Changing the Tone: Some Thoughts on the Growth Commission (May 2018)

Tactics is what you do when there’s something to do; strategy is what you do when there is nothing to do” — advice as useful for the politician as for the student of chess; to whom it was directed by the Polish-French grandmaster, Savielly Tartakower.

A key dynamic of chess, familliar to politics and business, is the challenge of executing a plan while simultaneously thwarting that of your opponent. In some respects, it is a distillation of the tensions that exists in everyday life between the proactive and the reactive; the positive and the negative; the optimistic and the pessimistic. Success depends on mastery of these competing forces.

Unrestrained optimism risks rash decisions and foolish blunders. Overbearing pessimism may mean chances passed over and promising opportunities rejected. And just as success on the chessboard requires these competing drives be held in balance; so does credibility in politics.

The recently published Growth Commission represents, in my view, an attempt to bring a balanced and reasonable tone to the debate on Scotland. It recognises, with refreshing honesty, the challenges and opportunities that face Scotland; both now and under independence. Most importantly, it challenges politicians to recalibrate their minds to the business of shaping events rather than being shaped by them.

With regard to competing approaches, the report implicitly rejects the fantasies of the Coybnite far-left, which assume that the UK shifting to a command economy would be met without consequence.

Equally, the Commission rejects the Tories’ unionist fatalism, which maintains that membership of the UK represents the best of all possible worlds for Scotland.

For the Yes movement, it provides a boost to those of us who want the debate on Scottish independence to prioritise substantive issues beyond the question of when a referendum should be held. As such, the work of the Commission compliments the initiatives already undertaken by a range of individuals and organisations since September 2014.

Most importantly, the Growth Commission is a friendly hand on the shoulder, reminding us that there is a world beyond the absurdist and depressing shadow theatre of Brexit, which has sustained our baffled and despairing gaze for the past two years.

With the report’s publication, there is now an opportunity for all politicians and wider society to study and debate its contents. Doing so would demonstrate that politics in Scotland retains the capacity to engage in serious conversation, at a time when it has become increasingly partisan and acrimonious.

An open and broad discussion would also force politicians to think beyond the election cycle, given that the fundamental challenges we face as a country will not be resolved in one parliamentary term or solely through embracing one set of constitutional arrangements or another.

With politics in such flux, both in the UK and globally, it is easy to feel that on many of the big questions there is nothing for Scotland to do but be carried along by the political tides and hope for a safe landing. Such sentiments can lead to a sense of hopelessness. They need to be addressed with a level headed and strategic response. That is exactly what the Growth Commission delivers.