Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

Scottish economy shouldn’t be measured by case for independence

This article by Alison Payne first appeared in The Times on 18 August 2023

The publication of the latest Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland (Gers) report has been greeted by the now familiar annual argument about what the data means for the constitutional debate. But, important as the headline figures are, there are many other issues raised by the data that require further discussion.

Our fixation on measuring the Scottish economy against the UK is not always helpful. We are told that this year revenue raised per person in Scotland is slightly higher than that for UK as a whole. This has been put down to the increase in oil revenue – last year we were lower. But the dominance of London in UK figures can skew that comparison. Scotland, whether independent or part of the UK, will always struggle to compete with London.

However, we should aim, and are capable of being, ahead of the rest. Comparing Scotland with the other regions and countries of the UK could be more meaningful and offer greater insight into both our successes and where we need more focus. For example, why does Yorkshire and the Humber, without the devolution we enjoy, have a better business birth rate than Scotland?

The Scottish economy is just as diverse as the UK one and a more detailed breakdown within Scotland would also be beneficial. It is not just the difference between urban and rural areas — even our two biggest cities, Edinburgh and Glasgow, are performing very differently at present. Why is that? Would a comparison between Glasgow and Manchester offer better insight than simply Scotland versus the UK? Unfortunately the data produced by the different governments and the ONS isn’t always consistent and comparable and that needs to be corrected.

However, there is one area highlighted by Gers where we can clearly compare Scotland with the UK, and where Scotland is, unfortunately, undoubtedly punching above our weight — revenue raised from tobacco and alcohol duties. The report refers to our “greater incidence of smoking” and our “higher consumption of spirits”. These are not benchmarks to be proud of. With our NHS near breaking point, figures such as these should be a wake-up call. Politicians often talk of early intervention and preventative policies — reducing our consumption of both needs to be a clear part of any strategy.

Gers can offer so much more than an annual bun fight around independence. There are a number of important questions that the data raises. Questions that we can’t afford to ignore — and all parties should be seeking answers to.