Robin McAlpine: 'Your bloody GDP, not ours' - why the Growth Commission might not change minds

Common Weal director Robin McAlpine argues that if the SNP’s Growth Commission on the economics of an independent Scotland plums for a New Zealand high-growth model, they will have a tough job selling it to the public

IN THE wake of the first news from the Growth Commission (that New Zealand is the new nirvana) there seems to be an expectation that this is going to be some kind of battle with Common Weal. I don't want to encourage that kind of thinking if it can be avoided.

But I do want to ask a question, not about ideology or politics (the policy case against the New Zealand model has been made well, here, here and here) but about pragmatism.

My question is quite simple – how does this shift to focussing on New Zealand actually help the independence movement?

Let me start with a disclosure; Andrew Wilson and Graeme Blackett (the two main people behind the work) very kindly invited me in for a briefing on the outline contents of the report last summer. I've studiously maintained that confidence and so am commenting only on what appeared in the Sunday Herald. And I wish to imply no lack of commitment to independence from either – I know them both to be long-term, committed supporters.

That said, I can't work out what it is that makes them think that more people will want to vote for the Blairite New Zealand model than would vote for the social democratic Nordic model.

READ MORE – Analysis: New Zealand – The “billionaire bolthole” primed for a crash

And in particular, I am thinking about key swing voters and not least women, older people and the struggling middle classes (the groups I think are our 'key constituency' for winning next time, along with re-motivating lower income voters and the young).

There are three factors which traditionally tend to be important to these groups – the quality of public services, the stability of the housing situation and the general level of security or insecurity in their lives.

That given, how does a policy model based on a country with three decades of substantial cuts in public services, the world's most unstable housing market and a low level of employment protection encourage these groups?

I mean, what exactly are we going to say on the doorsteps – 'vote for independence because we'll reduce your employment rights so we can reduce the long-term fiscal deficit'?

Or 'vote Yes for less investment in public services and more support for corporations'? I suspect that this is a 'growth pitch' – GDP first. But has anyone been following public attitudes to GDP?

The Greens have a coherent policy problem with the impact of GDP growth. The public have an even bigger problem – they've been told GDP growth will make them rich, oh since almost exactly the moment when real wages started to stagnate in the early 1990s (real wage growth has been slowing constantly since 1970).

“I mean, what exactly are we going to say on the doorsteps – 'vote for independence because we'll reduce your employment rights so we can reduce the long-term fiscal deficit'?”

My question is the same question the public now asks – if GDP growth is going to fix our problems, why has more than 30 years of GDP growth not fixed our problems? Or, famously as the Brexit debate heckler said: 'that's your bloody GDP, not ours'.

Growth on its own is a busted narrative. Wolf has been cried too many times, at least for those not in the top 20 or 30 per cent of income earners.

So, what's left? Other than the vague sense that it's an 'anglo-speaking' country with links to Scotland, why should a wavering No voter want to live in New Zealand-ified Scotland?

I mean, what's the story? For the Nordic model we said (roughly) 'an economy with higher wages and a society with better democracy lead to better public services and stronger communities'. Is there a better story than this really to be found 'down under'?

I can find only three real strategic motivations for this kind of narrative shift.

The first is back to 'financial sector first'. That's the idea that if we don't 'reassure the market' that an independent Scotland will be a 'compliant client' and do what we're told, everything else will be undermined and we won't be able to make the case under banker-fire.

The second is 'Tory swing voters' – the idea that the difference between winning and losing is how many Tory voters we can win over, meaning we need a Tory-friendly pitch.

The third (that I can see) is that this is about ideology rather than strategy, that (least cynically) those involved just really, really believe this will work or (more cynically) that this is really a pitch to move the 2021 SNP Holyrood manifesto sharply to the right.

READ MORE – Unstable and unequal New Zealand economy not a good model for an independent Scotland, economists warn

But we've been here before. Everyone remembers the last 18 months of the last independence campaign, the 'exciting, rainbow, Nordic' phase. People tend to forget the preceding 18 months when it was all about GDP and spreadsheets and corporation tax cuts.

Those were sold to us because we needed to win over the corporations and the financial sector first because otherwise they'll just spend the whole campaign shooting at us.

It was silly and naïve – they were always, always going to be shooting at us. The idea that we can stuff opponents mouths with gold such that they will be nice about Scottish independence is daft.

The international banks and corporations weren't going to take sides against the global political order for the sake of a three pence cut in corporation tax in a small economy like Scotland's, and they're not going to do it for the sake of a bit of deregulation in such a comparatively small market.

Then there's the Tory argument. One of Yes Scotland's strategists told me in 2013 that 'this referendum is all about the affluent middle classes' – one of the most measurably wrong statements I can recall in politics.

I'm pretty sure the Growth Commission hasn't done public opinion research. At the Scottish Independence Convention we have, and I promise that Tory voters are not saying 'look, be a bit more Tory and we'll give up on Britain'.

There is a very good reason that the grassroots of the independence movement staged an intervention in 2013 and redirected the arguments that were being made in a more idealistic and inspiring direction. Do we really need to learn those lessons again?

“One of Yes Scotland's strategists told me in 2013 that 'this referendum is all about the affluent middle classes' – one of the most measurably wrong statements I can recall in politics.”

One of the strongest messages coming out of the attitude research is that the people most likely to shift from No to Yes are not saying they want a less aspirational, hopeful pitch and instead more spreadsheets.

They're saying they want us to convince them that the attractive vision we put forward is something we can deliver. And they want reassured that we know what we're doing.

That is what Common Weal's White Paper Project was all about. We set aside (as best anyone can) our ideological views and tried to say 'what would a proper process of transition look like?'. In the current mess of Brexit, people want to know there is a solid plan.

I don't want to be cynical. I don't want to believe that this whole initiative has been about a fightback from the political right for the domestic policy agenda of the Scottish Government. But you might not disagree with me when I say that it kind of looks like it a bit.

In short, I can see what the clients of Charlotte Street Partners get out of all of this, but I find it harder to see what the independence movement gets.

I don't want to be divisive or negative, but from where we stand the Growth Commission has an awful lot of work to do to persuade me that this helps us get Scottish independence.

For the grassroots of the movement reading this, you'll be able to judge for yourself how well you can sell this on the doorstep. You may disagree with me, but I caution this; in the short term I doubt the independence movement can cope with another serious miscalculation. And I think this could be it.

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