Confucius said: “When words lose their meaning, people lose their freedom”. This may be over-doing it a little, but I know what he meant. Words are how we express the meaning in life, but if those words are degraded to the point that they don’t describe anything meaningful, then how do we express the truth? Language becomes a mask, rather than a genuine description, of what is real. We live in a time where just about everyone, even the oil & gas industry, now present themselves as greener than green. Where taking the knee has suddenly moved from being a protest against authority to a marketing tool for the Premier League and Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Sports. The language of protest, whether it be Black Lives Matter or the Climate Emergency movement, is quickly absorbed by the powerful, and re-produced as something tame to protect its power.
I am afraid to say I have much the same feeling about “Towards a robust, resilient wellbeing economy for Scotland”, the report of the Scottish Government’s Economic Advisory Group published yesterday, led by the chief executive of Buccleuch Estates, Benny Higgins. There should be a rule for policy reports: if you want to use a descriptive word, you have to use at least one policy example of what that means, and one policy example of what it doesn’t mean. The word “resilience”, for instance, has been widely used in the context of the Covid-19 crisis to describe a policy response to reduce exposure to globalisation, with internationalised supply chains and foreign ownership putting foundational parts of Scotland’s economy, like food, at risk in a crisis that threatens to derail global trade. But in The Group’s report, it finds that “there is scope to gear up our internationalisation agenda” and “we do not see a conflict between openness to trade and a robust and resilient wellbeing economy.” So what does the word “resilient” actually mean here, if what The Group really wants is more globalisation?
Or another example: one of the headline policies in the report is a “business-led jobs guarantee scheme”. A jobs guarantee scheme has been advocated by the SNP Common Weal Group, for instance, so this sounds like good news. But it’s absolutely impossible to decipher from the report where the “guarantee” of a job is in The Group’s proposal. They advocate two-year contracts for 16-25 year old’s, but it’s not clear whether this is proposed as a right or a wish, whether it should be supported by government funding or by businesses simply taking it upon themselves to hire more young people. It looks like more linguistic co-option.
Where there are concrete measures proposed, it is usually tax cuts for businesses, or new fora to increase the voice of business in government. Indeed, ‘Scottish business’ is presented as a homogenous block, as if there is not differential and diverging interests within that group. While one positive is that conditionality is proposed on public-funding of businesses, including the need for companies to apply fair work principles, it is unclear whether this will be applied systematically to all parts of public funding, including procurement and infrastructure spending. There were plenty of warm words for care workers and unpaid carers, but nothing by way of concrete measures to tackle poverty pay and poor conditions. And while the report claims it is “not just a shopping list”, that is exactly what it reads like, as there are no proposals for anything to be de-prioritised or for any taxes to be raised or new taxes created. Of course it proposes increased borrowing powers for the Scottish Government, but this is neither new nor sufficient on its own without major economic re-structuring.
This is a crisis like none any of us have seen, but beneath the progressive buzz-words there is a startling lack of bold ideas in this report. I have to agree with Caroline Rance of Friends of the Earth Scotland, who said the report “offers little in the way of new thinking or concrete measures that will challenge the inequalities, poverty and climate pollution in Scotland.” I’d add that neither does it offer new thinking or concrete measures for job creation, infrastructure investment or high street renewal. In fact, there is little by way of new thinking full stop.
On one level you could say it is a good thing that everyone now seems to agree that we should have a “resilient wellbeing economy”, with GDP growth clearly de-emphasised in this report. But what does it really mean without any clarity about what that means nor plan for how to get there? If we can agree that mass unemployment and rising poverty makes us neither resilient nor provides wellbeing, where is the specific measures to stop us hurtling towards this disastrous outcome, as Scotland is currently? Why is there not one proposal here for those with plenty of wealth in Scotland to give a little bit more back to support those without? Where are the public works schemes; specific industry plans to de-carbonise heating systems and to deliver a modal shift in transport? We need an economic plan commensurate to the scale of the crisis we face – this is not it.
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