Nicola Sturgeon's government is running out of ideas for a reason. Here's how to change that – Martin McCluskey

For a small nation in northern Europe, Scotland has always punched above our weight.

Economist, philosopher and author Adam Smith, whose statue on Edinburgh's Royal Mile was unveiled in 2008, is regarded as the founder of modern economics (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Modern thought, economics and engineering all owe their foundations to Scots. We have three universities in the top 100 internationally. People who began their careers or were educated here have led on the technologies that are fuelling the next industrial revolution – AI, machine learning and life sciences.

Scotland has never been short of good ideas, with a long tradition of progressive politics and thinkers.

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Why then does Scottish politics today too often feel like a desert for new ideas? When the Scottish Parliament was established in 1999, it wasn’t just meant to bring about a renewal of our national and political identity.

Having a parliament in Edinburgh was meant to lead to the growth of research institutes and think tanks focused on Scottish public policy. With a more open and transparent government and parliament, policy making would be inclusive and welcoming to new ideas.

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It was also meant to lead to a politics in which ordinary citizens – not just lobbyists – engaged in our political process. However, as research by the Scottish Fabians found last year, many people still don’t have a complete understanding of what the Scottish Parliament does.

Around 30 per cent of people we spoke to for a poll on devolution still believed that the NHS, which has been the hands of Holyrood since 1999, was the responsibility of the UK government.

Looking at Tuesday’s Programme for Government, the gap between good ideas and policy-making seems to be growing. There were re-announcements aplenty and programmes that appear to measure success against money being spent rather than outcomes and their impact on people’s lives.

And while the most significant announcement – a National Care Service – is welcome, it is a reform that is a decade overdue.

The First Minister opened her speech on Tuesday asking us to consider “the kind of country we want to be”. This is a question that governments around the world are asking as we start to find a way out of the Covid crisis. It should be an invite to a big national conversation. However, it is a question that only has one acceptable answer for this government. And in that we find the limiting factor of Scottish politics.

Fourteen years of constitutional debate – more recently compounded by Brexit – has skewed not just the priorities of government, but the whole political conversation.

As Professor James Mitchell observed before the May elections, the SNP is a party that would benefit from a period in opposition to refresh their thinking. But, in the maelstrom of the Scottish constitutional debate, that was never a likely outcome of May’s elections.

So we are left with a government that is running on empty on the ideas front and unwilling to expend political capital on any radical thinking for fear of fracturing their winning coalition.

If ideas are the driving force of politics, then it’s safe to stay that we’ve stalled. But people aren’t going to vote for a different government until they see a viable alternative. Opposition parties should start answering Nicola Sturgeon’s question about “the kind of country we want to be” with responses that are more than just “not independent”.

As a think tank with its roots in the Labour movement, it goes without saying that the Scottish Fabians want to see the Labour Party succeed. But we also have an interest in seeing the development of a more vibrant think tank and research community in Scotland, and a parliament and government that takes their ideas seriously. Here are three ideas to get that started.

First, Scottish devolution was built on the idea of openness and transparency, but the way policy is developed is increasingly a closed shop. Running a consultation does not constitute openness to new ideas.

There must be ongoing engagement between the people developing and implementing policy and the institutions that are generating ideas. In research the Scottish Fabians published last year, we proposed a shake-up to the way parliament operates – stronger committees, empowered backbench MSPs and greater scrutiny of the government.

With a majority partnership government in place, this is needed more than ever or else we will see scrutiny in parliament go into reverse gear and a failure to interrogate bad policy.

Second, Scotland need to invest in the development of more specialised think tanks and research institutes that can deal with the major challenges we face.

Not just to provide ideas, but also some external scrutiny. For example, health and social care dominates the Scottish budget and its delivery will be the single biggest challenge for our country in the years to come.

But Scotland lacks an equivalent of the King’s Fund that could generate ideas in this area outside of government.

Similarly, major new powers over welfare offer a massive opportunity to do things differently, but so far they have focused on expanding what is already there, rather than entirely rethinking how things are done. A major new project we will publish next year on income replacement policies will seek to address this question.

Finally, for the academic and think tank community, the independence debate can’t be ignored. But it needs to be treated like any other policy. That means interrogating it and not shying away from spelling out what it means.

Too often, it is left to London-based think tanks and academics to do the research and write the reports that interrogate the case for independence.

It is unfathomable for a whole section of Scottish public policy – crucial to our future – to be ignored because the conclusions might make uncomfortable reading for those in power.

Martin McCluskey is chair of the Scottish Fabians

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