The vision of cross-party working may be the most ambitious target in the Sustainable Growth Commission report

Written by Jenni Davidson on 4 June 2018 in Inside Politics

The Sustainable Growth Commission report sets out a plan for the economy of an independent Scotland, but would the parties work together for growth?


 

Andrew Wilson with the Sustainable Growth Commission report - Image credit: PA Images

On the day of the launch of the SNP’s Sustainable Growth Commission report, its author, Andrew Wilson, is in the Macdonald Holyrood Hotel downing painkillers for a couple of suspected cracked ribs in between broadcast interviews.

The injury was caused, he reveals, by a fall from the family trampoline due to “showing off in front of the kids”.

This suggests a more rash and exuberant side to the measured economist behind the SNP’s economic growth strategy.

It doesn’t show as he’s being interviewed. Holyrood spends the morning watching a stream of broadcast journalists coming in to conduct interviews, with a variety of emphases, geographical slants and level of detail required.

They indicate why Wilson was a good choice as chair of the commission: pleasant, reasonable, honest and fairly non-partisan for an ex-SNP MSP.

One journalist comments on how unusual it feels to have someone actually answer the question they were asked.

Wilson tells Holyrood he has had politicians from all parties contacting him to wish him well with the report launch, although he declines to name names for fear of embarrassing them.

And it’s a more sober, careful tone that comes across in the report.

The Sustainable Growth Commission report is not doing acrobatics on the trampoline until you fall off and break something; this is wearing appropriate clothing, grippy socks and bouncing straight up and down while doing nothing foolish that might lead to injury.

The report moves away from the unfettered positivism of the 2014 white paper and its promise of a land of milk and honey where Scots would wake up the morning after independence with all the power in the world, able to substantially increase public spending, unshackled from Tory austerity, shored up by North Sea oil revenue, while welcomed into the EU and a currency union with rUK.

This is an altogether different, and more cautious, affair. There is “no pot of gold, black or otherwise, at the foot of the independence rainbow”, Wilson says in his introduction.

It recognises that there isn’t a magic Scandi-wand that would see us wake up, the day after indyref2 as Denmark or Norway mark two, but equally, that there’s nothing inherent in what successful small countries have that we don’t – just that there has to be a process to get there.

While the figure of £4,100 per head increase GDP is mentioned, it is a potential prize far into the future, something to aspire to over the next quarter century rather than a bounty to claim now.

The report focuses on the “challenges as well as opportunities” of independence. It advocates keeping a check on spending until growth catches up in order to reduce the budget deficit and pay off a share of the UK debt.

Tax breaks and positivity towards incomers should be used to increase immigration. None of it is particularly sexy, but it is realistic.

However, it may risk alienating some of those on the left who joined the independence cause in 2014 at the same time as winning over others.

Explicit reference is made in the report to reducing inequality and halving poverty, but the prudence advocated is being interpreted by some as austerity – potentially a gift to left-wing opponents and a far cry from the high public sector spend that some supporters of independence hope for.

Former SNP MP George Kerevan has suggested that the plan would risk losing the support of working class voters.

“By trying to allay middle-class and media worries regarding how indy Scotland could manage its borrowing and spending, Wilson is in danger of robbing the next independence referendum of being a rallying cry of hope for working-class voters,” he wrote in The National.

Wilson emphasises, though, that he’s not saying things will get worse before they get better and the greater risk is in the status quo.

“I think it will emphatically get worse if we don’t do anything. That’s the greatest risk.

“I think when we take on this task we can move purposefully to ensure it actually gets better very quickly. I don’t anticipate very significant risk at all, beyond the ones that we already have,” he tells Holyrood.

What is notable by its absence, though, is explicit mention of EU membership, which Kirsty Hughes of the Scottish Centre on European Relations describes as ‘Banquo’s ghost’ in the report, there hovering silently in the background.

While First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was in Brussels last week to meet with the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, and reopen an expanded Scotland House, putting the case for remaining in the single market and customs union, and a move towards a second referendum on independence was ostensibly based on Brexit, the report only obliquely mentions economic damage due to Brexit and the need for open borders with the rest of the UK and Europe.

Apart from not meeting EU accession requirements for deficit initially, Hughes also points out that the commission’s recommendation that an independent Scotland should keep using the pound for at least 10 years would make it nigh on impossible for Scotland to join the EU during that period, meaning that it is put back for at least a decade after independence.

It’s a signal that everything has changed.

And this is true of the unionist camp, too. There is a re-laying of the table.

While the SNP seems to have realised it can’t just do hope, it also needs to offer sober stats, Davidson is saying the Tories need to offer more than dourness and show something positive in the union.

Ahead of the publication of the Growth Commission report, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson was in England setting out her stall for Scotland’s place in the UK and her new vision for the union.

In a speech at the Policy Exchange alongside former Labour chancellor and Better Together colleague Alistair Darling, she criticised the centralisation of UK institutions in London, called for London to “divest” some of its power, saying the union often feels like something that is “done to” people rather than something they are part of and that visits to Scotland by UK ministers can seem like visits from a foreign dignitary.

“We’ve had more devolution in Scotland, we now need more union too,” Davidson said, suggesting that, for example, as well as supporting the bid to bring Channel 4 to Glasgow, the British Museum could have a site “nearer to where most of the rest of us live” and the UK fishing industry could more logically be managed from Peterhead than the UK capital.

And giving her own vision of a renewed Scottish economy in a speech at the University of Glasgow last week, Davidson hailed the benefits of immigration and criticised the UK Government’s insistence on sticking to arbitrary caps while industries report skills shortages.

She also announced she would favour increased NHS funding over tax breaks and a housing and infrastructure agency to ensure high-quality developments and more infrastructure.

All this is very similar to what the Growth Commission is proposing, albeit one in the union and one outside of it, or at least much more devolved.

Which brings us back to, perhaps, the most challenging suggestion in the Growth Commission report, that to be as successful as countries like Denmark, Finland and New Zealand, Scotland needs to decide what its long-term economic strategy is and stick to it over decades.

Cross-party. No switching policy from election to election depending on who is in power.

Wilson admits that “sounds really difficult in the country of the argument, the country where fractious discourse dominates the debate.”

But he says it is difficult for people to get engaged and motivated when politicians shout and argue about so little.

“And there are so many things that we agree about if we can just admit it,” he adds. “You know, this week we announced growth targets, for instance.

“The Tories described them as pie in the sky, or castles in the sky, but in reality, they’ve got the same targets for the first ten years as we do.

“We all agree on migration. We all agree that it’s the right thing to do, so we can get on with doing it.”

While the Conservatives may argue with the fundamental proposition of independence, they would have difficulty taking issue with some of the content of the Sustainable Growth Commission report, which advocates prudent spending, reducing debt and deficit and measures to grow the economy.

Can there be some meeting in the middle, agreeing to agree on some issues? Is it possible to reach a shared vision that circumvents fundamental disagreements over the constitution? A sort of Better (Work) Together for Scotland?

It seems unlikely to anyone watching FMQs or PMQs week after week, but Wilson believes it is possible.

Asked if he is an optimist, he replies: “Definitely. You have to be.”

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