Wednesday 24 December 2008

Humble action the imperative

A comment on my previous post gave me pause for thought. The SNP Scottish Government has a long list of achievements from its 18 months in power - a list which would be noteworthy even for a Government with a majority of seats in Parliament, and is even more noteworthy for a Government with only 36% of the seats in Parliament. It's a record that any political party should be proud of and that in any other situation we should be celebrating, but it pales at the moment because the clunking fist of recession is beating at the doors of Scottish households and that's what's focusing the minds of all of us.

People who have been or are being made redundant are thinking about employment prospects, pensioners are concerned about the future of their pensions, graduates about where they go from here. I know that the Scottish Government members - Cabinet Secretaries and Ministers - have similar concerns and are frustrated at the lack of economic tools at the disposal of the Government. While doing what they can with the powers at their disposal, they are pressuring the Westminster Government and conducting research to lay out a routemap out of this mess. Jim Mather laid out some of the efforts to help the construction industry on Thursday:
We are accelerating our investment plans in affordable housing and bringing forward capital investment plans. We are also increasing investment in school building programmes, allocating additional funding for college and university capital projects and increasing funding for capital programmes in the health sector. We will continue an active dialogue with the construction and house-building industries through the Scottish construction forum and the housing supply task force.
He also mentioned the Scottish Government's support for a VAT cut to 5% for home improvements and repairs (something that other countries are doing) which was rejected by Darling.

The Scottish Government's Council of Economic Advisors advised that the country would have been better served by investment in the construction industry than by Darling's blanket VAT cut, and you have to assume that the UK Government got the same advice. Admittedly, that would be a longer-term solution rather than a fillip to get a shaken Government through an election, but it would be acting in the long-term interests of the country.

The economic news is not encouraging, and it appears to continue to get bleaker, suggesting that it may be quite some time before we see some relief from this. The instant figures from the ONS have various timelags, but few of them seem to have any encouraging news. It looks increasingly like it will be the average-sized nations of the arc of prosperity that will lead the way out of recession - including Iceland where the business community is gearing up for rebuilding that nation's economy in the wake of the IMF refloating - economic manoeuvrability will be essential in the next year or two.

The Scottish Government is doing what it can to make the situation easier for people the length and breadth of Scotland but frontloading capital spend, easing restrictions on local government and reducing business rates will take time to filter through the system while things like the Council Tax freeze, reducing and then removing prescription charges, and increasing support for benefits checks will have some effect, but are not, on their own, enough. Having control of all of the levers of economic power would have allowed Scotland to proof its economy against the coming storm to some degree, but that is not the case at the moment and we will have to continue arguing for proper economic power to come home and persuade Scotland of the merits of that case.

In the meantime, though, political leaders should show some humility in the face of these difficulties - a characteristic that has been evident among Scottish Ministers. The manner in which Ministers bear the responsibility they carry is almost as important as the actions they take - far better to have honest humility than overblown hubris, far better to do what you can than to have claimed to have saved the world.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Smack on the money there,Callum.

I live in Belgium and we are not expecting Gordon Brown over anytime soon to lecture the rest of the EU on the benefits of light touch regulation and innovative financial instruments, which he was keen to do up till recently. As to the crackpot blanket VAT cut, well! Its not just the Germans who think that is hopeless, Sarkozy has also said it's pointless given the deep price discounting which is current.

Much more effective would be an increase in government expenditure in Scotland coupled to the local tax freeze the SNP has engineered.

Salmond and Swinney are in tune with Europe in combatting the recession, not Brown and Darling despite the smug hubris of the latter pair.