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The problem with the SNP’s “well-being economy”

Humza Yousaf’s big idea can’t mask woolly and self-indulgent economic thinking.

By Chris Deerin

Well-being is like happiness. It’s not a feeling or emotion that tends to hang around for long. It’s usually earned, a consequence of having achieved something worthwhile. It’s an aspiration of the human condition rather than a feature of it.

For the Scottish government, though, well-being seems to be an altogether more concrete and potentially stable proposition. One of Humza Yousaf’s early acts as First Minister was to create the grizzly title of Cabinet Secretary for Wellbeing Economy, Fair Work and Energy, replacing Kate Forbes’s plain old economy and finance brief. The recast role – still effectively the equivalent of Westminster’s chancellor – was given to Neil Gray, who managed Yousaf’s leadership campaign.

The idea of well-being as a central aim of politics is increasingly fashionable in progressive circles. There is a Wellbeing Economy Alliance, a “collaboration of organisations, alliances, movements and individuals working towards a Wellbeing Economy, delivering human and ecological wellbeing”. Its stated aim is to “catalyse a transition towards a Wellbeing Economy by promoting radical connection and collaboration between different actors of the new economy ecosystem”. In my experience, language of such “radical” opacity indicates worthy but woolly and perhaps self-indulgent thinking.

Nicola Sturgeon liked the idea of a well-being economy, too. In fact, her administration joined those of Iceland and New Zealand to found the Wellbeing Economy Governments, or WEGo for short. The nationalist encapsulation of the idea is also phrased in a form that no ordinary person would ever use, or perhaps understand: “Our economic transformation aims to fundamentally reshape our economy, delivering a just transition to a net zero, nature-positive economy based on the principles of equality, prosperity and resilience.”

It’s easy to mock wonky progressive fashions. New Labour had its own brief obsessions – we all had to familiarise ourselves with communitarianism, then quickly forget it. Remember the stakeholder society? The third way?

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Similarly, will a “well-being economy” still be talked about in a decade’s time? For all the emphasis being given to it, and the attempts to define a philosophy, it’s not clear how it applies to the daily reality of politics.

[See also: Labour wants to make health great again]

Yousaf’s economic position is far from clear, beyond a sort of primal urge to raise taxes and a conviction that government should spend an ever-increasing amount of the electorate’s money. There doesn’t appear to be much thought given to the impact of ever-higher rates on Scotland’s tax base, which is especially small at the upper end, or to the ultimate size of the tax take. Nor to the middle classes, those fiscal beasts of burden, who are hardly coasting through the cost-of-living crisis. And what of foreign companies and individuals who are scanning for locations that offer a competitive environment?

Pat, if warm-sounding, phrases can also lead to charges of hypocrisy. Despite his movement’s persistent antipathy towards the capitalist instinct, the First Minister is known to be casting around widely for ideas that might boost Scotland’s lamentable economic growth and business start-up rates, and in the process improve his party’s terrible relationship with the private sector. He may not like what he hears.

Most firms, big and small, are already adjusting their environmental footprint, but for sensible operational reasons rather than because of SNP/Green ideology. This process is particularly tricky for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), who exist on small-profit margins and for whom investing in, say, new vehicles or energy systems is a painful process. The well-being of owners and employees isn’t being much enhanced, at least in the short term.

Ultimately, if companies aren’t making profits through good old-fashioned capitalism then they will pay lower taxes, as will their workers, who will be paid smaller salaries. There will also be fewer new jobs created, less investment in innovative processes, and a climate in which potential entrepreneurs are more reluctant to gamble. There will then be less for the SNP to spend on anti-poverty social programmes, such as the Child Payment, and higher welfare benefits. 

And what delivers well-being if not a state that is efficient and reliable? If you’re waiting half a year for a hip replacement, when a few years ago you might have waited a month, are you feeling good about yourself and your nation? If you are paying to send your child to an English university because there are strict caps on the number of Scottish pupils able to attend Scottish universities, this due to the SNP’s refusal to contemplate funding reform, are you bathed in the fuzzy glow of contentment? If you’re an islander who can’t visit a relative on the mainland because there are no ferries, are you sold on a “nature-positive economy based on the principles of equality, prosperity and resilience”?  

Aren’t the minimum wage (introduced by Labour) and the living wage (created by the Tories) well-being politics? Keir Starmer has pledged to ban zero-hour contracts and the practice of “fire and rehire”, extend sick pay and parental leave, and strengthen protections for pregnant women. There might be differences between the approach generally taken by parties and governments of the left and right, and heated disagreements about means, but the overall intention is surely to improve the lot of the population.

Sometimes the public’s lot can be enhanced by hand-outs, but in the long run most people are better served by the extension of opportunity, the prospect of social mobility and the sense that their aspirations have a realistic chance of being achieved. This is the hard, daily grind of politics, and always has been. It is not an easy option, and nor does it come for free – if you’re not willing to tackle the hard stuff, then no amount of soft-focus, slogan-driven blah will amount to anything. If he cares for his own well-being, Humza Yousaf should bear this in mind.

[See also: “Security”: The inside story of Labour’s new buzzword]

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