When everyone’s economic policy is basically the same

Robin McAlpine

Ever since my visit to the battery laboratory I have had an increased focus on ‘it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it’. If you want to get the basics on why battery science is easily as much engineering (how you do it) as it is chemistry (what you’re trying to do), check the link. This is something that people who are close to the delivery of government think about a lot. Politicians? Less so.

This is very heavily on my mind as I plough my way through the economic pitches which have come rushing to the forefront of the domestic political debate in Scotland this week. What I’m looking for is some sense that those involved don’t only realise that things aren’t working, but why they’re not working.

And I’m really struggling. Basically the three main contenders all take a single, simplistic approach to why Scotland’s economy isn’t working – and it’s ‘the other guy’. All three (SNP, Scottish Labour and Scottish Tory) have at their heart the same basic proposition.

That proposition is that the only thing wrong with the economy is that they’re not in charge. If they were in total charge they’d do the thing that they are ideologically committed to do and by doing that they would deliver economic success. Obviously they’re selling themselves as solutions to be chosen in elections, but I’m struggling to get beyond their sense that ‘lack of them’ is the problem. I can’t see any real vision.

But first, in reality these aren’t actually economic strategy papers but ‘speech props’. They exist to put out enough material to sustain a speech by the party leader rather than because you could hand them to someone and they could realise them. You need to piece them together with other pronouncements from the party concerned. In the case of the SNP they’re not so much speech prompts as word salads there to justify what they’re doing anyway. None are anything other than pretty vague.

So let’s kick off with what is basically identical. What is identical is the outcome. Every one of them is going to achieve a revolution in a series of existing industry sectors, like energy or financial services or tourism. All of them are going to achieve this revolution through the power of ‘economic growth’. All of them claim that the way to achieve economic growth is by ‘listening’.

So all off them (in varying ways) want the economy to be run by various committees of business people. Different committees, their own committees, but basically the only difference is who they’ve persuaded to go on their committees.

All three see a key part of this as education-driven growth (‘if we train them, they’ll create growth’) and all three believe that somehow this will all be better as a result of ‘regional clusters’. Even more than that, all three see regional development as the key, with words such as ‘repopulation’ sprinkled around the place.

So what exactly is different about them? Not an awful lot, and it’s all very ‘three bears’. The Tories want to reduce the state a lot, Labour either a little bit or keep it exactly the same, the SNP keep it exactly the same or grow it a little. All claim that their version of how big the state should be will eventually enable a lot of better public services (by doing the opposite things).

Likewise there are variations on how they see regulation, and the pattern is the same – Tories slash regulation, Labour surgically scalpel regulation into greater efficiency, SNP make regulation more efficient but keep it coming (for ‘the environment’ or ‘human rights’).

Predictably, their attitude to UK-wide cooperation also varies, but not exactly as you might think. Here (though I suspect it’s just tone) the Tories seem to be more ‘make devolution work through joint committees’ and Labour seems to be more about ‘get Holyrood to know its place in Starmer’s palace coup’. The SNP is like a kid saying he’ll share his toy but clinging to it like a limpet.

Otherwise, everything in these plans is pretty well exactly what you’d expect to be in the economic plans of the three main Scottish parties. (The Greens don’t do economic strategies and instead favour slogans, while the Lib Dems don’t really pretend to be that relevant.) And what that means is that all of these plans are basically ‘continuity Scottish economic development strategy’.

So how can they be different but the same? It’s fairly easy – one believes the Laffer Curve is real so is Trussite, one believes that ‘stakeholder capitalism’ works so is Blairite, and one thinks ‘corporate domination with protection for citizens’ works so is EU Orthodoxy. And in the end, Trussite economics, Blairite economics and EU economics are barely different from each other.

All assume that government is there to incentivise or disincentivise markets, seldom to intervene and only in event of a crisis. Otherwise, the markets must do all the work. All believe that productivity is a product of education, that all investment is good investment and that everyone in the economy has the same interests.

But above all it assumes that economic growth makes things better. All of these assumptions have been pretty roundly discredited in the last two decades. It is corporate leadership which has led to low productivity. The markets have not followed the public interest, or worked particularly well. Lots of current investment is the problem, not the solution. And after 50 basically straight years of economic growth, things didn’t really get better.

