Johnstone’s View - Trying to pass the buck

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A few months ago, the Scottish National Party was telling us that they could fund an independent Scotland using the never-ending revenue from high oil prices.

Four months later, oil prices are half what they were on September 19.

The Scottish Government now know that, by losing the referendum on Scottish independence so comprehensively, they dodged a bullet which they had been unable to see coming.

We are all aware of the serious challenges facing the oil and gas sector and, in particular, the economy of north-east Scotland.

Those involved in the industry want Scotland’s two governments to work together on this issue, to try to find practical ways of helping those affected. Sadly, all we got in the Scottish Parliament last week was yet another example of the minister refusing to take responsibility and trying to pass the buck entirely to Westminster for action.

Problems like this are not new. Only six years ago, oil prices were at a low point, lower than they are today, after a $100 fall and at that time the economy of the whole United Kingdom was in a deep recession from which few of us, including the Labour Government of the day, could ever see us recovering.

Today, the UK has one of the fastest rates of growth in the developed world. Since 2010, net employment has gone up by 1.75 million and 2.2 million new private sector jobs have been created, three quarters of which are full-time. Inflation is coming down and wages are rising faster than prices. This is a good-news story.

Of course, Scotland’s nationalist government likes to claim all the credit for the good news but that does not quite add up when you consider that they have been telling us for years that they don’t have the power to make a difference, because they don’t have the economic levers, so they can hardly claim all the credit for the success.

And, of course, it was also they who, at every step along the way, opposed the approach that George Osborne and the UK Government have taken, and which has delivered the success. The nationalists were not alone in doing that; they stood shoulder to shoulder with the Labour Party in its critique of the UK Government’s approach. Mr Swinney and Ed Balls could virtually have been twins, so close was their critique of the coalition Government’s approach. They called for a ‘Plan B’, and told us that the chancellor’s plans would never work. They have been proved wrong.

There have, however, been a few problems in Scotland, which we should not ignore. The retail figures for Scotland in quarters two and three last year showed a decrease, although retail figures went up elsewhere in the UK. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors residential market survey showed a decline in property sales in September, which it said was due to market uncertainty. The Federation of Small Businesses confidence survey showed a fall in the final quarter of 2014 that was greater than that in the UK as a whole. That means that Scotland is the third lowest-placed part of the UK for business confidence, behind only the north-east of England and Northern Ireland.

The common factor with all these figures was September’s independence referendum and its impact on business confidence. The Scottish Government cannot claim credit for all the good news when in fact, it was their own obsession with the constitution which set us back. While we in the north-east are right to be concerned about the fall in oil prices, we must always remember that, this time, it comes not at the bottom of a recession but at a time of steep economic growth and improving business confidence.

As ever, what we need is a more competitive Scotland. There is good news out there, but more could be done and, if they just had the will, the Scottish Government could be doing it. I support the small business bonus, which is continuing. I have opposed the retail levy, which is now being scrapped. That is good news. There are, however, benefits to retailers south of the border in relation to rates that have not been introduced in Scotland. We are seeing the rates of land and buildings transaction tax being imposed in Scotland from the spring that, again, will put us at a competitive disadvantage compared with the rest of the United Kingdom.

All those matters are under the Scottish Government’s control and it could be dealing with all of them now if it wanted to do so.

We had a lucky escape last September and as a result, we are still part of an economy which is showing the way forward; let’s take that chance and make Scotland even better.