Bill Jamieson: Indyref isn't imperative to growth blueprint

No fanfare, not even a standing room only press conference for the much heralded launch of the SNP's Growth Commission report last week.

The report suggests keeping the pound for at least ten years after independence. Picture: John Devlin
The report suggests keeping the pound for at least ten years after independence. Picture: John Devlin

Two years in the making and running to 354 pages, surely a drum-roll of sorts could have been laid on. But instead it was eked out in dribs and drabs, with all the compelling sideways momentum of a rheumatic crab.

Outwith the hard-core band of independence supporters, the SNP is finding it tough to rekindle support for a second independence referendum. Brexit is cited as the reason for having one. But it is the very uncertainty of the Brexit outcome that makes it difficult for the SNP to capture public attention, let alone put forward a compelling argument for a second indyref.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

All that said, however, its author, the former SNP MSP, Andrew Wilson, has advanced a refreshing set of ideas to spur economic growth.

First, there is a “Come to Scotland” campaign to drive immigration and population growth. This would include tax relief for highly skilled migrant workers to attract the “best and brightest”, measures to encourage international graduates to stay in Scotland, and a simplified visa system.

There are policy ideas to grow the economy through incentives for business investment, greater participation in the labour market and improved productivity.

Indeed, throughout much of the document is a recognition that improvement in economic growth and performance is not a function of independence per se but a range of policies that would need to be adopted and pushed forward – whatever the shape of the constitutional architecture.

Gone is the insistence on a separate currency from the off. The report says an independent Scotland would keep the pound for at least ten years and would then move towards introducing its own currency – once a series of economic tests had been met. There are outline proposals to help fund continuing UK debt to promote “respect and good order” towards the rest of the United Kingdom.

Historic debts would fall to the rest of the UK – but Scotland would contribute about £5 billion a year to meet debt commitments and fund international aid.

Whether that would prove enough to contain Scotland’s debt growth when our annual budget deficit has been running at some 9.2 per cent of GDP – more than double that across the UK as a whole – and the implications for financing of this debt commitment on other areas of Scottish Government spending arguably matter less at this stage than the SNP’s belated recognition of the need for a debt management policy. The very word “debt” seemed to have been expunged from the 2014 referendum campaign.

This more realistic approach should be welcomed. However, searching questions are inevitably begged. Take the proposal to encourage skilled labour immigration. Here it exposes a glaring policy inconsistency. The SNP government has racked up the tax take on higher earners. So why should a high-skilled immigrant to the UK opt to come to Scotland when similar employment elsewhere in the UK is less heavily taxed?

Are such incentives to be offered by the Scottish Government to all skilled immigrants? What of those from the rest of the UK? How would Scottish voters feel about paying English migrants extra?

As matters stand, employers in the private sector are already able to attract skilled labour through all manner of devices – help with housing costs and removal expenses, relocation disbursements, language learning assistance and performance bonuses. Public sector applicants can also be incentivised by appropriate training and apprenticeship schemes.

And when it comes to “promoting economic growth” there is much that the SNP administration can –and should – be doing already. It hardly needs constitutional separation to kick-start growth, as the document itself implicitly concedes. Nor, for that matter, does Scotland need to wait ten years for a separate currency to enhance our growth potential.

“Optimism” is not the exclusive preserve of independence; rather it is to be found in those sectors and activities of an economy that are innovative, encouraging of entrepreneurship and internationally competitive. The imperative now is to build and expand on these characteristics, independence or no.

An economist laments

A telling criticism of the Scottish Parliament is that it is not holding government ministers and the administration to effective account; that too often it is giving them an easy ride.

This was the central charge of a prominent Scottish economist last week after a recent meeting of the parliament’s Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee. Professor Tony Mackay has run an economic consultancy business in Scotland and overseas for more than 30 years, having served previously on the economics staff of Aberdeen University and as a visiting professor at various universities in Scotland and abroad.

Last week he wrote to John Mason MSP, deputy convener of the committee, and fellow committee member Gordon Lindhurst to express “my serious disappointment with its meeting last week, where witnesses included Keith Brown, the Cabinet Secretary.

“I was very disappointed by the questioning of the Cabinet Secretary and his officials.

“The Scottish economy has performed very poorly during the last few years and significantly worse than that of the UK economy as a whole.

“I expected your Committee to ask some very difficult questions but that did not happen. Most of the questions were ‘easy’ and some completely irrelevant.

“Further, some of your members seemed to spend most of their time sending messages on their mobile phones/tablets and paying little attention to the evidence…

“I do not know who is responsible for suggesting the questions… but I believe that the Committee is being badly let down by your officials and/or advisers.

“Your recent report on Economic Statistics/Data was very poor and has been heavily criticised – and rightly so – by professional economists and statisticians…

“Based on Tuesday’s Committee meeting I fear that this next report will be another whitewash.”