Humza Yousaf’s Social Priorities

Developing the wellbeing economy that the First Minister described in his Jimmy Reid Lecture will require government to rethink its economic priorities and activities, writes Charis Scott.

At the end of October, the First Minister spoke at the tenth annual Jimmy Reid Lecture in Glasgow City Chambers. In the midst of an extremely challenging situation for his own family, some of whom were trapped in Gaza, there was great appreciation around the room for Humza Yousaf honouring this commitment. As the evening marked the tenth anniversary of the annual lectures, Yousaf gave special honour to Jimmy Reid throughout his speech, which included a powerful quote from a speech given by Jimmy himself in 1972:

Government by the people for the people becomes meaningless unless it includes major economic decision-making by the people for the people. This is not simply an economic matter. In essence it is an ethical and moral question, for whoever takes the important economic decisions in society ipso facto determines the social priorities of that society.

Building on these principles, the First Minister spoke with grace and passion as he laid out his vision for a Wellbeing Economy in Scotland without poverty or inequality. It bore some resemblance to the vision of the Wellbeing Economy Alliance Scotland (WEAll Scotland): an economy designed to deliver good lives for all on a healthy planet, built on meaningful democratic processes throughout. A key focus here is on the ‘designed’ aspect. Achieving the vision for Scotland that the First Minister was setting out will require a fundamental redesign of how our economy is set to function.

In a just and compassionate Scotland, we cannot be content with an economy that is delivering growing levels of inequality and poverty while damaging the planet. It doesn’t have to be this way, and Yousaf rightly identified the failure of the current UK economy to reverse these dismal trends. But at the end of the speech we were left with the open question as to how he will achieve the redesign of our economy that is required.

Throughout his speech, Yousaf used the analogy of navigating choppy waters. The metaphor is often used when talking about our economy, and he extended the analogy further to talk about whose hand is on the tiller. Who is in control? We often hear calls for a steady hand to guide our economy but, as the First Minister said: “if you are sailing the ship in the wrong direction, it doesn’t matter if your hand is steady.”

The importance of participation was a welcome theme throughout his speech, from the opening quote above to the nautical metaphor running through it. In establishing a Wellbeing Economy, it is essential that people across Scotland have a voice and the power to influence and shape decision-making. In Yousaf’s terms, it is not just one hand on the tiller. It is essential that power is shared.

So, is Humza Yousaf sailing the ship of our economy in a better direction from the one that has failed us over the past decades? Despite encouraging words highlighting the need for sharing of power and putting the needs of people and planet first, there was little in his speech to suggest that he is willing to draw on the new thinking of the Wellbeing Economy movement, leave behind outdated economic recipes, and seriously attempt to redesign our economy along 21st century principles.

It was concerning to hear Yousaf continuing to place so much unquestioned emphasis on economic growth. In the 21st century, we need a much more ambitious and honest conversation about the purpose of our economy, about the kind of economic activities we need to grow and which ones we need to power down, and about who our economy should serve first and foremost. It is not enough to say that our economic model should place the importance of people’s health and happiness alongside the imperative of economic growth. Health and happiness need to be the clear priorities.

We welcome the First Minister’s desire to utilise economic growth for the end of eradicating poverty and inequality. However, his strategy falls back on the old kind of economic recipes that have been tried and tested – and have failed. After decades of economic growth, poverty is still widespread in Scotland and around the world. Inequality has skyrocketed. The incessant increase in the use of energy and resources, driven by economic growth, has brought our climate and nature to the point of collapse.

Wellbeing Economics is about being bold and trying new economic recipes that can tackle the root causes of these problems head on. At the moment, the detail isn’t there as to how Yousaf is going to put his vision into practice. How is he making sure that it’s different this time round?

Earlier this year, we joined with charities, economists, businesses and unions to set out our collective vision of a Wellbeing Economy. We put together a long-term strategy with key recommendations that are within the reach of the Scottish Government. There is growing support across Scotland for rhetoric to be turned into action. Just a few months ago, we published a letter signed by over 200 people that laid out tangible short-term actions the Scottish Government can take right now:

  • Transform the National Performance Framework into a Wellbeing Framework and significantly strengthen its power and reach.
  • Use devolved tax powers to share Scotland’s income and wealth more evenly and to support public investment in the strong social safety net, universal basic services, fair public sector wages, and environmental improvements needed for a Wellbeing Economy.
  • Reshape the business environment in Scotland to facilitate a shift towards purposeful and democratic business practices that support collective wellbeing and global environmental sustainability and do not profit from undermining them.

At WEAll Scotland, we look forward to seeing the detailed plan of action promised by the First Minister in his speech. It is essential that establishing a Wellbeing Economy in Scotland moves from being a nice sound bite in an emotive speech, to a programme of tangible action that delivers for the people of Scotland