With full control of spending and taxation, Holyrood will be able to tailor policies to our nation’s needs and ambitions, writes Finance Secretary John Swinney
Amid the spirited arguments over whether Scotland should be an independent country there is agreement on one vital fact – no-one seriously doubts that Scotland is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Scotland is blessed with extraordinary resources and we are rich in human talent.
The figures speak for themselves. Our GDP per head is higher than France, Japan and the UK as a whole. Our food and drink industry is worth £13 billion, our manufacturers export £15bn internationally and we are world-class in cutting-edge industries such as life sciences and renewable technology. Perhaps most significantly Scotland has more universities, per head, in the world’s top 200, than any other country in the world. We have the best-educated workforce in Europe. Even without a single penny from the North Sea oil, Scotland generates roughly the same amount of tax, per capita, as the UK.
But despite our great wealth for far too many Scots it doesn’t feel that way. On 18 September we have the opportunity of a lifetime to make the wealth of Scotland work much better for all the people who live here. We can vote Yes with confidence knowing we will become an independent country based on strong foundations.
The case for independence is grounded in the belief that it will be better for all our futures if decisions about Scotland are taken by the people who care most about Scotland – the people who live and work here. We won’t get every decision right and there will be difficulties to overcome. But no-one else will do a better job and no-one else has a bigger stake in our success.
With the limited powers of devolution we have evidence of the gains for people and businesses of taking decisions in Scotland. Scotland has emerged from recession with employment at a record level, with more than 2.5 million people in work. Investment in our country from overseas is at a 16-year high.
But our long-term economic growth has lagged behind both that of the UK and other comparable countries. And in an increasingly competitive world it is now urgent that we equip ourselves with the powers all other countries take for granted to give their businesses an edge.
Under Westminster more and more wealth is being concentrated in London and the south-east of England and the gap between rich and poor is rising. Most people in Scotland will know of friends and relatives who have had to leave Scotland for job opportunities. As part of the EU and within the Common Travel Area of the British Isles those opportunities to work elsewhere will still be there. After all London is a global city that welcomes people from across the world.
But in an independent Scotland, for the first time, we will have an economic policy with full powers to put Scotland first. That means, working together with business, unions and other partners we will have the means to build a more secure economy and greater job opportunities here. Future Scottish governments will be able to develop policies to address imbalances, and fulfil our vision of Scotland as an innovative, high-wage and high-productivity economy, that competes in international markets and focuses on high-value goods and services.
To compete with the gravitational pull of London we can design a tax system to provide incentive to firms to expand their operations here and create more jobs. A priority will be to ensure more headquarter functions so that people in Scotland can climb the career ladder here at home. We can cut Westminster taxes, such as Air Passenger Duty – which harm trade and tourism.
We’ll also have the opportunity to make savings. The current Scottish Government has set out plans to make annual savings of around £600 million by taking different decisions from Westminster on defence and nuclear weapons as well as other policy areas and from not spending money on Whitehall bureaucracy and the House of Lords.
No-one is denying there won’t be challenges. For Scotland there is a need to increase the working population, boost productivity and maintain the population growth of recent years. The question is whether we can best meet those challenges by taking on the powers of independence or leave it to Westminster politicians for whom Scotland will seldom be a priority. In fact, the current UK Government has decided to make it harder for talented students who want to make a contribution to Scotland on graduation to stay here. And after years of cuts the Westminster coalition – a government led by a party with just one MP in Scotland – wants to make £25bn of further damaging cuts over the next three years.
Whether we like it or not, those cuts will hit Scotland if we stay within the Westminster system.
In the first year of an independent Scotland, our balance sheet is forecast to broadly match the UK’s and public sector debt will be falling as a share of GDP. That’s why I announced plans which would see the Scottish Government provide £1.2bn in additional resources in 2017-18 and a further £2.4bn in 2018-19 to boost our economy. This plan would be equal to supporting around 30,000 jobs, and would support the economy whilst ensuring Scotland’s deficit continued to fall as a share of GDP. Based on that foundation, we can choose to reject austerity and create a new prosperity for Scotland.
It’s a better Scottish alternative to the Westminster cuts which are being imposed out of an ideological drive to dismantle cherished public services. With independence, we’ll be better off with Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands.
• John Swinney MSP is Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth