Of wars of position and manoeuvre

Would you condemn a duck because it produced a duckling? Of course not! Neither should we condemn the SNP Sustainable Growth Commission because it produced a middle-of-the-road, cautious, business-influenced report.

The SNP is not a socialist party. It has some in its ranks, but Commission Chairman, Andrew Wilson, has never claimed to be one of them. To expect the party and he to appoint Commissioners equipped with left-wing ideology, and produce a left inclined report, was asking for what was not possible. The duck produced a duckling.

The Commissioners were drawn from the professorial ranks and business, with a leavening of politicians – Derek MacKay, Finance Minister, Kate Forbes MSP, and Councillor Marie Burns. Of the organisations it lists meeting, the CBI, Institute of Directors, Federation of Small Business, Entrepreneurial Scotland and Scottish Engineering stand out. Given that business, its investment decisions, its employment practices, and engagement with the domestic and international markets, are all factors that will count towards economic performance, it would have been foolish not to meet them. But what also stands out is that it does not list the STUC, unions like Unite, RMT or Unison, or, strangely, the SNP Trade Union Group which boasts a membership of 15,000. Or perhaps it isn’t strange that direct representatives of workers were not given prominence, or overlooked.

So, given its non-left orientation should we now, as some did within hours of its publication (playing to the gallery), attack and dismiss it? That would be stupid. The Commission has a point of view, well researched, and well argued in this report. It is their honest view, and it is now an openly declared one for the left to engage with, and counter. We need debates in Scotland within and outside the socialist movement, and most certainly within the independence movement where, at present, it follows leader, Nicola, without thinking.

The report has two obvious merits that should be welcomed: it provides a good body of research, and it does not claim, as did Alex Salmond’s 2014 White Paper, to be definitive, with no further debate possible. It is, moreover, the only substantial document on the economy that has emerged in four years. The Commission should be congratulated for producing it and recognising, as they do, that their recommendations are meant to ‘aid policy development’, not stifle it.

It makes a reasonable claim that: ‘the report represents, for the first time, a systematic consideration of every part of the economic prospects and seeks to connect major choices on matters of currency, public finance, and, of course, economic growth’. In doing so, it provides a useful template for the left to employ in its own construction of policy. So, let it be read, dissected, discussed, debated with those who produced or supported it within the independence movement, anything but ignored, anything but dismissive shrugs because we are not ideologically happy with those whose keyboards it came from. My position: glad it has been published, now let’s look at it critically, but not destructively.

I had two immediate faults to find. One from the inbuilt bias against Brexit that exists within SNP ranks. It claims: ‘The decision of the UK to leave the European Union will fundamentally change Scotland’s economic future. Brexit will almost certainly widen, not narrow, the gap between Scotland and comparator countries’. Where do they pluck this idea from? From the Treasury who says Brexit will make Britain ‘permanently poorer,’ and the Fraser of Allander Institute which forecasts between 30,000 and 80,000 job losses and a £3bn-£8bn reduction in GDP. Would that be the same Treasury that said even a vote for Brexit would be an immediate economic catastrophe? And wait a minute: how much faith can you put on a ‘forecast’ that has such wide margins of error as Fraser of Allander’s? Not to mention that, so far, we do not know what the final details of the Brexit treaty will be. What if, considering that EU states, which have a huge surplus in their trade with Britain, come to their senses and realise that a poor deal will be as damaging to them as to British business and jobs, and we get a sensible deal?

Then there is oil. The collapse in price after 2014 has turned the Commission into hair shirt puritans, virtuously spurning an ocean of wealth. Silence is the policy. Only mention oil tax revenues, which can disappear, not the oil itself, who owns it, and how much it is worth. How do you create a growth strategy, I asked Andrew Wilson, when you ignore such wealth and allow the source of investment to pass us by? In the three years 2015-2017, Norway stacked up £36.7bn while Britain took in £2.3bn. Scotland is a nation with oil, but not an oil producing nation, because we don’t own a cupful.

Jim Sillars is a former Labour and SNP MP.

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