Some of you may have seen the letter by Professor Brian Wardle in last week’s Herald (17/12)
THE pertinence of Brian Wilson’s commentary (“We need a root and branch review of how the SNP spends our money”, The Herald, December 13) on the recklessness of the SNP Government’s spending profile is exemplified by the character of the latest Budget (“Changes in key taxes on income and rates alter Scots funding position”, The Herald, December 16).
Economists fear they are in a parallel universe, looking hopefully on the SNP’s declarations for some sign of over-riding rationale. Brian Wilson laments the SNP’s actions and requests accountability for spending and published priorities, but the glaring omission is the failure of decision-taking.
Irresponsible behaviour by the Scottish Government sets the agenda, now increasingly accidental rather than planned, without a comprehensive economic plan. The inability to take effective decisions contributes to the absence of clear actions in pursuit of a strategy of balanced growth, targeted growth, whatever. Government is entirely reactive. Beyond its tawdry chant, blaming Westminster for every misfortune or missed outcome, its defined purpose seems to be to throw all funding at spending platforms ameliorating the effects of the pandemic and multi-sourced inflation. In part, it is responsible government, but it is only a single remedial element of the economic solution. Strategy has to go further, and so too fiscal planning.
We have a paradox. On one hand, we have a very controlling government with a habit-forming characteristic of micro-managing, and with increasingly poor outcomes. On the other hand, there is a lack of economic control, demonstrating an avoidance of strategic vision as well as performance incompetence. Far from the “visible hand” of government, we have the experience of the “hidden hand”: a scenario where government is harried by problems not anticipated. Normally, even this confusion creates creative solutions, but we don’t currently have a government with sufficient political honesty to own up to and deal with its own failings. Just look at the lack of accountability over the ferry fiasco.
Scotland “invented” political economy, the inter-relationship of economic and political science. However, we appear to have subordinated economic reasoning to political expediency, sometimes even fantasising. The plan for growth doesn’t exist, and the economic case is predicated on wishful fatalism… “once we get independence it will be all right, trust us”. Realities are set aside, treated as an abstraction: and we are asked to overlook deterioration in sectors such as education and health, where excellence was previously taken for granted. Scotland even looks shabby, its cities no longer attractive destinations, far less engines of growth.
While no master-plan exists, there is inadequate emphasis on the importance of infrastructure. Scotland’s geography makes shared economic growth a challenge. Yet there is no discussion on the importance of linkages between public investment and growth. We experience serial failings of internal connections, with poor transport linkages to the north and the islands.
We need government with vision and a plan. Bolstered by the Barnett Formula, the Scottish Government has deep knowledge of consequentials, but little understanding of consequence.
Professor William Wardle, Glasgow.
My reply, as follows, has, perhaps surprisingly (or maybe not) not been published. It reads
In a letter where vitriol against the Scottish Government is inversely proportioned to evidence – you know, actual proof – William Wardle bemoans the lack of “a comprehensive economic plan”. However, when you are a devolved government with only some economic powers that is surely difficult. Among the powers retained at Westminster are financial and economic matters; trade and industry; aspects of energy regulation (eg electricity, coal, oil and gas and nuclear energy); aspects of transport (eg regulation of air services, rail and international shipping); and employment including employment law. Hard to manage an economy, particularly “comprehensively” without those.
Even in an area where the Scottish Government does exercise management, Wardle claims that “Scotland even looks shabby”. Yet in 2019 the length of stay by international visitors increased by 16% and their spend per trip by 15%. His claim and the data cannot both be right!
His description of the Scottish Government as one “where government is harried by problems not anticipated” brings to mind when Harold Macmillan was asked what was the greatest challenge for a statesman, he replied: ‘Events, dear boy, events’. Many other leaders recognise that learning to manage is through experience, or as President Kennedy put it, “Good judgement is usually the result of experience. And experience is frequently the result of bad judgement”.
Professor Wardle does though get it right when he continues “The inability to take effective decisions contributes to the absence of clear actions in pursuit of a strategy of balanced growth, targeted growth, whatever”. Correct, pity though that it’s not for the right reasons.
