It bodes ill when the launch of a grand new strategy does not involve the chance for print journalists to be present or to ask questions.
Given that the Strategy Paper was over 50 pages long and the accompanying Evidence Paper (there were eight such accompanying papers in all) was over 100 pages long you’d think it reasonable that interested parties might have some questions to ask over its contents. Especially if it is a crucial document, as claimed.
The dearth of Advisory Group members at the launch didn’t bode well either. Although, as the minutes of the meetings of this Group had laid bare their misgivings over the lack of direction and focus of the strategy, perhaps this was not so surprising.
So why the reticence? and shyness?
Reason One: Past Record
The ‘Foreword’, by cabinet secretary for finance and the economy, Kate Forbes, notes that “we aim to deliver economic growth that significantly outperforms the last decade” and that “we will be judged on the outcomes we deliver”.
This is where being in power for a long time can become a problem.
The first SNP-led Scottish Government set out long term economic targets in November 2007 and proclaimed that the government “will be judged by the progress that we make towards them”. (The wording has not changed in almost 15 years…) The outcomes have been disappointing to say the least:
Target 1 – ‘to raise the Scottish GDP growth rate to the UK level’ (by 2011): Outcome : NOT ACHIEVED, still below, on average
Target 2 – ‘to rank in the top quartile (of OECD countries) for productivity’ (by 2017): Outcome: NOT ACHIEVED, no change in ranking since 2008
Target 3 – ‘to maintain our position on labour market participation as the top performing country in the UK’: Outcome: NOT ACHIEVED, now below the UK average employment rate.
I could go on, in a similar vein.
What does it tell us about a government when we are asked to judge it by its performance, and, then, when the judgement is clearly that the strategy has failed, nothing happens? The same question could be asked in other areas, for example with respect to ‘judge us on our education record’.
Reason 2: Leadership
Again, in her ‘Foreword’, Kate Forbes states that “Government will provide clear and decisive leadership.” There are two areas of concern here.
First, there seems little ‘clear and decisive’ about the report.
What clarity can emerge from a report which shows (Figure 2) how the NSET aligns with 52 existing plans. I repeat, 52.
I am unclear how anyone involved in taking forward these strategies can be clear where they stand in relation to this wilderness of (potentially competing) plans. It is a mess.
What is even more worrying is that, having constructed such a diagram, the report’s author(s) thought it was a strong point worth including, rather than a warning of the confusion that is being sown.
In terms of “being decisive”, the specific targets are still to come (again not a great sign) so we will have to wait to see. But the report, as written, refuses to be decisive in that it fails to admit that trade-oﬀs will need to be made, involving some degree of prioritisation. Instead, the report pretends that all things can be achieved and seemingly contradictory aims can instead be mutually beneficial. I don’t think so. We have to make choices.
This brings us to the second point, leadership.
The report reads like it has been written by civil servants, albeit with a political foreword and given a steer on what needs to get a big mention.
Why? Because there is no leadership. There is no-one within the SNP who has a strong interest in, and knowledge of, the economy and economic issues. Rather, any interest leans towards some aspects of economic outcomes, in particular inequality and the environment. These are much easier areas for most politicians to become interested in. They are moral issues and the ‘right’ outcome seems clear.
And that is why the Chancellor of the Exchequer is rarely popular. He or she has to make decisions that balance the degree to which such social goals are pursued against the degree to which prosperity as a whole improves. If you don’t recognise these competing tensions you are likely to proceed without a strong direction and to the detriment of both such goals.
Reason 3: Contents and Focus
The report is in large part a very long list of (77) detailed things to do. These stem from an evidence paper which is more concerned with describing problems than analysing their sources. This approach more easily allows for a simple regurgitation, or stepping up, of existing policies.
Such an approach compares poorly with the coherence and analysis that was in the UK’s Levelling Up White Paper (LUWP), led by Michael Gove and ex Bank of Englander Andy Haldane. The LUWP points to issues like longevity and policy suﬃciency as well as local empowerment as keys to ensuring successful growth policy.
(For the record, while the LUWP is an excellent piece of analysis it has next to no chance of working as the funding necessary and cross-government commitment needed is highly unlikely to be forthcoming. Still, at least Gove and Haldane have tried to show a way forward.)
Which brings us to ‘Focus’. What is the focus? Everything and nothing. The usual Scottish Government approach to such matters. In eﬀect, this means, we will not be in the lead on:
- finding ways to reach net zero; or
- redefining ourselves in terms of a well-being economy; or
- becoming a natural assets-based economy; or
- becoming a more Scottish-owned economy; or
- pretty much anything
Instead, we will try to do a bit of everything, thereby trying to keep happy a variety of interest groups, as opposed to trying to corral and lead them in a particular direction.
At the strategy launch we were told: “We need to be bold, we need to be ruthless and we need to be laser focused to maximise the impact of the actions that we have identified”.
But who exactly will do this? Who will be more bold than before, who will be more ruthless than before and who will be more laser focused than before? No one in the current Parliament and no one from outside, if the semi-engaged and toothless Council of Economic Advisors is anything to go by.
It is important to remember that it is rarely poor policies that lead to failure, rather it is poor implementation of such policies, based on a lack of commitment and focus. And that is where this strategy is likely to fail again.
The report, the launch, the minutes of the Advisory Council meetings – all point to a ‘just get it done and get it out’ approach. And as with previous, failed, economic strategies it will go through various hoops of progress reports and ‘accountability’ that are underplayed and soon forgotten. But without anyone taking real ownership, without a genuine attempt to identify and plan a way forward, little will change.
Featured image of Kate Forbes presenting the Scottish Budget on 08/12/2021 via Scottish Government flickr CC BY 2.0
Further reading: Not a strategy that fills us with much hope, Fraser of Allander Institute