Exploring the Scottish Economy

by Ken Gibb

My last official act with Policy Scotland is to participate today in a launch for our edited book ‘The Scottish Economy: A Living Book’. I edited this new overview with Duncan Maclennan, Des McNulty and Michael Comerford. We are immensely grateful to all of those who contributed to the book’s 19 substantial chapters. We think it is a genuinely useful and serious contribution to an empirical understanding of both the state of key sectors and the economic challenges the country faces.

Of course, Scotland is a place for different kinds of economic debates – those that mirror wider conceptual and empirical debates elsewhere about macroeconomic policy, government intervention, national strategies and what works. But is also, rightly or wrongly, where so much of the constitutional debate about Scotland turns. Just in the last week, both aspects of these debates have surfaced as a result of the Scottish Government’s publication of the new GERS data on Scotland’s public finances and in the anticipated economic strategy content of the new Programme for Government to be launched next week.

This book has a unique history. Sir Alec Cairncross established the Department of Social and Economic Research at the University of Glasgow after the 2nd world war as an empirical research–intensive group of social scientists. In the mid 1950s, he edited a book entitled ‘The Scottish Economy’, featuring an empirical account of all the major Scottish sectors, which involved wrestling with often quite primitive data, but as was characteristic of the diagnostic investigative approach, often featuring remarkable forensic analysis of what was available. Of course, post war Scotland is in some respects now barely recognizable but many root issues and characteristics like inequality, spatial variation, the problems confronting Glasgow and the debates over strategy, productivity and growth still to the fore.

The Department of Social and Economic Research begat the Department of Urban Studies in the 1990s and now Urban Studies is a successful subject area in the School of Social and Political Sciences. The ESRC Centre for Housing Research, led by Duncan Maclennan, was located within S&ER, where, for a couple of years, Sir Alec’s daughter, Liz, was a researcher with us. We thought that as a commemoration of that excellent path breaking empirical study, we should seek to re-create its essence 60 years on. Although the subject material has changed (we don’t, for instance, have a chapter on the church in Scotland), we have, we hope, produced a significant substantial volume that should add value for academics, students, political and commentariat classes across many domains in Scotland. Retaining the link to the history of the book, we were delighted that Frances Cairncross could offer a foreword and Laurie Hunter, long term head of the department of Social and Economic Research, could add an afterword, too.

The book has a series of five chapters at the beginning of the book that are broad-based about the history of the Scottish economy since the 1950s, including one on the development of economic policy, alongside chapters on fiscal matters, the contemporary landscape and the Scottish population. We then move on to a series of sector or more topic-specific chapters concerned with issues as diverse as: oil and gas, infrastructure, rural Scotland, education, health, housing, the environment and renewables, the financial sector, urban Scotland, women in the labour force, local government finance, inequality and poverty, and government’s place in economic strategy. Chapters combine careful analysis of descriptive material with reflection on current and future challenges.

The main strength of the book is that we have assembled many of the key writers academic and non-academic who can write with authority on these matters (and they have done so). Second, a distinctive feature is the ‘living book’ element, by which we mean the updatable accompanying website which visualises much of the data contained in these chapters. The empirical focus is a drect legacy of the original Cairncross volume and we hope readers will find it useful. We also intend to use the website to provide periodic additional content, perhaps through blogs and author/editor notes.

In this way, and short of further editions (which we hope there will be an appetite for in time), we hope to overcome the classic problems such volumes face (subsequent events overtake the book). Our main such example, which only features in the introduction, is Brexit. Several of our authors (and indeed one editor) are thoroughly versed in the economic debates around leaving the European Union but our timescales precluded adding a further chapter late in the day. I hope the website will be able to host a series of contributions on that pivotal topic.

It is a nice way to sign off from Policy Scotland and I would like to thank my editorial colleagues, all the 33 contributors, the publisher and Policy Scotland staff and interns and for doing such a great job throughout the project. I wish the new director Chris Chapman well and Policy Scotland continued success. The new housing evidence centre, CacHE, will be working directly with Policy Scotland and we will have many continuing overlapping strands.