Alex Neil: There's a perception that the Scottish Government has lost some of its mojo
Ever since the Brexit referendum, the debate around independence has focused entirely on the timing of indyref2. Hopefully the publication of Andrew Wilson’s Growth Commission report will refocus both the SNP and the wider independence movement on the economic, social and political case for it. A decision on the timing of indyref2 is secondary at this stage to putting in place the necessary building blocks for victory when the referendum finally happens. The most important of these will be our ability to demonstrate how and why Scotland will be better off being independent.
Winning the argument for independence has to start now, not left to a few months before the referendum. The best way to do that is for the SNP Government to use its existing powers to the maximum as a demonstration to the Scottish people of how big a difference independence can make to improving people’s lives in Scotland. That means addressing the three biggest challenges facing Scotland today. These are the very low levels of economic growth forecast by the Scottish Fiscal Commission for the next four years, the consequences of which will be severe; the unacceptable levels of poverty, especially child poverty, we have in Scotland; and the need to rise to the challenge of Brexit.
Rightly or wrongly, there is a perception that the government has lost some of its mojo and reforming zeal in recent times. It needs to get it back and do so quickly. Its success in delivering economic and social reform over the next three years is vital to the success of indyref2, whenever it comes.
The SNP Government is doing a lot of good things but it will stand or fall on the big-ticket items of the economy and public services. After eleven years in government, it’s not credible to argue that failure to deliver is the fault of our predecessors in government at Holyrood or that Westminster is always to blame. We need to move the argument on to the positives. That includes toning down the obsessively negative language about Brexit, which is costing us support.
If we are to win over people who voted No in 2014 to voting Yes next time, we need to be much more optimistic, dynamic and upbeat in what we say and do.
Here are just some ideas for the government to consider.
A top priority is to shift the burden of taxation from the workers to the wealthy, to help create a fairer Scotland. That means taxing profiteering from land. Whether it’s making excessive profits by getting planning permission for development land or leaving potentially productive land to lie vacant or derelict until it rises in value or making a huge private profit from land on which there has been significant public investment by the taxpayer, it is fair to impose a levy on such activities and if done imaginatively, is well within the existing powers of the Scottish Parliament. Even if such a tax only raised £1 billion a year (although I think it could raise much more) these revenues could be used to significantly increase much needed investment in vital public services.
Such a tax would also of itself increase economic growth as it would incentivise landowners to invest in developing their land instead of hoarding it for speculative gain.
The most effective way to bolster economic growth in the short run is by expanding the construction industry. To help achieve this, the Scottish Government should set up a new national housebuilding agency to boost housebuilding in Scotland. Ideally organised as a joint venture between the Scottish Government, local councils, housing co-operatives/associations and the private sector, its remit would be to at least double the housebuilding programme over the next five years. This would add to and not replace the existing social housebuilding programme.
As with similar agencies in other countries, it would offer people looking for a home a choice of tenures including renting, buying, shared ownership/equity or rent-to-buy. It would also be given a leading role in addressing the critical shortage of construction industry skills in Scotland.
A recent report suggested we need 12,500 new building industry trainees just to achieve existing housebuilding targets.
Setting up a new national infrastructure company as a partnership between the public and private sectors could also boost levels of investment in Scotland by making imaginative use of planning and development powers to fund new investment in roads, energy, broadband and water. Bringing forward the setting up of the new National Investment Bank is also essential to help increase levels of business investment in Scotland.
A bold effort, as suggested in the Growth Commission report, to recruit new migrants into Scotland to fill some of our skills shortages in key industries, should be started now, albeit it will require the co-operation of the UK Government to maximise its success pending the Scottish Parliament getting some control over immigration policies.
A start needs to be made to tackle child and family poverty by providing an income supplement to those living in ‘persistent poverty’ as an urgent first step, coupled with rapid implementation of policies to increase the number of workers receiving the real Living Wage.
Our enterprise agencies need to implement a comprehensive programme to help Scotland’s small and medium-sized enterprises prepare for Brexit. Once the details of the Brexit deal are known, we then must develop a sector-by-sector plan along with business leaders and the trades unions to face up to the challenges and exploit the opportunities which will then arise.
And much more besides.
It’s now an overused cliché but the key to our future success is “the economy, stupid”. If we win the economic case for independence, we will win the referendum.