Why have experts criticised the SNP's approach to the economy?

The SNP, as a party of Government that still has an anti-establishment tinge, aren't strangers to criticism from outside bodies.

A stinging rebuke from economists at Strathclyde University’s Fraser of Allander Institute, however, tends to cut through the noise.

For one, the experts at the Institute are not only highly respected for their work, but are renowned for their lack of bias.

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The Institute did not lay the blame for Scotland’s sluggish economic growth solely at the door of Nicola Sturgeon’s government, but have criticised the SNP’s response to the simmering issue of slow growth.

Scotland's approach has been criticised.  Picture: PA WireScotland's approach has been criticised.  Picture: PA Wire
Scotland's approach has been criticised. Picture: PA Wire

There is a ‘confusing and cluttered’ approach to governing from the party which last year marked a decade in power, according to the Institute.

We look in depth at the criticism, whether it is merited, and what the SNP can do to improve.

Too much strategy?

In 2007, while they didn’t quite use the ‘bonfire of the quangos’ language of David Cameron’s Conservatives, the SNP did promise streamlining of strategy and less bureaucracy.

Scotland's approach has been criticised.  Picture: PA WireScotland's approach has been criticised.  Picture: PA Wire
Scotland's approach has been criticised. Picture: PA Wire

As The Scotsman reported today, SNP Ministers have created over 20 separate strategies in all manner of different areas.

The Fraser of Allander Institute says that far from stimulating growth, this ‘proliferation’ of strategies could in fact be holding Scotland’s economic progress back.

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SNP's economic policy under fire as growth flatlines

Professor Graeme Roy of the FAI said: “Strategies and advisory groups are no substitute for good policy delivery based on evidence, data and impact.

“Rediscovering a unified vision for the economy which aligns all policies and organisations might just be the most significant and effective step the Scottish Government could take in 2018.”

Fair criticism?

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The Scottish Government bristled at the criticism, saying that they are focused on dealing with Brexit, which they categorise as a looming threat to the Scottish economy.

Events inform economic strategy, and to a certain degree a devolved government will always be beholden to overarching external economic factors, of which Brexit is clearly one.

However, the SNP’s cagey response to the criticisms of Prof. Roy suggests that they appreciate that his assessment carries more weight than the typical attacks by opposition politicians.

There are other external factors to consider, such as the Scottish economy’s reliance on oil revenues, which have plummeted in the last several years.

That too, has called for a number of different strategies from the Scottish Government, and has potentially helped contribute to the ‘confusion and lack of accountability’ that Prof. Roy has criticised.

If the Scottish Government streamlines strategy, it could help Scotland’s economy more resilient to external events, even those as significant as Brexit.

The future

There was nothing in the SNP’s response that suggests that they are set to immediately change approach in the face of the FAI’s criticism (a move which in itself would suggest a lack of strategy).

However, given the weight of intellect behind the experts at Strathclyde University, the Scottish Government would be unwise not to take heed.

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The SNP is still pushing the UK Government to negotiate to remain in the European Single Market after Brexit, something that appears increasingly unlikely.

FAI experts have advised the SNP to rely more on policy that is “based on evidence, data and impact.”

Included in that suggestion is a thinly veiled criticism of the Scottish Government’s approach that is, in the FAI’s view, clearly woolly and unfocussed.

Nicola Sturgeon’s ministers have been accused of a singular focus on constitutional issues, first independence, and now Brexit and its impact.

However, the FAI’s criticism has in fact suggested that more of a focus could be beneficial for the economy.

There is certainly value in that criticism – not for nothing are the Fraser of Allander considered the foremost experts in Scotland’s economy.

The SNP might not plan a complete volte face based on one report, but they would certainly do well to heed the advice contained in it.