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25 May 2018

Scotland’s unionists attack the SNP’s Growth Commission report at their peril

Andrew Wilson’s economic plan is a step towards piecing Scotland back together.    

By Chris Deerin

Scotland’s economy needs a firm kick up the backside. This summarises the findings of the Scottish National Party’s Growth Commission, which finally published its massive and long-awaited report this morning.

But then, whose doesn’t? If it was as easy as sprinkling some magic dust around and sitting back as productivity and investment rose, tax revenues soared and public spending was boosted to generous levels, it would have been done by now.

The weakness of the economic case for independence has long been a thorn in the SNP’s paw. The argument made by Alex Salmond during the 2014 referendum campaign veered far too close to blithe promises of unicorns and lemonade. There was a distinct (and unforgivably irresponsible) refusal to face up to or even acknowledge the kinds of problems the new state would undoubtedly have, or the precipitous decline in the oil dividend. This undermined the seriousness of the Yes campaign and helped ensure its defeat.

Andrew Wilson, chair of the Growth Commission and a former SNP MSP and economist, was tasked by Nicola Sturgeon with putting this right. Whether or not there is another referendum in the foreseeable future, the SNP high command knows it must change the nature of the economic debate if it is to win over the unpersuaded. That will take a concerted effort over a period of time, but first they needed the material. That’s what Wilson and his team have sought to provide.

First, cards on the table. Wilson is a friend for whom I have the highest respect – he is a man of outstanding intellect and fine character. He has always been on the “realist” wing of the Nationalist movement, happy to challenge Nat shibboleths, which has made him unpopular at times with the headbangers in the movement. He was the right man for this job.

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I’ve talked to him a lot over the past months as the Commission went about its work. I can say that he was of serious intent, clear-sighted about the scale of the task, and determined to produce a fair and measured document that might, in time, build bridges and help change minds. He certainly wanted to improve the tone and quality of the discussion, which too often veers into unpleasantness and base tribalism.

The conciliatory language in the final report speaks to this – the document, even if its main aim is to advance the case for separation, contains a series of suggestions for how to improve the Scottish economy within the existing devolution settlement.

Its prescription for change comes in this rather breathless statement:

“quality of governance, long-term cross-partisan strategy, a focus on innovation, being a competitive location for international investment, exploiting Scotland’s resource endowment, an export orientation, migration-friendly, where flexible labour markets combine with fair and progressive work and active employment policies, maintaining a highly skilled workforce with transferable skills, using taxation as a tool for economic development but not competing as a low tax location, placing inclusive growth at the heart of the strategy and viewing quality of life as both an asset and objective.”

If this verges on the platitudinous, there is meat provided. There is a stark comparison made between Scotland and other nations of similar scale and size. Denmark, Finland and New Zealand are particularly seen as templates for the future. Scotland lags behind and must take action to boost productivity, increase immigration and even out inequalities in the workplace. The Commission makes various predictions about a timescale for reducing the nation’s substantial deficit and balancing the public finances – although most of us now take these kinds of projections with a pinch of salt. They are informed guesswork, and at the mercy of events and the interventions of the markets.

The tricky currency question is dealt with by a proposal of retaining sterling in the short term (with monetary decisions taken by the Bank of England, which would no longer give recourse to Scotland’s data), followed by the establishment of a separate Scottish currency in due course.

An independent Scotland would rely on its renewable energy sector, its universities, its reputation for food and drink and its tourism industry. “We are at the cutting edge of games technology, photonics, life sciences, advanced manufacturing and other industries of the future,” the report adds.

Wilson’s personal introduction includes the kind of statements that would never have escaped the Panglossian Alex Salmond’s red pen.  “It is important that independence must never be seen as a magic wand or quick and easy step to success. Indeed, there is no pot of gold, black or otherwise, at the foot of the independence rainbow,” he writes. “This report focuses on challenges as well as opportunities. We must be candid about those challenges as well as optimistic about the opportunities. If people are to be persuaded of the case for independence, including reconvincing many of those who voted ‘Yes’ in 2014, they must be confident that the challenges are not being glossed over or minimised, but that there is a plan in place to address them. Hope must conquer fear, of course, but that hope needs to be grounded in clear-sighted reality and a rigorous plan.”

From this 2014 “No” voter, who remains less than reconciled to the approach of Brexit, the response to this is a straightforward “Hallelujah”. Undoubtedly, diehard Unionists will find easy targets in the Commission’s findings and throw them back in Sturgeon’s face, but that would be a mistake.

Being part of the UK is no picnic at the moment. And being part of a divided and angry nation isn’t much fun either. Scotland needs to piece itself back together and rediscover our shared identity, whatever our constitution preferences. Even if Wilson doesn’t manage to change many minds on independence, he has done a good job for the First Minister, and has done the rest of us the service of behaving well and showing how this torrid debate could be conducted with a little more decency and regard for one another. That’s not nothing.

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