What Kind of Scene Are We Setting?

“It is politically easier to rev up GDP and hope some of it trickles down to the poor than it is to distribute existing income more fairly.” – Jason Hickel

(This blog post previously appeared in Common Weal’s weekly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.)

Last week the Scottish Government, represented by Nicola Sturgeon and Patrick Harvie, launched the first paper in a series of papers framing their view of the next stage of the Scottish Independence campaign. This first paper – Independence in the Modern World. Wealthier, Happier, Fairer: Why Not Scotland? – is described as a “scene setter” and a description of the world as it is now rather than what it could be under independence. As such, it probably raised more questions from than delivered answers to the journalists at the press conference. It does nothing to answer or advance arguments around currency, borders or pensions or any of the other topics that I and other independence activists have been immersed in for a decade now but it wasn’t ever supposed to. All this paper has done is take several economic metrics such as GDP and inequality and compared the UK to several other countries in Europe. We’ve seen this approach before:– this paper is essentially an abbreviated and updated version of the first third of the 2018 report by Andrew Wilson’s Sustainable Growth Commission and the ideology that informed that report is woven throughout this new one.

There are differences in the detail of course. In 2018, the Growth Commission compared various countries to data for Scotland. This new report compares data with the UK. It’s a curious change of style – I wonder if it has as much to do with trying to avoid anyone aiming blame at the Scottish Government for a poorly performing economic metric as it does with casting the UK itself in as negative a light as possible. The choice of comparator countries is similar to 2018, though non-European countries like Singapore, Hong Kong and New Zealand have been dropped off the comparator list and Iceland added in. I’m sure there are already debates about the validity of comparing the UK, a country with a population of 67 million, with countries much more similar in size to Scotland (the largest is the Netherlands with 17 million while Iceland has a population of less than 400,000).

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(Image Source: Scottish Government)

What we’re comparing with each other also matters. Despite Sturgeon and Harvie holding their Government up as trying to move away from traditional economic metrics and towards measures such as wellbeing and equality, the metrics involved in this report are overwhelmingly GDP-based. This is probably the thing that worries me most about this first paper. The Government is “setting the scene” for independence based on metrics that not only don’t tell us much about the future for Scotland – they are widely acknowledged even by the Scottish Government to not tell us enough about the “status quo” of the present. It is frankly disturbing that the word “climate” doesn’t appear once in this document and “Net Zero” appears only once and with the disclaimer that it is “no longer seen as [a] barrier to sustainable economic growth”. I guess that finally answers the question I’ve been asking since 2018:– Just what do they mean by “sustainable growth”? That one throwaway line reveals it. The Scottish Government thinks that economic growth can be sustained indefinitely on this finite planet in defiance of modern economics, physics and basic mathematics. That “Net Zero” is seen as no longer a barrier to this suggests that they have adopted the idea that GDP growth can be “decoupled” from the harm it causes to the planet – this is in direct opposition to expert advice presented to the Scottish Government on precisely this point in 2020. It would have been more encouraging to see this paper set the scene by describing not just the “status quo” of GDP figures but the imminent challenges facing Scotland that will require independence to solve. How does Scotland’s decarbonisation targets compare to other countries? How about our progress towards those targets with a commentary on how independence could accelerate progress? Could we have compared metrics such as urban air quality, or rates of bicycle ownership vs car ownership as a result of active travel policies? Instead of boasting about Scotland’s high rates of foreign direct investment and how that could be accelerated by independence, could this document have tracked the number of start-up companies created by each country and NOT sold off at the drop of a hat to one of their “comparators”?

Future papers must do more than this paper did or was designed to do to answer the questions that we know will be levelled at them but they also must do more than present independence as an opportunity for even more of the kind of hypercapitalism that is killing the planet. We know that when the future papers come out, they will have a lot more to say about the policies that the current Scottish Government would promote but that means they will have to be ready to answer the questions that we know will come.

Common Weal has been at the forefront of developing those answers for several years now. It is without boast that we say that we probably know more than any other pro-indy organisation about the technical and infrastructure steps that Scotland will have to take between winning a referendum and independence day. These steps will be near-universal regardless of party political policy position so I would have expected it to be relatively straightforward for us to be invited to brief the teams creating these policy papers for the Scottish Government. Sadly and despite multiple attempts to request such a meeting, we were declined. Time will tell as the actual policy papers come out to see who has been let into the room to help form those policies.

We know the questions that will be asked when those papers come out and I should hope the Government are ready to actually answer them this time rather than fudge things or ignore them as they have done for the past four years. Would a Sterlingised Scotland be able to join the EU, fund crisis projects similar to Covid furlough or have the borrowing capacity to build our Green New Deal? What assets will Scotland demand from the UK as part of our separation agreement and what is the preferred strategy when it comes to splitting debts and liabilities? How will that agreement guard Scotland against the UK unilaterally pulling out as they are trying in Ireland? What, precisely, will the Scottish Government plan to do around borders – especially as our exports to rUK consist more of services than goods? Will independence mean Scotland starting to do things that we’ve been told we can’t do now because of its lack – like launching a National Energy Company instead of selling off our renewable assets on the cheap? In our 2018 book on setting up a new country, Common Weal tried to be as “future-neutral” as possible so that we could give space to every Scottish political party to present their own manifesto on their vision for an independent Scotland. That approach is still valid but the time has now come for us to show what a Common Weal Scotland might look like too. Not to stand as a political party in our own right but to act as a goal to aspire to and so that we can approach all of those parties and help push their own manifestos towards that aspiration. Independence deserves so much more than a repeat of a “status quo” that is no longer sufficient. The climate emergency is a real and overriding priority for every country on earth now – doubly so for those who shoulder a disproportionate amount of the blame for that emergency (that includes Scotland). All countries, including our current “comparators”, must undergo drastic transition if we are to survive that climate emergency. To me, that means that independence cannot be about how Scotland can grow GDP a bit faster or become a bit more like pre-climate emergency Denmark. As Kate Raworth has said “we’re all developing countries now”. The true question is whether Scotland can make the required climate transition more effectively as an independent country or while shackled to a Union that is actively preventing such change. That is the scene I wish had been set this week.

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