Robin McAlpine: Backwards and forwards – how Gordon Brown and Nicola Sturgeon’s economic plans compare


Common Weal director Robin McAlpine takes a look at the economic plans and ideas being set out by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

IN THE last 24 hours we have had two big, philosophical interventions on the Scottish economy and our future politics, one from Gordon Brown, one from Nicola Sturgeon (click here to read more). What do they tell us about politics and policy in Scotland in 2015?

Let’s start with Gordon Brown, making his last major intervention as a politician (though somehow I strongly doubt that the Scottish media are going to desist in his exhumation of any time soon). In his speech he says two main things. First, that the big prize in the approaching election – for Scotland – is all about devolution, hi-tech industries replacing declining manufacturing jobs, a housing revolution, a new, patriotic politics, British leadership on the world stage and much of a similar tone.

Twenty years down the line you can’t just roll out the aspiration to create a hi-tech economy with no policy attached as if the last 20 years didn’t happen.

His first major problem is the vagueness, all unconnected aspiration, little sense of meaningful action. But his much bigger problem is that this is almost verbatim a Gordon Brown speech circa 1996. The Blair revolution was sold as about devolution, housing, hi-tech, patriotism, Britain on the world stage and so on. So what happened?

The crucial line in the speech, for me, is when Brown bemoans the lack of protection for British citizens from what he calls “often bewildering and alien forces of change”.

But hold on: ‘alien forces of change’ were not only things Brown’s economic dogma failed to protect us from, they were things Brown celebrated effusively, encouraged in almost every government policy (flexibility, globalisation, market forces, efficiency and so on). It was neoliberal globalisation which Brown and Blair promised us would transform Britain. And it did. But now Brown blames Cameron and the SNP for all of the impacts of globalisation. It’s not credible

Twenty years down the line you can’t just roll out the aspiration to create a hi-tech economy with no policy attached as if the last 20 years didn’t happen. How is it to be done? All Brown seems to offer is ‘only Labour’. It is ironic that in a speech in which he emphasises the need for political parties to work for the public and not the other way round, Brown’s case seems to boil down to ‘only Labour, just because…’.

And it’s that second half of the speech – the tribal, partisan part – which is more telling. Apparently the SNP is to be criticised for being obsessed with the “minutiae of Westminster insider politics”.

Again, from Brown this is hard to take – being as he is a man with the reputation for being more obsessed with the minutiae of Westminster insider politics than almost any other politician of his generation. And we’re all taken to task over the “bitterly divided” Scotland that only committed unionist politicians seem to identify as being real. This all feels like nothing much more than continuity-Better Together.

What is undoubtedly welcome is the apparent abandonment of the proposal for a blanket cut in corporation tax from Sturgeon.

Brown dreams of a powerful, deeply loved Labour Party creating a Britain which is “leading a global economic revolution”. In reality, the Labour Party is little loved and little trusted and Britain remains in an economic crisis. Anyone who thinks the world is waiting for Britain’s economic lead is living a delusion. The politics seem retrograde, the economics lacking credibility.

The Sturgeon speech is quite different. It appears to skip almost all of the partisan politics and focus instead on goals and actions. The watch-words here aren’t ‘bitterly divided’ or ‘it’s their fault’ but ‘productivity’, ‘innovation’, ‘investment’ and ‘inclusive growth’. This is a substantially more serious economic contribution.

Then again, who isn’t for productivity, innovation, investment and inclusive growth? So what is the plan? There is a list, some parts more persuasive than others. Employment and skills-driven economic growth was the watch-word for much of the last 20 years, but it did little against wider economic forces which reduced job quality. Both the Business Development Bank and the Local Energy Investment Fund are welcome but seem on the modest side. Small businesses need strong, local banking and PS10m is small beer in the scale of Scotland’s renewables, still being exploited almost wholly by private corporations.

What is undoubtedly welcome is the apparent abandonment of the proposal for a blanket cut in corporation tax. That policy stuck out like a sore thumb in what was otherwise a decent economic pitch during the referendum and seriously harmed the impression that the SNP wanted to create a fairer and more equality-focussed economic development strategy.

If the Scottish Government can make similar shifts on issues such as energy ownership, industrial policy and alternative banking it could prove an astute move for a public seeking change.

The words on innovation are positive but focus again on a lot of ‘hub’ and ‘incubator’ models which have been talked about and implemented for many years (although the commitment to public sector innovation is welcome and could prove fruitful if done well).

Brown is looking backwards, Sturgeon is looking forward.

Perhaps the most interesting element is the ‘inclusive growth’ strand where active labour market interventions (on Living Wage and child care) do offer hopes of a more active and interventionist approach. The international and export proposals read OK – so long as we can keep creating products to export…

So a lot of good, serious work though perhaps tending towards a restatement of economic development orthodoxy with some useful proposals on reducing inequality. It falls short of setting an industrial policy for Scotland and seems too cautious in some areas but is at least a step forwards.

And that, in the end, seems to be the difference betweens these two interventions. Brown is looking backwards – either at a two-decade-old economic narrative or at the political candidates snapping at his colleagues’ heels. Sturgeon is looking forward – still not doing anything that’ll scare the horses and at risk of reverting back towards the economic development status quo, but forward nonetheless.