Struan Stevenson: Time to take Scotland to a new level – which can only happen inside the Union

With so much talk before and since last December’s general ­election about the government’s task of ­‘levelling up’ the north of England, it can be easy to forget that communities in regions like Teeside and Northumbria aren’t unique in ­feeling left behind. Over the ­border here in ­Scotland there are many who feel similarly disadvantaged, even if the causes for their concern lie ­elsewhere.

Struan Stevenson, Chief Executive, Scottish Business UK
Struan Stevenson, Chief Executive, Scottish Business UK

Of course, the familiar gripe from the SNP is that, like folks in northern England, the source of all Scotland’s economic woes is an uncaring London-centric metropolitan elite that likes nothing more than to hold Scotland back from its true economic potential. If only Holyrood could go it alone, they argue, Scotland would level up by default, GDP would gallop ahead, hitherto sluggish productivity would join it and we’d all have jam for breakfast back in the EU where we belong.

However, the signs that this is all patently untrue have dogged Scotland’s devolved public policy landscape over the last decade and more as marks of failed potential.

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Particularly over the last decade of SNP government, we have seen ­economic strategy after strategy promise so much but deliver little worth celebrating in terms of growth or potential for business. Similarly, key devolved capacities including education and healthcare – each ­crucial for our ability to thrive ­economically – systematically underperform to the extent that Scottish ministers don’t seem to have any clear ideas of how to reverse a pattern of failure, except of course to insist that with more levers to pull they’d do so much better. This is roughly equivalent to watching someone fail their driving test repeatedly in a sensible family car, only to insist that they’d pass next time if they had the keys to a Ferrari.

Something must be done that allows Scotland to level up and reach its potential in spite of the wishful thinking of SNP ministers.

What’s needed are new ways to ensure that government at all levels, both UK and Scotland-wide, is ­calibrated to maximise growth and deliver results across diverse ­policy areas. If Scottish independence isn’t a sensible option (and for the avoidance of doubt SBUK sincerely believes it would cripple our economy with more than £10 billion of debt, currency and trade restrictions), then how do we recalibrate the Union to be both sustainable and gainful for each of its component parts?

In a new policy paper launched in February, Strengthening the Union: A Framework for Business Success, SBUK argues that steps need to be ­taken now to overhaul decision-making in Scotland by undertaking a range of reforms that would improve democratic accountability and drive better outcomes for communities and businesses. The proposals it contains combine ideas to improve decision-making at Holyrood and suggestions to increase the visibility and effectiveness of reserved spending decisions that directly impact or benefit Scotland.

So, to counter the systemic failure of policymaking at Holyrood and to create a better path toward national prosperity, we’re calling for the ­creation of an elected second ­chamber within the Scottish ­Parliament with clear decentralised, region-by-region representation and a remit to review policy, question the Scottish Executive and hold Scottish Ministers to account.

We’re also arguing for the establishment of a new UK Department for the Union with grant-making powers that enable it to deliver ­specific and targeted strategic interventions that improve wellbeing and standards of living and lift the most deprived ­people and communities out of ­poverty.

Because it’s absolutely essential to show clearly and transparently what value Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom delivers, we are advocating the creation of a new Office of Budgetary Responsibility (OBR) for the Union to provide objective analysis of policy decisions and spending analysis on devolved budgets.

On top of these and other suggestions for reform, we’re also calling for the UK Government to be far more assertive and effective in how it articulates a clear, positive and ethical case for the Union. For too long now, confidence in the unique capacity that it creates to pool resources and allow Scotland to work in collaboration with England, Wales and Northern Ireland has been cynically undermined.

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Granted, the UK isn’t perfect, but in light of the reality of the economic folly of ‘Scexit’, we would soon appreciate that it has the capacity to evolve and deliver potential for Scotland’s people that far outstrips the narrow nationalist view of the SNP.

Struan Stevenson, chief ­executive, Scottish Business UK.

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