Brian Monteith: SNP must ditch tired old approach to economy

Enterprise in Scotland must be allowed to flourish for the sake of jobs for future generations, writes Brian Monteith.

Deputy First Minister John Swinney. Picture Ian Rutherford

The mixed news of growing unemployment in Scotland while employment is at near record levels makes for disappointing reading, but few appear to be concerned enough to change public policy or our culture towards creating a dynamic economy. Instead, the tired old approach from our politicians that has failed us so consistently, namely relying on a dominant public sector and regulation, remains the prevailing culture. If we are to create real jobs for future generations we must learn to let enterprise blossom.

It is private enterprise that creates the wealth that produces the taxes to drive the public sector. If we do not help the private sector to flourish we shall witness further decline in the services we cherish.

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If we had been warned in 2007 – before the financial crash – that we would lose 4,000 teachers and more than 3,000 GPs in Scotland alone in the next ten years, would we have believed it? I rather doubt it. Remember, Gordon Brown had already told us he and prudence were going steady together, so why would we think our belts might be tightened further?

Even if we had been asked after that crash, when the talk of the need for an austere approach to public sector finances was beginning to gather momentum, the expectation was that there must be enough slack in public spending to avoid cuts to the very services we would naturally give priority to, such as teachers and doctors. As Nye Bevan said, “the language of priorities is the religion of socialism”, and the parties that have governed Scotland have in their own ways all offered varying shades of socialism. So surely we could expect public services to be protected?

And yet what we have witnessed is a Scottish Government – with the sole and unalloyed responsibility for education and health – preside over a catastrophic fall in the number of teachers and doctors, many of great experience who cannot be replaced overnight. It is not as if there has been a lack of funds – for those areas were protected – it has been public policy that has failed.

Education suffered beyond the public’s initial comprehension, for the embarrassing and shocking collapse in standards of attainment – which as ever always affects those that need help the most – has taken years to be understood and accepted. Even though there were many warnings against reversal of the much-needed educational
reforms of the Nineties, or the 
Blairite reforms introduced in England and then those subsequently advanced by Michael Gove, the Scottish Government ploughed on regardless. Anyone who doubts we have our very own educational MacBlob need only look at the suffocating influence of the teaching unions and local authorities who, in concert, rail against innovation and diversity in approach.

Let me be clear, even if John Swinney is able to devolve greater powers and spending to headteachers, and I wish him Godspeed in this regard, a whole generation of our youth has been ill-served by previous education ministers.

Health care has fared little better. True, it is possible to find aspects of the Scottish NHS that have better outcomes than in England, but it is also possible to find many that are far worse. More troublingly, when measured against the Scottish Government’s own targets, there has been repeated failure.

Now the Scottish Conservatives have unearthed figures that show 2,895 Scottish-trained doctors are likely to have left for other countries over the last ten years. Most worryingly the last two years have seen record numbers of Scottish-trained GPs seek certification to practise abroad, 663 in 2015 and 612 in 2016.

This comes at a time when the BMA says we face the retirement of as much as a third of GPs – another
1,500 – by 2020. Yes, the Scottish Government initiated a drive to recruit 100 GPs last year – but only 37 came forward. And why should we be surprised, when the Scottish Government’s taxation policies mean that by 2020 a GP in Scotland will be paying £2,000 more tax than a GP in England? The public sector needs liberalisation and reform if it is to reverse its decline.

In looking towards the private sector, where jobs are being created despite challenging times in particular sectors such as oil and gas, there needs to be greater support to overcome what holds enterprise back. Challenges come in many forms; the weakness of our education system is one, the relatively higher taxes Scottish businesses face is another – but so too is the belief that regulation should dominate our decision-making.

The latest example of this will be debated at Holyrood tomorrow evening when Labour MSP Lewis Macdonald has a motion debated on the safety of the Airbus Super Puma H225, which has recently been cleared by the Norwegian and UK civil aviation authorities to fly again after it was grounded following a fatal accident that cost the lives of 13 passengers and crew last year. The trade union Unite, of which Macdonald is a member, has bandied terms such as “flying coffin” without taking up the offer of seeing for itself the extensive efforts made by Airbus to ensure airworthiness.

The only other large helicopter available to serve the platforms in the North Sea is the Sikorski S92, but it too has previously had cause to be grounded for safety checks. Ideally the sector needs access to more than one helicopter, for if the only one flying is then grounded the industry will suddenly find itself unable to ferry workers to platforms. The attitude of Unite is at odds with creating and sustaining jobs for its members. While safety must be paramount, the aircraft has been cleared for flight, not least thanks to the extensive upgrading of service procedures that include the earlier replacement of key components.

Surely, rather than seeking to override the decision of the Civil Aviation Authority by talking of a strike if it is reintroduced, the union should be co-operating with Airbus by visiting the company’s manufacturing and servicing facilities and finding a solution that puts workers’ minds at ease? Some 62 per cent of workers surveyed have said they would rather not use the Super Puma if given a choice, but 56 per cent were also unaware of the work done to improve its airworthiness.

Scottish attitudes to public policy in both the public and private sectors need to find a far better balance between innovation, diversity and regulation if high unemployment is not to return.