SNP leadership contest: On economics, it's a choice between the new Nicola Sturgeon, the new Alex Salmond, and possibly an SNP version of Liz Truss – John McLaren

As a new era arises for the SNP, what are the economic implications of the three leadership candidates?

Since the party came to power in 2007, there have been two periods of economic policymaking. The first under the ex-economist Alex Salmond and the second under ex-lawyer Nicola Sturgeon. Salmond’s policies were bold and clear, based around growing the economy through low business taxes while maximising the benefits of North Sea activity and revenues. However, these policies were more suited to a post-independence landscape than a merely devolved one.

Sturgeon’s policies were of a different ilk. For her, it was less about gross domestic product (GDP) and more about well-being, less industrial and more green. While the woolliness of what terms like ‘well-being’ and ‘green’ actually mean in practice made such policies less focussed, they did at least apply to Scotland regardless of its constitutional state. In terms of post-independence, the economic vision was fuzzy about what might power an upsurge in growth, all the more so once the dangers of Scexit, replicating those of Brexit, became a reality.

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Of course, Salmond would also have had to change his policies after the referendum, as North Sea activity and revenues died away and as a low corporation tax route became less convincing. Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine him not proselytising more of a ‘Glorious Green Future’ than has been the case under Sturgeon and perhaps even an intermediate European Free Trade-style arrangement, as favoured by Iceland, Norway and Switzerland, over full EU membership. As usual, it would have been over-egging the pudding but, in terms of having a political story to tell, it might have been stronger than the sotto voce Sturgeon one or the rudderless UK Government one.

Whither then the three new musketeers – without the camaraderie – on such matters? Ash Regan has said little on economic issues directly. However, she has been outspoken on pushing independence faster and on matters like currency. Her pronouncements here do not bode well. Independence, once achieved, would involve years of negotiation with the UK and the EU.

Setting up a Scottish currency in a few months, even if it was technically possible, would most likely lead to a disastrous outcome as the markets decided not to take the new government seriously. In general, Regan’s economic policies, such as they are, have a whiff of the Liz Truss about them – a no doubt valiant, but nevertheless doomed, charge into a brave new world that might not exist.

Humza Yousaf seems likely to be the continuity candidate in economic policies as well as elsewhere. A commitment to “create an economy with well-being, happiness and health at its heart”, as he puts it, and to maintaining an alliance with the Green Party suggest this. Like Sturgeon, he appears to view ‘the economy' as being more about protecting people from bad things that might happen – job losses, low wages etc – than about promoting good things that its success can help achieve. And while he has distanced himself from Andrew Wilson’s Sustainable Growth Commission, whose work was supported by Sturgeon, so far his alternative post-independence economic vision focusses more on widening ownership than on answering the big questions.

Kate Forbes might be seen as Alex Salmond’s successor, in this field at least. She is not afraid to speak of a growing economy, meaning GDP, as a good thing on its own and her mini-manifesto makes not a single reference to ‘well-being’. She also has a background of engaging with serious reports on ways to drive forward the Scottish economy.

Ash Regan, left, Humza Yousaf and Kate Forbes are standing to be the next SNP leader (Picture: Peter Devlin For Sky News via Getty Images)Ash Regan, left, Humza Yousaf and Kate Forbes are standing to be the next SNP leader (Picture: Peter Devlin For Sky News via Getty Images)
Ash Regan, left, Humza Yousaf and Kate Forbes are standing to be the next SNP leader (Picture: Peter Devlin For Sky News via Getty Images)

Back in 2018 she was a member of Sustainable Growth Commission, looking at post-independence practices, while in 2022 she headed up the National Strategy for Economic Transformation. The latter was a thorough piece of work but, despite claims made at the time, seriously lacked focus.

There are rumours that Forbes herself was unhappy with the way the focus was lost in a ‘something for everyone’ mush and with well-being taking over from economic growth as the central story. This document could be easily revisited to give a harder edge to future policies. Likewise, the Sustainable Growth report could be updated for a clearer post-independence vision. Such an update would surely identify a revival of productivity as the key to future success and recognise the need to do things differently from the rest of the UK as a way to stand out from the crowd.

What would await each if they won? Regan would need to get some capable economic thinkers – which excludes any modern monetary theory sympathisers and their like – around her sharpish, in order to avoid making basic errors and following dead-end routes to independence. Yousaf could continue the current, hands-off approach, ie leaving much of it up to the civil servants to devise and ‘drive’ policy, unless he decides that it has greater importance, in which case he needs to start to build up a parallel political team.

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Forbes probably already has in mind what she wants to do. Her problem is more how to take the party with her. How to get back into a position where, as with Salmond, the party is largely happy that their leader knows best and allows her to get on with it. There are internal party issues over the Sustainable Growth Commission, for example, but if a head of steam can be regained then these might be put on the back-burner for now.

Sturgeon is, by and large, a formidable party and national leader to be taking over from. However, one area where she was less commanding was economics. This gives her potential successors a pathway whereby they can better and more clearly define themselves against her. Of course, it’s not all about economics but maybe it should have a more prominent role than has been the case for the past decade.

John McLaren is a political economist who has worked in the Treasury, the Scottish Office and for a variety of economic think tanks



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