It’s a failed ideology. And it is so because everyone’s interests are not the same. This is perhaps most laughably highlighted by the Sarwar speech. He excoriates the government for not doing more on the ‘cost of doing business for small businesses’. Which caused me to laugh out loud because the responsibility for that lies with the energy corporations to which he’s handing the economy.

He does it again when he praises the growth potential of the financial sector while screaming blue murder about the damage done by the banking crisis. Which is it? Virtuous corporations operating in a free market for the good of all or predatory bastards the public (and other businesses) need protected from by government? It’s can’t be both.

Meanwhile, if all it needs is good incentivisation in free markets, what did Labour get wrong when it was in power, bequeathing Cameron’s Tories with a pretty failing economy? Or what did the Tories get wrong to be handing over another basket-case economy back to Starmer? And if the SNP is the answer, why does there appear to be barely a businesses of scale left owned in Scotland?

More to the point, since there isn’t really a new thought or practice among the lot of it, what on earth would make us think that doing the same thing is going to result in different outcomes? I mean, regional economic clusters? That was the most significant part of the economic agenda in the 1990s. How long is this going to take to work?

This isn’t economics, this is politics. No-one in business seems to trust the SNP administration in the slightest and so the opposition parties have hammered out some PR material to try and take advantage. And they’re all promising the same thing anyway – an energy-housing-financial-services-driven future which funds great public services, all by doing variations on more of the same.

I’m slightly underplaying some of the differences (on granting oil licenses for example), but this still all amounts to the claim that if the SNP was running everything and didn’t have Tories sharing power, or if it was a Labour-wee-Labour share, or a Tory-Tory share then all would be fine. By doing what they always do, but better.

But the most useful thing in all of this comes from the Scottish Tories. The other thing they all do is extrapolate – ‘if we were like…’ then pick EU/UK or ‘the olden days’ as the metric to come up with the spoils to be won. It’s because the Tories do this most ineptly that they are the most useful.

They make the straightforward claim that if this all works, we could be more like the UK (it would work out basically the same if it was the EU). And what would that look like? It would create 53,000 more Scottish businesses employing 54,000 extra Scots.

But hold on, that’s basically one employee per business, no? And with that, the Scottish Tories reveal the problem with the lot of them. The economic model we are following is an extractive model which uses long, complex ownership structures to enable powerful players to take the most possible out of the economy while putting the least possible back in.

We’re not ‘nearly there’. We won’t generate new industry sectors (which we need) by handing the keys of the economy to the existing industry sectors (which will look after their own interests). We won’t create valuable jobs through either deregulation or inward investment. Skills training doesn’t create productivity gains in an economy which can’t use the skills. Growth is creating poverty. Cutting regulation doesn’t improve productivity.

If you’ve run an economy in one way for 50 years and literally everyone argues that there is something really wrong with that economy, proposing to do it all over again is surely actual madness. Yet that’s your lot if you’re Scottish.

We all want a flourishing renewable energy industry in Scotland. The economic merits of that are easy, well known, well tested. Like the chemistry of a battery. The problem is that we don’t have that industry sector despite all the promises. Doing the thing again which failed won’t ‘fail better’ this time.

Repeat for the rest of the economy and, if you’re lucky, you turn into desperate mess Britain or all-system-failure France or Italy (Germany and Spain going the same way). Britain is failing. Europe is failing. Scotland needs an industrial strategy if we are to re-industrialise. 

It requires intervention, not market signal tweaking. Again. So until we have something better on offer, just prepare for a future which looks like the past. Again.

3 thoughts on “When everyone’s economic policy is basically the same”

  1. Alasdair Macdonald

    “Doing the thing again which failed won’t ‘fail better’ this time.”

    This is, indeed, true – for almost all of us, but not for the relatively small internationally mobile clique who control the city and own most of the wealth. For them, the economy has been working as it is intended to do – transfer more of the wealth towards them and away from the majority of us. And, since they ‘sponsor’ (or any other anodyne euphemistic synonym) many of the elected representatives, with things like £1250 handbags, then we get rejection of wealth taxes – rejection of the very things that can change the dynamics of the economy and begin to transfer wealth from the few and redistribute it more equitably. Even publications like the bloodless New Statesman, the Guardian and the Finacial Times are recognising such needs.

