An open letter to Ian Blackford MP.

DEAR Ian, we have been comrades in mischief in the national movement for a long time. I’m sorry to see you quitting Westminster because I suspect there are hard times ahead. Equally, I worry that the large SNP contingent in the erroneously dubbed “Mother of Parliaments” has failed to do very much since you and I were elected back in 2015.

Trying to be amenable at Westminster just means you get ignored. And there are only so many speeches you can make to empty Tory benches without sounding like a gramophone record – even if they are good speeches.

So I hope you are considering a move to Holyrood. And I welcome your newly published report outlining a roadmap for a “green industrial strategy” for Scotland. We desperately need to have a fresh debate about our economic strategy, before and after independence.

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We are now in an era where neoliberalism has been replaced by competing nations – starting with the United States – pouring effort and treasure into developing green industries while raising protective barriers against foreign entrants.

Free competition is being replaced by protection and state subsidy of national champions. Scotland is in danger of either being eliminated as a serious industrial economy or subsumed into an offshore source of cheap labour. We need a plan!

Unfortunately, Ian, your new report – Roadmap for a Scottish Green Industrial Strategy – lacks bite. I do not wish to be unduly critical. I commend the SNP group at Westminster for initiating this document. Fresh thinking is vital regarding economic policy. It is just that I don’t see a lot of fresh thinking.

The main proposal is for a Scottish Industrial Strategy Council bringing together the main players in government, business, agencies and institutions. This super-agency would report to the First Minister and have its own secretariat in the FM’s office. It would “set priorities” and “review progress”. But would it have any teeth, Ian?

Such a co-ordinating body with the power to knock heads together, enforce strategic objectives, and incentivise shifts in resource and labour allocation, is a plausible notion. But there are a few problems.

The National: George Kerevan has questions about Ian Blackfords new reportGeorge Kerevan has questions about Ian Blackfords new report (Image: PA)

First, exactly who is setting strategic objectives? Your report – beyond referring to this new industrial strategy council – simply lists a veritable host of previous sectoral studies covering different bits of the Scottish economy. Since the 2008 banking crisis, Scotland has been bombarded with economic studies. This is a jumble. We can’t do everything. We can’t promote every industry. Something has to be de-prioritised. Who decides, Ian?

Are you suggesting a shift from market-led development, which has seen industry atrophy in Scotland, seen the total failure to create local jobs in offshore electricity, and seen much of Scottish business taken-over for foreign control?

Are you arguing your industrial strategy council will replace this approach with state direction, backed up by the sort of massive financial incentives the Biden administration is throwing at US green tech?

In which case, will our state-owned Scottish National Investment Bank be ordered to allocate loans according to the direction laid down by the industrial strategy council? I hope so. And ditto for so-called “independent” agencies such as Scottish Enterprise – which won’t be independent anymore.

Somehow, Ian, I don’t think your report is really up for that, which is a pity. I might be wrong and please correct me if I am, but the document is replete with the usual platitudes regarding greater co-operation between the Scottish government and the business community.

Unfortunately, past experience suggests that politicians and civil servants preaching greater partnership with business in the absence of a genuine national economic strategy usually end up surrendering to commercial pressure.

The track record of the SNP government in recent years has been one of surrender to the needs of foreign investors. The result is that (pre-Covid data) roughly one-fifth of Scottish national income flowed out of the country in returns to foreign and rUK capital. In other words, our present economic strategy is beggaring the country.

WHY is your report, Ian, so negligent in this matter? Might it have something to do with the “experts” you and the Westminster group got to write the report? They are Sir Martin Donnelly, ex-Cabinet Office, ex-Foreign Office and ex-head of the Department of Business; and Professor Dominic Houlder of the London Business School.

Sir Martin left the civil service in 2016 and walked straight into the job of European head of Boeing, the American defence contractor which is the biggest supplier of weapons to the UK military.

I consider it a moral outrage that the civil servant responsible for developing, protecting and regulating British industry should walk out of Whitehall and into the top job at an arms manufacturer desperate to flog planes and kit to the MoD. Why did Boeing hire Sir Martin? Because he is a good chap? Because he is a fantastic businessman? Or because of his contacts in the UK state procurement agencies? Take your pick. But Ian, surely in an independent Scotland we will not let former civil servants walk into lucrative jobs with companies doing business with Holyrood.

What should be Scotland’s strategic economic goals? I note in your foreword, Ian, that you are sceptical of merely proclaiming in vague terms a turn to the “green economy” without specifying how we build the supply chain links between different sectors.

You rightfully note the woeful lack of industrial investment in the Scottish economy and the resulting poor levels of productivity. These must be addressed at root. Surely that agenda would command the initial interest of the industrial strategy council?

But raising investment levels is politically problematic. Scotland’s ratio of fixed capital formation to GDP is around 16% compared with an average of around 23% for the OCD industrial nations. So we need to shift the equivalent of circa 5% of the entire economy from consumption and public spending to investment. That’s a heck of a shift. Do politicians really have the balls to do that? Certainly not while Scotland is part of the UK. An insurgent, independent Scotland dedicated to building a new society might just mobilise public opinion for such a project.

And what industries will we invest in? Every nation and its uncle is prioritising de-carbonisation as the economic target. Common sense says Scotland can’t compete across the range of green technologies. Also, we are too small an economy to generate sufficient wealth without exporting.

READ MORE: How the SNP can win Scottish voters back from Labour

So common sense also suggests we need to pick some key technologies to specialise in and to sell to the rest of the globe. Alternatively – and here’s an intellectual leap – why not go for tech that everyone else is ignoring? Scotland is good at higher education and medicine, so where can we add tech for a global advantage?

Can governments pick industrial winners? Of course not. But neither can private entrepreneurs. It is a case of offering something new to the market and seeing if customers respond.

What state intervention can do is force the pace of change. If you can do that, Ian, your new report might earn a gold star.

But the jury is still out.