Gerry Hassan: Imagine a place where money isn’t everything

Scotland could have a new focus with an alternative to GDP. Picture: AP
Scotland could have a new focus with an alternative to GDP. Picture: AP
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A radical alternative to GDP as a measure of prosperity gives Scotland the chance of a new focus for its future, writes Gerry Hassan

What a week it has been – Murdoch, Trump, Rangers FC and of course the economy going into double-dip recession. It is reminiscent of that last period of acute crisis, a failing, nervous political class and economic instability: the 1970s, amplified by Dominic Sandbrook’s excellent current TV series on the decade.

Scottish debate on the economy has for many years been shaped by two contradictory strands. The first is the power of conventional economics, concerns over our relative economic growth rate compared to the rest of the UK, and the desire to pursue “faster, smarter growth”. This has been the policy of all Scottish administrations post-devolution and all four mainstream political parties.

The second is an aspiration to do economics differently from Anglo-American capitalism and the British economy and state. This draws on critiques of economic growth, sustainability concerns, and debates around health and wellbeing.

Post-crash, post-RBS implosion, the Scots political classes, business community and institutional chatter economically has had little to say to chart a way out of the wreckage and find a new course. Instead, the message has been restoration by stealth across public life.

This week an important contribution to beginning to find and flesh out that alternative was unveiled when Oxfam Scotland launched at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh, before a packed audience, its Humankind Index. This was put together by Oxfam in association with the Fraser of Allander Institute and the New Economics Foundation (NEF), combining academic rigour with the input of Britain’s consistently most challenging and original think tank. What it attempts to do is track Scots progress and give a very different measurement to GDP. Scottish people were asked to rate the factors that most contributed to a “good life” and these were then weighed for importance. The results reflected the overwhelming importance of health and housing to respondents.

They found that between 2007-8 and 2009-10, Scotland improved overall by 1.2 per cent, reflecting advances in health and housing, which compensated for falls in the economy and material wellbeing.

The index also looks at the picture in Scotland’s most deprived communities and has found they are 10 per cent behind the national average. The strength of the work is that it looks at different aspects of disadvantage; not just material inequality, but such issues as how people feel, what they think about their community and how connected they believe they are to others.

Judith Robertson, head of Oxfam in Scotland, and Katherine Trebeck, who has headed much of the work programme, make it clear they want to take forward this work on two levels. They want to influence government documents such as the National Performance Framework and challenge the blind faith commitment to “faster growth”. They also have ambitions to go beyond this: to change the debate, culture, popular aspirations and the very idea of how we think of and measure progress. Oxfam acknowledges its work is not perfect. But this is the start of something important, significant and long-term, in a week packed with big moments.

GDP is not, of course, perfect either. Its measurements miss a wide array of human activity and creativity. It includes things that hardly add to the sum total of human happiness. GDP is approaching 70 years old, having been institutionalised as a measure of economic progress at the Bretton Woods conference in 1944. Increasingly, people have realised using it as a bible is not helpful and actually counter-productive.

The limits of GDP even reached David Cameron during his “compassionate Conservatism” phase, when he indicated an interest in creating alternative indices addressing GWB (general wellbeing). The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has since looked at producing such a measurement, but has decided not to develop one single index.

All of Scotland’s main parties (the Greens exempted) are committed to a narrow econometric notion of the world, progress and wealth. This has even been the dominant way of thinking about independence in the SNP, but there is some small evidence of an open mind with John Swinney, through Linda Fabiani’s attendance at the launch, welcoming this initiative.

Oxfam is committed to progressing this index in association with others publishing it over the next few years so we can track a different idea of progress. Trebeck said that “the financial crisis provides an opportunity to re-prioritise our goals, focusing on what is really most important to people and what is most influential on our prosperity and sustainability”.

They have already said they will publish local humankind indexes after the forthcoming elections. That is a tantalising prospect: up to 32 alternative ratings telling us where is the best place in Scotland to flourish, not according to jobs, housing or wealth, but through a considered measurement of the quality of life.

This is where the Scottish political and public debate should concentrate: a different kind of economic debate, social justice and a politics that breaks with Westminster’s tired traditions. That requires a very different kind of conversation, informed by a radical vision of the future. And this points in exactly the opposite direction from this week’s main stories: the double-dip recession and the fixation of our political leaders with symbols of the failed crony capitalism of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Reducing human beings to the dystopian idea of semi-sovereign consumer individuals has not increased overall happiness. Consumerism and debt-fuelled lifestyles, the beginnings of which are sketched in Sandbrook’s guide to 1970s Britain, have produced mass anxiety, insecurity and fear about keeping up with others or worse, keeping your head above water.

We have just been given the beginnings of a debate that could start to shape an alternative Scotland, one where we consciously imagine and create our own collective future and idea of society. Maybe, many years from now, we might remember this week more for that, than for all the hullaballoo about the Murdochs, Trump and Rangers FC.