    However, this is also constitutional change. It is more than independence for Scotland, but empowering all of us and ensuring that there are sufficient checks and balances to ensure than no one group can dominate others as happens now.

  2. florian albert

    Robin McAlpine is largely correct in stating that Labour, the Tories and the SNP have nearly identical economic policies but his analysis of why this is so misses one important point.
    This is the fact that so many people in the UK are doing rather well economically and disinclined to vote for any party which would threaten their comfortable status quo. Such voters indulge rhetoric about inequality but not much beyond that.
    Stating that ‘Britain is failing’ and that ‘Europe is failing’ ignores the extraordinary prosperity across the continent. It is Europe’s obvious success, seen from what used to be called the Third World, that drives migrants to risk their life to reach failing Europe and often, leave there for failing Britain.

    ‘It requires intervention.’
    Voters do not agree with this. In Scotland, existing state intervention is struggling to cope with massive problems. There is very, very little appetite for increasing the level of intervention. Politicians, who have to persuade voters to stay in their job, are mostly aware of this.

  3. Bill Johnston

    Thanks Robin,

    What seems to be missing in the thinking of the Parties as you describe them is any sense of working class experience as the basis to challenge neoliberalism as essential to building an independent Scotland. By contrast there is plenty of concern from the Parties to be ‘business friendly’, more so recently from the SNP, but little about class politics beyond generalities and platitudes about growth benefiting ‘everybody’ and long-standing promises to eradicate poverty etc.

    Perhaps getting back to the nuts and bolts of wealth creation and capital accumulation in working class lives might be a start in developing an alternative political and economic strategy for Scotland? Surely that would be very compatible with the progressive values the independence supporting parties espouse? Although it is hard to see this happening via the popular strategy of mainstream parties setting up advisory panels on the economy, which tend to be representative of business and property owning interests, with the inclusion of a trade union official for balance. The resulting image of what an independent Scotland might hold for workers, pensioners and folk needing health and social care is quite depressing, since it looks very much like what neoliberalism currently provides. See the Growth Commission if you need a reminder.

    However there may be scope to make more radical inroads in the current political circumstances.

    Tony Guigliani in an article in the National before Saturday’s march and rally in Edinburgh opined that the next six weeks would be vital for the cause of independence. He suggested three focal points as the potential launch pads of a renewed campaign for independence aimed at the next General Election:

    1. Saturday’s Believe in Scotland/Scotland in Europe rally,

    2. The Programme for Government (due this week).

    3. The SNP conference in November.

    Now that we know the likely date in October for the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by election that can be number 4. Tommy Shepperd took up the serious planning ahead theme in Sunday’s National setting out a similar process of campaign development and popular engagement spread over the coming twelve months.

    For folk who may want a more radical, class-based political campaign it may now be time to evaluate the options in the Autumn of 2023 and into the early months of 2024. The outcomes of the four key events identified above should provide guidance on the shape of campaigning and ample evidence of the kind of politics that might be involved. A critical analysis of the evidence for how a campaign might develop is possible in the next few months arising from the outcomes of these four key events.

    So, assuming a radical twist to campaigning for independence, what would be the arguments needed to mount a more critical approach to challenging Scotland’s neoliberal political economy? Who is best placed to articulate and promote the case for radical change? What organisational form(s) would be best and how would they align with other bodies such as SNP, Business for Scotland, AUOB etc? On that last question, perhaps a RIC reboot is worth considering? If not what then?

    Finally I’d like to throw another item onto the campaign shopping list.

    How about using the 2024 May Day rally to link Indy with international workers’ rights, needs and solidarity? It would be a fitting date given we are ten years down the line from the Referendum. Scope here for the SNP Trade Union Group in concert with the STUC, individual unions, union branches and local Trades Councils to raise working class interests and take a lead in the independence movement.

    After all if Scotland in Europe can command a major public platform, including the First Minister, why not align elements of the Indy Movement with well established Labour Movement platforms?

    Best wishes,


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