in much the same way. Only, the warning bells have been sounding for years now and we have stayed hidden under the covers rather than deal with the problem.
A damning new report tallies up just what all those long lies have cost us. ‘Wealth of the Nation’, published by the non-partisan David Hume Institute, concludes: ‘Productivity is the single most important determinant of a country’s average living standards and wealth. But, despite a skilled workforce and no shortage of strategies, Scotland’s productivity performance underperforms compared with many advanced economies.’
Scotland’s economy is in worse shape than half the OECD, business investment is too low and our export base too narrow. We have plenty of modest small businesses and not enough commercial powerhouses. Productivity growth has been stalled for the past 14 years.
Report author Jane-Frances Kelly studied how other countries turned around similar problems by focussing on skills and building a political consensus around growth.
She is blunt about the consequences of not learning these lessons: ‘We are not the first country to face this challenge but – as our research shows – politicians and policymakers need to get their act together and make choices guided by evidence. Failing to do this will put the Scottish economy at risk.’
Kelly has taken our snooze button away and chucked a bucket of ice water over us. It is especially welcome after that somnambulant shopping spree Nicola Sturgeon tried to pass off as a Programme for Government.
The First Minister staggered from shelf to shelf, filling her trolley with goodies from a lengthy wish list, with nary a concern about how it would all be paid for.
Amid these dreamy promises she paused to bang the drum for independence once more. Scotland is burdened with wage stagnation, a construction sector that wouldn’t pass a surveyor’s inspection and an annual GDP growth rate one would generously describe as sluggish.
To heap on top of all this a costly break-up of the country would prove ruinous. That Sturgeon can even raise separation with a straight face is proof that, whatever else is wrong with our economy, Bute House is still the UK’s largest exporter of gall.
In the First Minister’s hierarchy of priorities, independence comes first, public spending second and economic growth doesn’t even make the top 20. Sturgeon likes announcing this pot of money and that but she seldom shows an interest in how the pots get filled. In this she is hardly alone in Scottish politics but she is the woman in charge and the one responsible for economic leadership.
Wealth generation is the economic challenge of our time. As the Kelly report reminds us: ‘Of course, decisions will need to be made about how to distribute the gains to ensure broad-based prosperity. But without growth in the first place, there will be no gains to distribute.’
On the strength of her Programme for Government and her government’s priorities and performance, it is clear that Nicola Sturgeon has little interest in and even less of an idea how to bring this about.
What is not clear is whether anyone in Scottish politics does. The Tories went in swinging for Sturgeon’s programme but were noticeably circumspect on their alternative for the economy — or anything else. If Ruth Davidson’s party wins the next election, we know they’ll rule out a second independence referendum. What we don’t know is what they’ll do on Day Two.
Scotland lacks economic direction and it is not simply because we are more concerned with spending wealth than accumulating it. Since 1999, we have expended far more energy on constitutional tinkering and social meddling than on the national accounts. Holyrood was not designed for growth and innovation; its motor purpose was sandbagging Scotland from the policy preferences of the rest of the country. The Scottish Parliament still sees itself as a handbrake rather than an accelerator.
Whenever the discussion turns to what ails the country, the response is predictable. After some chiding for ‘talking down Scotland’, we hear the compulsory demand for more powers — and not just from Nationalists. Devolution is the habit Scotland’s political class just cannot kick.
Yet, as Kelly notes: ‘[T]he Scottish Parliament already possesses significant powers to influence long-term economic performance, including education, health, housing, planning, transport and economic development’.
Scotland does not need more powers. It needs politicians and policy-makers capable of cobbling together an economic vision and using the powers of the parliament to achieve it. There are no easy solutions but Kelly tells us where to begin: ‘Scotland needs to make a choice about what it wants from its economy.’
If the answer is prosperity, then growth must be the goal and, to realise it, an acknowledgement that we cannot overtax and over-regulate businesses into success. We have to prioritise skills and understand that our failing education system is not only a social problem but a burgeoning economic crisis. New markets need to be explored, with research and development support in tow, and Scotland must be made an attractive proposition for fresh talent.
Above all is the need for stability. We cannot afford another year like the past five, where the constitution has been the only game in town. Scotland’s inert and fragile economy is especially vulnerable to shocks and another global recession would hit us hard. We can’t daydream our problems away. We have to wake up and face them.
Susan Dalgety has been a mainstay of Scottish Labour for more decades than she would thank me for saying. She was Deputy Leader when Labour ran Edinburgh City Council in the late Nineties and later chief spokeswoman to First Minister Jack McConnell.
Last week, she quit because she could no longer pretend this Labour Party was the same one she joined. ‘An unlikely coalition of grumpy old blokes in Lenin caps and wide-eyed Millennials in Converse, aided and abetted by some sinister apparatchiks, now controls our party,’ she put it acidly.
If only Scottish Labour’s nominal leader Richard Leonard had half her gumption. When the party’s MSPs backed a motion urging the adoption of an internationally recognised definition of antisemitism, Richard the Faintheart didn’t even cast a vote.
Scottish Labour spent years clawing autonomy from London only for Leonard to cede it back. At least previous leaders were ‘branch office managers’. Leonard is Corbyn’s tea boy.
Theresa May greeted the return of Strictly Come Dancing on Saturday night with a cheeky tweet: ‘Get in touch if you need any tips…’ The PM busted out some moves during her Africa trip but she’ll need fancier footwork to tango with Brussels. To say nothing of Boris, who hopes to waltz away with her job soon.
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