Bill Jamieson: For once, the economy is better than the weather

Have we weathered the economic storm, with rays of sunshine now being glimpsed asks Bill Jamieson.
Have we weathered the economic storm, with rays of sunshine now being glimpsed asks Bill Jamieson.
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Our well-being is in poor health, but three recent pointers give us cause not to be too downhearted says Bill Jamieson

It’s that head-in-the-oven time of year again. But before we head for the kitchen there is some heartening news. And we should count our blessings where and when we can.

First the bad stuff. I admit it may not have been the best of conditions in which to read the eminent professor John McLaren’s deeply depressing Index of Economic Well-Being as we set off in driving rain to the west of Scotland this week.

It was hardly a report to lift the spirits, even if the sky had been blue and the sun warm on my arms. The index showed that Scotland had slipped down to 20th place in his global league table. By the time we hit the A71 I could understand why.

Well-being? The rain was relentless, the fog impenetrable and visibility down to a few yards. By the time we hit Drumclog – at least, I think it was Drumclog – it was an experience akin to going through the rinsing phase of a car wash. Much of the road was under water and the windscreen violently soaked by the spray from passing lorries.

Nothing could prepare me for this journey through watery hell. We have had, by all accounts, a wet and miserable summer. There may be exceptions to this rule, but not many - the Kalahari Desert of Moray and Banff, perhaps, and the Gobi dustbowl that is East Lothian.

But the west of Scotland has been unbelievably wet. Rainfall has been 37 per cent higher than average over the past three months and the washout summer has been the worst since modern records began in 2010.

The next day I caught up with news from my niece and her husband who run two dairy farms in the heart of Ayrshire. No slide down the Index of Economic Well-Being could capture the horrors they have endured of late: rock bottom milk prices that have forced them to halve their herd of 400 cows; appalling weather that has kept the herd indoors and made outdoors work almost impossible.

Willie Campbell, who runs the 540-acre Low Holehouse farm near Galston, East Ayrshire, told the Press: “We have had record rainfalls in June, July, August and now in September. We have got crops out in the field that we just cannot get close to harvest. The soil is so absolutely waterlogged that we can’t even think about getting our second cut of silage made.”

It is a lament that will be echoed by farmers across the land. “All of this is adding to the cost of what we produce and there’s going to be huge financial implications. It is a very uncertain and worrying time for us.” Total income from farming in Scotland was reckoned at more than £820 million, with some 68,600 directly employed.

Adding to farmer woes is the latest reported increase in farming debt in Scotland, with figures showing that debt levels at their highest since records began in 1972. Some £2.3 billion is now owed by Scottish farms, up by £113 million on the previous year and the eighth consecutive annual increase. The bungling over EU farm payments last year and now the monsoon weather has added to the sector’s problems.

Another casualty is almost certainly tourism, though this has been cushioned by more ‘staycations’ and the fall in the pound that has made the UK a more attractive option for overseas visitors.

Travelling further west on Tuesday, we arrived on Arran and drove along the west coast in yet more fog and driving rain. To the west is Kintyre – or we assume it was Kintyre as dense rain clouds obliterated the view. Our journey finally came to a stop at the popular holiday resort of Blackwatersfoot. A rebranding to Whitewatersraft might have been more appropriate. Driving belts of rain crashed into the hotel windows as we huddled over dinner. A day indoors lay ahead, catching up on the news via the internet. But connectivity was weak at best, where it could be detected at all in such conditions. A wi-fi signal would be stronger in Uzbekistan.

This is what prepared me for the Index of Well-Being. It showed that Scotland had clattered down through the developed world nations and that we are now eight places behind England, firmly in the bottom tranche just above Slovenia, Estonia and the Czech Republic.

In overall terms, five of the top six performing countries stayed the same (Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, Netherlands and Canada) while Finland was replaced by Japan. Four of the bottom six performing countries stayed the same (Greece, Hungary, the Slovak Republic and Poland). The biggest rises in overall Index scores across the decade were seen in Eastern European countries. Five countries experienced falls in their overall Index scores: Greece, Scotland, Wales, Finland and Northern Ireland.

In general terms it might be said that Nordic countries continue to do well, Eastern European countries still lag but most are catching up fast; Mediterranean countries have suffered the most during this decade, with the lower income EU members (Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece) most affected. Declining North Sea activity has taken its toll on Scotland’s ranking.

This Index of Well-Being is much less open to objections about subjectivity than its oft-quoted rival, the Index of Happiness. And by this measure we may be less vulnerable to that troubling phenomenon: The Hedonic Treadmill. This is the tendency for us to remain in a relatively stable level of happiness despite improvements in our fortunes: our ambitions and expectations forever run ahead of us.

But three pointers give us cause not to be downhearted. Figures yesterday showed that Scotland’s jobless total fell by 7,000 in the three months to July, to 102,000, taking the rate down by 0.3 per cent to 3.8 per cent - below the UK figure of 4.3 per cent. And the number of people in work rose by 60,000 to 2.59 million.

Earlier this week the latest Bank of Scotland Purchasing Managers Index showed a further expansion in Scotland’s private sector output and employment in August, supported by growth in new business, whilst business confidence remains positive.

Said Economy Secretary Keith Brown: “These results are a further vote of confidence in the Scottish economy with GDP growth almost four times that of the UK over the first three months of the year, and employment at a record high.”

The week also brought a positive response from Scottish business lobbies to Cabinet Secretary Derek Mackay’s pledge of new rates of business tax relief and periods of grace for firms who invest in their property.

And even the Scottish Retail Consortium found cause to cheer a recovery in retail sales in August, with growth of 1.3 per cent, better than the three-month and 12-month averages. Retailers “will welcome these figures after a pretty disappointing summer” said Ewan MacDonald, SRC head of policy,

Thus it is, even through the louring black clouds of the Index of Well-Being, rays of sunshine can still break through. The economy may even be better than the weather.