Politics

Tom Gordon: SNP take a risk with Dragons’ Glen plan for Scots economy



WE had the latest GDP figures for Scotland yesterday. Thanks to the Omicron variant spoiling Christmas, the onshore economy shrank in December by just under half a percent.

Two years into the pandemic, output has barely moved, with GDP a wretched 0.1% higher than in February 2020. Lord knows, we can’t go on like this.

So how lucky the Scottish Government has a plan. Or, rather, it has a plan to have lots of plans to shake-up the economy. It just hasn’t quite written them all yet.

Next week, it will unveil its overdue National Strategy for Economic Transformation, setting out its ambitions for Scotland over the next decade.

Finance Secretary Kate Forbes announced a 17-member board to help craft it last summer, and promised “bold” ideas and a ruthless focus on delivery.

In the end, civil servants drove the process, and the outsiders were left grumbling about getting the same old stodge and platitudes served up to them.

I wrote about it in this column last Thursday, warning the underwhelming result may cause friction in government between the SNP and the Greens, as the latter wanted something far more radical to help address the climate crisis.

I’ve learned more about the strategy since then. I was wrong last week. It’ll upset far more folk than just the Greens.

The left of the Yes movement, who hated the SNP’s Growth Commission, will have a field day piling into it.

Much of it is basically a summary of where things stand today, plus promises to keep doing more of the stuff that’s already happening, like promoting Scotland overseas, trying to attract talent from the rest of the UK, and upgrading transport links and digital infrastructure.

There are lots of unobjectionable aspirations and well-meaning banalities.

“Our ambition for 2032 is for Scotland to be successful,” it begins. What a twist!

There should be a strong economy with good, secure, well-paid jobs and less poverty, it goes on. A nation of tech-savvy entrepreneurs and innovators.

An overarching aim is to reorient the economy “towards wellbeing and fair work”, so everyone gets paid at least the real living wage. The goal is a society in which “everyone can participate and where economic success is shared by everyone, in every community and region”. It sounds like a Levelling Up manifesto, which in a sense it is.

Its “bold policy programmes” include making Scotland a “world-class entrepreneurial nation”, helping exporters tap new markets and ensuring people have the right job skills throughout life.

However details are in short supply. True, it’s a high-level strategy. But the lack of specifics is less than inspiring. A lot of hard work is simply kicked down the road.

Finalised delivery plans are supposed to follow within six months, but as the strategy itself was delayed for four months, don’t bank on those before next year.

Some bits are absurdly vague. One pledge is to “establish a programme to radically transform the way in which the public sector in Scotland provides support for workers and businesses”. But as to the contents? Well, that’s all TBC.

And behind the big talk, the bottom line is decidedly modest. Modelling suggests the strategy could increase the size of the Scottish economy by £10billion more than it would otherwise grow by 2032.

That’s just £1bn, or 0.6% of GDP, above trend each year. Transformational, it ain’t.

Indeed, one source tells me it isn’t really a strategy for economic transformation at all, as it won’t change any sector of the economy in a profound way, despite the many nods to a just transition from oil jobs to green jobs. Many of the areas discussed are marginal and niche, and remote from most people’s working lives.

There’s also the destabilising paradox of a strategy based on Scotland still being in the Union by 2032, despite the Scottish Government’s cheery prediction of independence by 2026.

But it would be wrong to dismiss the project out of hand. There are interesting things in it, especially for the Tories.

Perhaps stung by the criticism that, unlike her predecessor, she has little time for business, the strategy tries to cast Nicola Sturgeon’s administration as almost maniacally pro-business, with the government set to work far more in partnership with the private sector.

A key aim is to embed “a culture that encourages, promotes and celebrates entrepreneurial activity in every sector of our economy”, including government.

That means building “entrepreneurial mindsets” in children as well as adults.

There will be “a new partnership between business and our education system”, with “inspirational role models and mentors” in schools, particularly those in deprived areas.

College and university campuses should be “hotbeds of start-up creation”. Entrepreneurial training will become part of professional development in the third and public sectors.

There is a scheme to “implement metrics to reward entrepreneurial approaches and activity” in public bodies, which sounds rather like a bonus culture.

To help Scotland be “a magnet for global private capital”, there is even a plan for the First Minister to chair a schmoozy “investor panel” to help bag investment in net zero projects by bringing “investor intelligence to policy and regulatory development early in the process”.

So if you’ve got the cash, you can help write the rules. If Boris Johnson proposed it, the SNP would be screaming about corruption and corporate capture.

Meanwhile the board which will monitor the delivery of the strategy is to be co-chaired by Ms Forbes and “a figure from the private sector” and have “immediate access” to ministers.

The strategy stresses it can only work if all parts of society pull together.

But it’s hard to see even the two sides of the joint Government embracing this Dragons’ Glen vision for Scotland.

The bigger worry is that, despite its shortcomings, next week’s plan will occupy the space marked “economic strategy” for the next decade, and nothing else will be proposed instead. It will squat there fraudulently, keeping better ideas at bay for years to come.




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