Our economy conference in Edinburgh yesterday set out a clear prize for Scotland: get growth rates back up to historically high levels and we have the chance of eradicating deep poverty in the country.
But it also set out the distance we need to travel if we’re going to get there. We heard how Scotland has all the ingredients for growth – great universities, a highly educated workforce, and global strengths in emerging growth sectors. But we heard how it lacks a “recipe”: a clear industrial strategy for growth.
The hope is that yesterday’s event begins a conversation across political parties so we deliver a plan that, as Gordon Brown put it, can lead to a “decade of delivery”.
Our report on economic growth, also published yesterday (entitled “From Growth to Good“), had two big messages: our governments need to focus on our core strengths and collaborate on boosting them.
It proposes the creation of a new Scottish Development Bank with the economic clout to make a series of big bets on the core growth sectors we excel in. It sets out a programme to transform skills, with the creation of new “S-Levels”, as set out by Lord Sainsbury, one of the speakers yesterday. It calls for a new Scottish Work Programme to help support the tens of thousands of Scots currently not in work to get back into the labour market.
Given we spent £1.5bn on economic development (the highest per head in the UK) and more than £2bn a year on skills, we should be getting better results, Mr Brown said. “It simply requires our governments to use existing resources more cost effectively, and more purposefully, by doing what has been missing in the last decade: greater cooperation in Scotland’s interests between our many layers of government that delivers for all.”
That was a theme that recurred throughout the morning. Alan Jope, former CEO of Unilever said Scotland needed relentlessly to focus on its core strengths. One of them is Scotland’s Higher Education sector; it is time to protect our “first mover advantage”, argued Dame Heather McGregor, the Provost and Vice Principal of Heriot-Watt University Dubai. Tech entrepreneur Chris van der Kuyl spoke brilliantly about the potential of the AI revolution, particularly in education. Mark Logan, the Scottish Government’s chief entrepreneur, warned about the dangers of sinking into “mediocrity” if we don’t get our act together.
All their contributions will go up online soon.
The conference ended just as the awful news of Alistair Darling’s death was revealed.
In the welter of commentary after his death, I ended up reading an interview Alistair gave in March 2022 to Ed Balls and Dan Turner, a senior advisor to the Mayor of South Yorkshire about regional economic growth in the UK (Dan also happens to be the main author of our paper).
Asked by Ed and Dan about the governance of Scotland, a couple of paragraphs jumped out.
“Scotland has not been helped for the last 17 years,” Darling told the pair. “It has been absorbed by a debate about Scotland’s constitutional place and everything else takes second place to that….For a lot of Scotland we have not a policy where we can capitalise on the things we’re actually quite good at.”
He added: “In Scotland we need an economic policy concentrating on four or five things. The [ Scottish Government] paper published recently has 26 different objectives.”
It was a typically perceptive comment from the former Chancellor. It was also exactly what we spent yesterday morning discussing.
To Alistair’s point, it is time to concentrate our firepower on the things we’re actually quite good at. And then we need to stick with it.