EARLIER this week more than 200 charities, unions, academics and campaigners signed an open letter calling on Humza Yousaf to follow through with transitioning Scotland towards a wellbeing economy.

In response, the Scottish Government re-emphasised its commitment to moving away from measuring economic success solely by GDP and factoring in other aspects of what make life prosperous, sustainable and enjoyable across generations.

But Frances Rayner, communications lead for the Wellbeing Economy Alliance Scotland, told The Sunday National that while commitments are welcomed, they need to start being backed up by action.

“The Scottish Government has in many ways been a leader in the wellbeing economy movement,” she said.

“It was a founding member of the Wellbeing Economy Governments Partnership and we’ve had the creation of the Cabinet Secretary for Wellbeing Economy, currently held by Neil Gray.

“But it has been saying these things for quite a while, now. Yet we haven’t seen much in the way of tangible moves to actually change our economy.”

In response to the open letter, Neil Gray (below) said that the government could do a better job of "articulating" what a wellbeing economy means and stated that he was open to the idea of including wellbeing economy metrics in the Scottish Government's annual budget (as is done in New Zealand). 

However, while he claimed the government would go “as fast as we can” in the move to a wellbeing economy, the minister also stated that this was constrained 

The Scottish Child Payment can also be regarded as a move in the right direction, added Rayner.

The National: cabinet secretary for wellbeing economy fair work and energy Neil Graycabinet secretary for wellbeing economy fair work and energy Neil Gray (Image: PA)

Using the devolved powers at their disposal to tackle child poverty in a manner not replicated by the rest of the UK shows what is possible when wellbeing is made central to policy.

Yet despite the success of the Scottish Child Payment, there are still warnings that the government is in danger of missing its 2030 child poverty targets.

Which is why organisations like the Wellbeing Economy Alliance have raised concerns about where wellbeing lies in the list of priorities, particularly in regard to the New Deal for Business – a government initiative which aims “to help business and trade thrive and maximise the opportunity of the green economy”.

New Deal for Business and BP

In essence, the government wants to work more closely with businesses when crafting policy.

Yet while the New Deal for Business group did contain a subgroup on the wellbeing economy, questions have been raised about whether some stakeholders invited to contribute can really be trusted to put wellbeing over profit.

“I think it’s really important that businesses are given the opportunity to give feedback on how policies are going to work in practice,” said Rayner.

“But the whole focus of this group seems to be about how to make things better for business in a fairly generic way. It isn’t about asking what kinds of businesses we really need to be supporting.

“For example, BP sit on the subgroup for the wellbeing economy.

“They’re one of the biggest polluters in the world. Their CEO described the company as resembling a ‘cash machine’.

"While people struggle with their energy bills and get told its down to the war in Ukraine and other forces beyond our control, these companies get richer and richer.

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“So, the fact BP are there advising about what a wellbeing economy should look like is kind of mind blowing.”

The failure of the government to invite some groups which many believe to be integral to the debate has also been criticised.

Social Enterprise Scotland, an organisation which brings together and advocates for social enterprises across the country, was not included in the wellbeing economy subgroup.

Brian Weaver, interim CEO at Social Enterprise Scotland, told The Sunday National: "Social Enterprise Scotland welcomes the creation of the New Deal for Business group and the valuable contributions of those who have participated in the group so far.

"However, alongside other business purpose bodies, we believe that any further work carried out by the group must include the voices of social enterprise, employee ownership, cooperatives and other values-led business organisations."

Economic orthodoxy and the need for bold action

The Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) has already provided advice on how the Scottish Government could use the powers already at its disposal to raise tax to better fund public services and boost public sector wages.

It is actions such as this that Rayner said would show commitment to the principles of a wellbeing economy in practice and not just on paper.

She said: “That could include embedding fair work by ensuring that all governmental support for the private sector is contingent on their commitment to wellbeing economy goals.

“That doesn’t mean that businesses need to become entirely environmentally sustainable or employee-owned tomorrow.

“It just means that there’s some commitment to ensuring we have a future where everyone is paid fairly, works in good conditions, and doesn’t harm the environment in the course of their job.”

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The embrace of freeports and investment zones may seem to run anathema to this goal.

Localised tax cuts and the relaxation of planning regulations don’t exactly speak to putting human wellbeing ahead of profit.

Indeed, the established doctrine of business practice means that a great deal of money will be spent by the private sector in lobbying against policies that may ultimately impact their profits. But the wellbeing economy movement is up to the challenge, said Rayner.

“If there aren’t vested interests working against you, then you’re not really trying to change anything meaningful,” she said.

“The change we’re trying to achieve is substantial and over the long-term. Yet, we’ve already been surprised at how engaged businesses have been with the idea.

“It’s genuinely amazing to see the level of support that’s there when we reach out to people: whether that’s children’s charities, faith groups or small c conservative organisations.

“We’re not going to end poverty tomorrow. But if we change the way we make economic decisions then that goal could be achieved fairly quickly.

“It’s just going to take some bold leadership.”