John McLaren: Sensible SNP still has much to do to sell indy plan

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The long awaited Growth Commission report has finally arrived but what is new and how does it compare to earlier claims for a better post independence performance, as for example laid out in the White Paper for the 2014 referendum?

The headline changes from previous thinking are: a move away from ‘sharing’ the pound to ‘Sterlingisation’, essentially piggy backing; an acceptance that North Sea oil is a side issue, given the fall in tax revenues; and the acceptance that there would be a tricky transition period as an independent Scotland moved to better balance its fiscal budget.

Thousands march in a pro-independence rally in Glasgow. Picture: John Devlin

Thousands march in a pro-independence rally in Glasgow. Picture: John Devlin

Each of these shifts from earlier positions make sense, although the difficulties involved in managing the first and the third should not be underestimated. The heart of the report involves how to improve Scotland’s poor growth rate, in particular how to improve productivity. One of the key strengths of independence, versus remaining in the UK, would be the ability to change immigration rules to allow for more skilled migrants to participate.

On the down side, expert analysis suggests that an underlying truth with both independence and Brexit is that splitting up an economic union will have a negative effect on the economy, with the smaller offshoot suffering more.

Overall the report makes some sensible suggestions but also admits that a plethora of further reviews and new Commissions will be needed before many of the necessary strategies can be fully fleshed out. This may disappoint some but it makes sense given how complicated much of this is and how low our current level of understanding of our own economy remains.

The report highlights the need for, good policies, good institutions, and cross partisan support. Good policies are freely available, both here and in other reports. Good institutions are a problem. Scotland remains a land largely bereft of well funded think-tanks and the Parliament itself struggles, particularly in terms of the Committee system, which continues to disappoint in terms of independent scrutiny.

The biggest challenge however is likely to be achieving cross partisan support. There has been precious little of this seen since the Scottish Parliament restarted in 1998 and no obvious sign of change coming. This could be an important obstacle as some of the countries highlighted by the report, like Finland, rely on some form of ‘Social Contract’ amongst the leading economic players (i.e. government, unions, employers) to achieve their goals. This is a very un-British way of going about things and such a shift would be radical. However, the text is fairly light on how this might happen.

Overall, the report should be seen as the start rather than the end of a new process. Inevitably, even with a 350 plus page report, questions abound around crucial issues like Scotland’s future relationship with both the UK and the EU. Nevertheless, it moves the debate away from unrealistic extremes to more achievable goals and ambitions.

It is now up to others to challenge the reports recommendations in a robust fashion and, hopefully, for a higher level of debate to emerge, something long needed in Scotland.

John McLaren Scottish Trends website (Note: in 2016 the author was commissioned to write a Background Briefing paper on the Scottish Balance of Payments for the Report.)