Likewise, he is correct that “We need government with vision and a plan”, but that plan has to be matched by the powers to put the plan into effect. However, his wholly one-sided condemnation, bemoaning an inability to use powers more often than not retained elsewhere, is unreasonable, often inaccurate and as such, unhelpful.
So basically, three main points.
- How do you develop a “comprehensive” (his word) economic strategy when so many of the necessary powers are retained at Westminster. Is it not like complaining that your goldfish doesn’t bark?
- Secondly at least one of his complaints about the Scottish Government isn’t supported by the data. Now this might be just one, but really he doesn’t complain about specifics. This is blunderbuss rather than Exocet.
- Complaining about the failure of the Scottish Government to foresee every event is part of politics, or at least according to Harold McMillan and John Kennedy and I know who I would trust before someone who couldn’t hack it at (what was then) James Watt College. John goes into this in rather more detail than I do here https://talkingupscotlandtwo.com/2020/08/06/herald-finds-another-poison-pennington-to-suggest-scottish-government-needs-a-kicking/
However I don’t want to develop anything in the letter which I think is pretty clear. What I do want to draw attention to in the first place is the level of invective in Wardle’s letter.
Words such as “recklessness”, “Economists fear they are in a parallel universe, looking hopefully on the SNP’s declarations for some sign of over-riding rationale”, “Irresponsible behaviour”, “agenda, now increasingly accidental rather than planned”, “inability to take effective decisions”, “absence of clear actions”, “Government is entirely reactive”, “tawdry chant”, “Strategy has to go further, and so too fiscal planning”.
That is just the first three paragraphs. It would be ok if there were some evidence for any of these slurs but there is none. They are true only because Billy boy says so!
The last one above is emblematic – you see Professor (titular – no giggling) fiscal planning is hard if you only make 30% at best of fiscal decisions (powers over income tax). So, they’re not very good at, they just don’t have the powers. Should this really need to be pointed out?
Of course, there is also the conclusion – that the Scottish Government seem to understand consequentials but not consequences. What the “Professor” seems not to understand is that while the latter is a noun, the former is an adjective coming from that noun.
Oh, and btw, Scotland didn’t invent political economy. There is no doubt that such as Adam Smith and others made significant contributions to the development of the discipline, but as this https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_economic_thought makes clear they were contributing to the development of an existing body of knowledge (eg Smith’s critique of mercantilism).
But the really important point is what a piece of guff like this is doing in what describes itself as a “quality newspaper”. We all know that it isn’t true, but it appears to be being recognised within the portals of the Gerald itself, if they are happy to publish a letter (and a very long one) that is full of the kind of invective that you could hear in a Unionist minded pub, with evidence being not so much scarce as non-existent.
This though is a quality-based critique, but this letter has implications beyond this. Can you imagine anything even remotely like this being applied to the Mother of Parliaments or any of those who carry on within it? This is rather like the sort of thing being written about Boris Johnson shortly before his demise because of his partying days, which was criticism linked to evidence (in this case charges by Police as well as a report by a senior Civil Servant).
As John points out endlessly, the Scottish Government always get a bad press, and if that’s not possible (because the news is too good) then it’s not mentioned. That however, is not just statistically true, it has the important political consequence that it is a human trait to pay attention to threats, and the Scottish Government because of its “failures” etc (just read Wardle again) is a threat to us all.
As I wrote the other day about Sutherland, they must really be wondering why, when all this guff has been written (and broadcast) why support for independence has remained solid and is increasingly as a consequence (it seems) of the Supreme Court decision.
Could it be that what they are missing is that the Scottish electorate are now convinced (or increasingly so) of the need for independence? Salmond’s government focused on demonstrating competence, and perhaps this was necessary at the time. However, since then, has support for independence changed away from being focused on the Scottish Government, to the folly of continuing to be linked to Westminster? This is not to say that support for independence was increased by the goings on of Boris Johnson, but that the Union itself has had its day? In that case, such as Wardle’s letter critiques a government (with no evidence) in a vain attempt to diminish support for independence, when the reasons for that support have moved on.
That though is an issue for another day.