That will be one of the key questions when the Scottish Conservative Party conference kicks off in Aberdeen this weekend.
The need for a new economic approach for Scotland is more pressing than ever. Under this SNP government, we’ve seen over a decade of low growth – an average of just 0.7% over the 11 years the nationalists have been in office. Contrast that anaemic performance to Scotland’s long-term economic growth rate of 2% and you see that the issue is real and pressing.
Alex Salmond’s plan to “reindustrialise” Scotland when he gained office was side-tracked by the independence referendum of 2014. Since then, Nicola Sturgeon has shown little understanding of how to grasp the economic agenda. All economic focus has been lost in her blinkered pursuit of another Independence referendum. She’s not even hiding it; declaring that ‘Independence transcends national income’. We disagree. We know that it is only through a strong economy that Scotland can support and improve our vital public services which provide so much of our quality of life.
I am not a politician by trade. After growing up in Scotland, I spent twenty years working with businesses across the UK, Europe, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Singapore. I came home during the independence referendum to campaign to keep the UK together – and ended up as a Scottish Conservative MSP.
This roundabout path to politics has taught me a few things. First, the impact of good economic policy can be profound. When I first worked in Singapore in the 1990’s, it was a far cry from the dynamic and world-beating economy it is today. I witnessed close-hand how this transformation came about as a result of a ‘whole-of-government’ focus on economic growth.
Second, there is an unlimited pool of interest and goodwill towards Scotland and its produce around the world. Go to southeast Asia, or China, or anywhere in Europe and people know and identify with Scotland’s culture and our world-class industries.
But economic growth doesn’t come without hard work. No country is handed it on a plate. In a competitive global marketplace, we need both vision and endeavour to secure it. In short, we need this ‘whole-of-Government’ focus on economic growth I witnessed abroad, back here in Scotland. Just think how much could have already been achieved if all of the effort and energy and hours this SNP government put into pushing for independence over the last 11 years, had been devoted to growing Scotland’s economy instead.
As part of our policy review for the 2021 Scottish elections, the Scottish Conservatives have been working hard on ways to return Scotland to the sort of year-on-year growth rates which make such a positive difference to how we fund those services most dear to us.
We don’t claim to have a monopoly on wisdom, which is why we set up a Scottish Future Growth Council, bringing together experts in trade, business, economics and public policy. The Council will publish its first report this week. We want to use party conference to start outlining the ideas to take Scotland forward so that, when Ruth Davidson challenges Nicola Sturgeon to become First Minister in 2021, people know we have a plan that is ready to go.
First and foremost, we would provide strategic focus. By opposing any more referendums on constitutional change, all that energy currently expended by the nationalist government intent on breaking up Britain can be redirected into prioritising Scotland’s economic potential. The Scottish Government already has all the powers available to deliver higher growth, it just needs to use them properly. We promise to get on with creating a new Scottish TIGER economy from day one.
That economy would be built around the priorities of Technology, Innovation, Global Trade, Employment and Regional growth.
It’s a plan that embraces the technological revolution we are now living through, as change sweeps through our lives. A plan that puts our world-class Universities and Colleges at its heart – adopting best-practice from places like the Greater Boston Area where Harvard and MIT drive innovation.
It’s a plan that focuses on boosting our global trade through our export industries, leveraging the incredibly powerful global Scottish diaspora – an aim our Growth Council endorses in full. That improves skills and delivers real lifelong learning so everyone can qualify for a well paid job. And finally, a plan that ensures all parts of Scotland – not just the central belt - benefit, with a strategy that recognizes the different strengths of Scotland’s varied demographic and geographic nature.
Importantly, it’s a comprehensive plan with real focus. The current government has been criticised for too many overlapping, redundant or competing strategies that clutter up the economic landscape. We would sweep the bureaucracy away and ensure that we focus public and private sectors on one clear mission – restoring growth to Scotland’s economy.
How would this translate in reality? If we run the next Scottish Government, we would, within the first 100 days, convene a major international conference of leaders from business – both here and abroad - from universities, foreign investors, unions and other public bodies to get input and support for a new 10-year economic strategy based on our TIGER model. That plan would then be implemented with the full weight of government behind it.
The SNP likes to blame its lack of progress on the fact it lost the referendum and Scotland is still a part of the UK. The truth is that all the policy levers we need are already at the Scottish Government’s disposal. Comparing us to Ireland’s ‘celtic tiger’ model, the only power that isn’t held at a Scottish level that Ireland used in its economic revolution was the power to cut Corporation tax. And since, at a UK level, Corporation tax rates are already at one of the lowest levels of any advanced economy, it is unclear how the nationalists would have used this tool, if at all.
The choice is clear.
The SNP will always put constitutional division before economic growth, and it will spend years doing so. That’s not scaremongering on my part – their own Growth Commission Report argues that the chaos and pain of independence is required to see Scotland prosper in the future.
The Scottish Conservatives see things differently. We believe Scotland can thrive now, can achieve the sort of impressive growth rates that were all too familiar before the nationalists took office. We believe Scotland, as part of the UK, is already a great nation ready to take on the world.
Come the 2021 elections, the SNP will have been in power for 14 years. For the vast majority of this period they will have caused deep uncertainty by campaigning for Independence - raising questions about the future direction of Scotland’s economy and even what currency we will be in use in the future.
We believe that Scotland’s economy post-2021 can enjoy a post-Nationalist bounce. With the right vision and application – and the massive uncertainty of Independence put to one side - business confidence and investment will return, enhancing the lives of all our citizens. Together with our plans to create a TIGER economy, we will restore Scotland’s long-term economic growth levels.
At this conference, and with two years to go until the next election, we want to show people we are thinking about how to turn that vision into a reality. We are taking the first steps to delivering a Scottish tiger economy which can roar again.This article was originally published on Conservative Home.