The publication of the Sustainable Growth Commission’s report is an opportunity to begin a fresh debate in Scotland – one focussed on the massive opportunities our country has and how we make the most of them.
Since the report was published yesterday, there has already been a huge amount of interest and extensive discussion. The report is intended to provoke debate and create a platform on which we can build a positive vision and prospectus for Scotland’s future.
That is a welcome change from the ongoing despair about how we minimise the damage of Brexit. The Commission’s report is based on optimism about our future and it challenges all of us to consider how we do better and raise our performance as a country. I hope it’s a debate that people of all political and constitutional persuasions will take part in.
As a starting point, I believe there are some things in this report that we can all agree on. The report shows that Scotland is a wealthy nation with huge resources, encompassing our traditional strengths in innovation, our hi-tech sectors, energy reserves, food, drink and tourism strengths – and perhaps above all our strength in human capital, with a highly educated population.
It also shows that despite those enormous strengths, similar-sized nations have performed better over decades – all of them independent but most of them with fewer resources than us. So it is right that the Commission asks why that is the case and what can be done about it.
The Growth Commission also recognises, as everyone can see, that the context in which this debate is taking place has changed since 2014. The Brexit vote means there is no status quo any more – and we know that being taken out of Europe and out of a market around eight times bigger than the UK market will hit our economy. The Governor of the Bank of England identified this week that incomes are around £900 a year less than they would have been without Brexit. It’s only right that we take the time to consider better alternative approaches that Scotland could pursue. In response, the Growth Commission sets out policies to increase our population, to ensure everyone in our society is able to participate fully in the economy, and to drive forward improvements in productivity that will boost our growth rates. The Scottish Government is working hard to achieve all of that with the powers of devolution, but as well as offering new ideas for what we can do now, this report sets out how much more could be achieved with independence.
The 30 recommendations on ways in which we can boost growth are recommendations I and the Scottish Government will study carefully to identify if there are any we can and should adopt now. Some of the recommendations are in areas where, without independence, we would need the agreement of the UK Government, such as the proposals for a flexible approach to migration in Scotland focussed on our population needs, rather than Scotland being tied to economically damaging UK targets.
However that co-operation historically hasn’t been forthcoming and so there are many areas where it will require the powers of independence for Scotland to move forward, and that is a debate we must have. Of course, alongside how we grow the economy, the Sustainable Growth Commission also addresses the challenges an independent Scotland would face. There is a candour to the report that is a refreshing change to the fictions peddled by the Brexiteers.
In arguing for oil revenues to be taken out of day-to-day spending – and instead invested for the long term – the Commission makes a bold proposal that could help steward the benefits of our natural resources. The suggested solidarity payment moves the debate on from arguments of the 2014 referendum and demonstrates one way in which a continued strong relationship between Scotland and the UK can be assured. Similarly, the plan for reducing the deficit built up under the UK model suggests a way forward that firmly rejects austerity and ensures above-inflation spending growth. All of this can now be debated and discussed.
The report also explicitly acknowledges an independent Scotland can have its own currency and that this is a perfectly reasonable, credible and rational proposal. However, even the most ardent supporters of an independent currency recognise that it would take preparation and that, in the meantime, people need the certainty and clarity of knowing the currency they will use – so the report makes the proposal that Scotland should continue to use the
Pound for a period until certain tests are met and while vital preparatory work, for example the creation of a Scottish Central Bank, is undertaken. The Commission’s recommendations are not final policy decsions, but they do provide strong foundations for the SNP, the Yes movement and the public to debate. Some people will dismiss the report without even having read a word of its findings. That’s their prerogative but such an approach does a disservice to the public who I suspect want us to focus on maximising Scotland’s potential. The UK Government dismissed it within 60 seconds of publication, before they’d even read it. That’s indicative of the current lack of ambition the UK Government and the Tories have when it comes to Scotland.
As the Fraser of Allander Institute said, this report not only puts forward challenges to me and the Scottish Government, “it also represents a challenge to other political parties. They too need to set out their vision for Scotland and how they seek to deliver economic prosperity in the years ahead”.
We will now listen to the views of civic Scotland, trade unions, the business community, third sector and most importantly to people across the country. We will look at the recommendations for growth and identify those which can be taken forward as part of the Government’s commitment to growing the economy, creating jobs and tackling inequality, while the SNP will hold a series of national assemblies over the summer where the detail of the report can be discussed.
The publication of the Sustainable Growth Commission has started a debate about Scotland’s future that is founded on optimism and I hope everyone can agree that that is exactly the discussion we should be having.