Jackie Baillie: Don’t let the SNP lose grip on GDP growth

ATHENS, GREECE - JUNE 29: People wait in line to withdraw 60 euros from an ATM after Greece closed its banks on June 29, 2015 in Athens, Greece. Greece closed its banks and imposed capital controls on Sunday to monitor the growing strains on its crippled financial system, bringing the prospect of being forced out of the euro into plain sight.   (Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)
ATHENS, GREECE - JUNE 29: People wait in line to withdraw 60 euros from an ATM after Greece closed its banks on June 29, 2015 in Athens, Greece. Greece closed its banks and imposed capital controls on Sunday to monitor the growing strains on its crippled financial system, bringing the prospect of being forced out of the euro into plain sight. (Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)
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I remember the scenes in Portugal and Greece during the financial crisis. The queues of workers on the streets of Athens, desperate to withdraw their money from collapsing banks. The young men and women marching through the streets of Lisbon, demanding the chance to do even the most basic of jobs. The boarded-up shops, the bankrupt businesses, the political inertia.

Such scenes came to epitomise broken economies and broken dreams. For the right, this was the result of a bloated and invasive state. For the left, this was the result of rampant capitalist greed.

Even years on from the financial crisis, many observers are still cautious about the economic position of much of southern Europe. Mediterranean countries are nothing like the powerhouse economies of northern Europe, they argue.

Yet this comes with one exception: Scotland.

Despite all the Scottish Government’s bluster, its complacency and economic mismanagement risks turning Scotland into the economic sick man of Europe. Last year, Greece enjoyed an annual GDP growth rate of 1.9 per cent, Portugal, a growth rate of 2.4 per cent. Scotland under the SNP enjoyed an annual GDP growth rate of just 0.8 per cent over the same period.

The Scottish Government target was to close the GDP growth gap between Scotland and the UK by 2011, and with small independent EU countries, including Portugal, by 2017. They have failed on both counts.

And in the face of projected growth of a paltry one per cent, Scottish ministers’ mantra that “the fundamentals of the Scottish economy are strong” is looking increasingly hollow.

In contrast, economic growth is at the heart of Labour’s plan for government, both in Scotland and across the UK. Without economic growth, we cannot provide the high quality jobs people want and need. We cannot build homes, not just for the next generation but for the here and now. We cannot give our public services – our NHS and our schools – the funding they so vitally need.

That is why Scottish Labour has developed an industrial strategy. It outlines how we will build the high-wage, high-skill jobs of the future. It outlines how we will rise to the challenge of automation and the fourth industrial revolution. It outlines how we will harness the opportunities of the future, rather than succumb to its dangers. And at its core, it supports the delivery of a fair, sustainable and growing economy.

But words alone are not enough, which is why Labour is committed – at Holyrood and Westminster – to ending Tory and SNP austerity and investing in our economy.

A £20 billion Scottish Investment Bank is one example of how we would kickstart economic growth, support business and improve infrastructure. That’s ten times the level of investment planned by the SNP.

This is the time for bold approaches that will create transformational change in our economy. Of course, there are challenges ahead.The Tories’ shambolic handling of Brexit has caused widespread uncertainty and, with chances of a good deal with Brussels diminishing by the day, people in Scotland and across the UK will surely be left worse off.

That is why Labour supports a jobs-first Brexit – including maintaining a customs union – that would put the economy and growth at the heart of our relationship with the EU.

But it is not just the Tories who are to blame for Scotland’s economic woes. In Holyrood, the SNP is little different in its approach. Nicola Sturgeon might claim she cares about economic growth, but the reality is quite the opposite. Growth is down, wages are stagnating and public money is being squandered.

I am sick of listening to SNP ministers avoiding responsibility for the economy by saying they don’t have the power. This is the most powerful devolved parliament in the world. Maybe they should start by using the powers they do have and open their ears to what businesses are telling them.

If we learn anything from these latest growth figures – and the SNP’s record – it must be that the old order has to change and yield to a new way of thinking. No longer should the Scottish Government get away with glossing over missed targets, refusing to review out of date economic strategies, and presiding over stagnant growth.

Without urgent action, it will be Scotland – not Greece and Portugal – that will be at the wrong end of European league tables for economic growth.

Jackie Baillie MSP is Scottish Labour’s economy spokesperson