March 7, 2024

Leadership needed to deliver Scotland that works for all

by Sarah Davidson, Carnegie UK

First published in The Times on 5 March 2024.

As the third Cabinet Secretary with responsibility for the economy since the start of 2023, Màiri McAllan has her work cut out. However, her political leadership will be essential to realising the Government’s stated ambitions for Scotland.

A top priority therefore will be to take heed of the Auditor General for Scotland when he warns that too little progress has been made with the flagship economic strategy. This might require knocking heads across the private and public sectors until everyone agrees to get with the programme. But it can’t mean budging an inch from the existing wellbeing agenda which prioritises a thriving, green economy that works for everyone.

The increasing prominence of the wellbeing movement has apparently bewildered some current affairs commentators. Which is curious, when the idea of valuing human wellbeing goes back at least as far as Aristotle and was restated as a public policy priority over a decade ago in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

A 2008 paper commissioned by the French Government and written by Nobel-prize winning economists said, “the time is ripe for our measurement system to shift emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people’s well-being.”

The implications of this research were clear; a healthy economy is crucial, but only because it sustains our collective wellbeing. The experts underlined the importance of sustainability in policy choices, both in terms of the impact on the environment and avoiding economic activity that might harm our overall interests.  The report was well-received internationally, but especially by policymakers trying to rebuild after the banks took us to the brink.

Little wonder, therefore, that it found favour in a Scotland reeling from that financial meltdown and with a government already interested in a long-term approach to policymaking.  The former First Minister was instrumental in establishing the international Wellbeing Economy Governments group, and more recently the goal of improving Scottish national wellbeing has been expressed in the National Strategy for Economic Transformation and the job titles of Ministers.

But a shift toward a more inclusive economy requires more than just new business cards.  Audit Scotland didn’t mince words in their recent report, warning that the economic strategy “lacks collective political leadership”.Helpfully, the recent reshuffle provides an opportunity for Scottish Ministers to recommit to a long-term vision of a thriving, green and fair Scotland. But they must also provide the cross-government leadership to make it happen.

A crucial first step will be delivering new Wellbeing and Sustainable Development legislation to ensure that all parts of the devolved state in Scotland are working toward improved outcomes for our people and environment.

With one million in poverty in Scotland and global temperatures rising, this isn’t the time for Ministers to get cold feet about an agenda that’s on the right side of history.