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by Jennifer Wallace
22 March 2023
Whoever becomes first minster, we need to put wellbeing at the centre of our economy

Whoever becomes first minster, we need to put wellbeing at the centre of our economy

Scientists proved this week that insufficient action is being taken to prevent catastrophic climate change.

At the same time, economists argued 15 years of wage stagnation have left British workers £11,000 worse off a year while officials warned that the rising cost-of-living is becoming a public health crisis. 

There can be no doubt now that successive governments have failed to tackle the major social and economic challenges of our times. 

There is a need for elected leaders to come forward who understand that the current economic model that prioritises the growth of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) above all else can no longer deal with multiple, complex societal problems.

In recent years we were lucky enough to benefit from a small group of just these type of leaders that talked a different language and accepted the need for reform. Collectively they styled themselves as Wellbeing Economy Governments, and all but one of the original group were led by women.

Nicola Sturgeon in a TED talk 2019 said: “…what we choose to measure as a country matters. It really matters, because it drives political focus, it drives public activity. And against that context, I think the limitations of GDP as a measurement of a country's success are all too obvious...”

In the same year Jacinda Ardern, then Prime Minister of New Zealand wrote in the Financial Times: “We must accept that the race to grow our economies makes us all poorer if it comes at the cost of our environment, or leaves our people behind.” 

Building on the influential work of Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and Jean-Paul Fitoussi, written in the teeth of the financial crisis, each leader eloquently outlined the limitations of growth-alone politics and policy.

These leaders and economists argued that governments’ key aim should be to improve the wellbeing of their people, now and in the future. To do that, they need to measure the right things to inform the right policy response.

But now in the middle of another crisis, we’ve seen both Nicola Sturgeon and Jacinda Ardern announce their retirement from political leadership.

With a change in leadership comes a risk – at least in Scotland - that governmental commitment to a wellbeing approach gets swept away.

What now for a movement which makes the case for social, environmental and democratic imperatives to be considered alongside the needs of the economy? What next for an ethos that prioritises long-termism and preventative public policy?

There is a lesson here for all of us that believe in the importance of new economic thinking and a better way for public services. We need to work hard to make our arguments, grounded in evidence, more appealing to a wider cross-section of politicians and other decision-makers.

All elected members are already making judgements where they’re implicitly making trade-offs between social, economic, environmental, and democratic priorities.

Every planning decision, every budget vote, every committee session involves explicit and implicit decisions about the trade-off between our social, economic, environmental and democratic wellbeing. Too often, economic growth is still a trump card guaranteeing the funding success denied to the longer-term, preventative work that would improve people’s lives.

For wellbeing advocates, it is our job to call out this card for what it is – a hollow promise that eventually (and if we’re patient) we will all benefit from a strong economy despite the overwhelming evidence that the economy needs healthy people and a healthy planet as much as we need a healthy economy.

During the current SNP leadership contest we’ve seen political pundits contrast the candidates’ economic credentials. But our collective wellbeing is too important to be a political football.

While the rhetoric of a wellbeing economy is new, Scotland’s system of measuring social progress beyond GDP is 15 years old. Quietly, and away from the buzz of politics, our National Performance Framework steers decision-making away from ‘growth first’ thinking.

But gently steering isn’t enough for these times. In Scotland, we haven’t yet seen wellbeing realised as the core objective of Holyrood budgets nor have we seen the widespread adoption of the National Performance Framework as the underlying framework for decision-making in Scotland. A long-promised government Wellbeing Bill seems further away now that it was two years ago.

No matter the result of this week’s SNP election, we need to see a renewed focus on collective wellbeing from the administration in Edinburgh. That means showing that they are serious about the transition to net zero. It means further action to reduce inequality and tackle poverty.

It means pulling every lever to address the cost-of-living crisis especially for the most vulnerable in our society. Right now, it's not a course correction we need most from the next FM, it’s a plan for acceleration.

Jennifer Wallace is director of policy and evidence at Carnegie UK. She is among those taking part in Holyrood Events' Transforming Scotland's Economy

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