Think about ten years from now. Think about what you hope for. Think about the economy this needs.
Does it involve an ambitious Green New Deal? Is it a time after we got serious about bringing an end to poverty and greatly reducing inequality? Are you working fewer hours, living in better housing, eating better food? Is banking reliable and supportive? Is it happening in an independent Scotland? Fundamentally, is it different from now?
Rewind to summer 2021. How would you go about getting to the future you just imagined? Would you entrust it to George Osborne’s ‘austerity enforcer’? To the oil industry’s point-person in quango world? To the gaffer of a giant commercial bank?
If you did, what would you ask them to do – come up with a plan to “unleash entrepreneurial potential and grow Scotland’s competitive business base”?
Let’s say they then succeeded in unleashing that flood of ‘entrepreneurship’ and Scotland’s ‘competitive business base’ had grown, would you expect the outcome to be “greater, greener and fairer prosperity”?
After all, is this in any way fundamentally different from what Scottish economic strategy has been promising to do for 40 years?
As reliably as clockwork the Scottish Government has announced a new Economic Advisory Council. If this sounds like just more of the clutter of endless versions of advisory groups which relentlessly accumulate around the Scottish Government’s economic strategy, fear not…
It replaces the Council of Economic Advisers (which met in March), presumably supersedes last year’s Advisory Group on Economic Recovery but one assumes will build on this year’s Working Group on Financing Scotland’s Recovery – and will somehow integrate with the many, many industry-specific groups, the economic development network and all its groups and the local authorities and all their groups.
You might conclude that the Scottish Government doesn’t half like a press release announcing a new working group. You might also wonder if the Scottish Government has any real critical analysis of the Scottish economy of its own.
But there are some reasons for pessimism. The first is that there seems to be, if anything, a strengthening of market fundamentalism. The Council of Economic Advisers which preceded the new Group had economic growth as a goal, but reducing inequality was a second goal with equal prominence. Presumably if it was set up now rather than in 2007 reversing environmental decline would be a third.
The new body, at least at conception, seems to relegate poverty, inequality and the environment to secondary outcomes of growth. But there is just such overwhelming and extensive evidence now that these outcomes do not naturally result from growth and in fact are more likely to be harmed by growth. They require specific intervention and action.
This is why there are entirely new fields of economics opening up to challenge the dominant ‘growth first’ doctrines of the last four decades and Common Weal has fused these into an economic model we believe should replace Scotland’s failed growth model. The Scottish Government has coopted some of the language of these (notably Wellbeing Economics) and so it might seem churlish to read too much into the wording of a press release.
But this is a very consistent pattern. From the Growth Commission to the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery, the Scottish Government has been moving in a consistently market-fundamentalist direction. The task of setting a new direction is now in the hands of the members of this Advisory Group and while there are good people on it, there are some very committed market fundamentalists too.
As it stands, it would take an awful lot to imagine this resulting in the kind of ambition for change represented by the Common Home Plan, Common Weal’s Green New Deal. ‘Ambitious’ and ‘bold’ are easy words to throw about, but they are much harder to live up to.
The second reason for pessimism – at least for independence supporters – lies in what this tells us about how the Scottish Government sees the next ten years. If there is any sense in the Scottish Government that there will be any major fundamental change over that decade it is very hard to discern; the remit of this Group would not look out of place in the early 1990s.
And of the prospects of independence there isn’t a hint. Many independence supporters expect that a fair chunk of the decade for which this Group is creating a plan will involve Scotland as an independent country, but there is certainly no planning for it built into the Group which is creating the Scottish Government’s overriding economic strategy, and it has some very strong opponents of independence among its members.
We wish the Advisory Group well and we’ll certainly be contributing. But it needs to signal that it is serious, that it recognises that a genuinely new direction for our economy is necessary. That burden lies on the shoulders of its members because the Scottish Government certainly hasn’t provided that signal in its establishment.
And in shouldering that burden its members will have to overcome a great deal of cynicism. We’ve been here before – same press release, same adjectives, same promise of a new dawn for Scotland’s economy. None of those dawns broke, so will this be any different? We’ll see.