Scotland’s politics explained: how the Centre for Public Policy for Regions unpicks the issues
Founded in 2004, the Centre for Public Policy for Regions (CPPR) is concerned with the role of public policy in promoting economic and social development in Scotland and beyond. The purpose of the CPPR is two-fold: to provide ‘Quality academic research to better inform public policies’, and since the Centre’s inception, it has developed a unique and independent role in Scotland providing research and commentary on Scotland’s public finances, the Scottish economy and wider public policy issues.
Professor Richard Harris, Director of CPPR and the Cairncross Professor of Applied Economics, University of Glasgow, explains the role of the Centre during the recent elections.
The last few months have seen the Centre for Public Policy for the Regions (CPPR) at its busiest. I and my colleagues Professors Jo Armstrong and John McLaren began planning for May’s election to the Scottish Parliament some months before. Our main aim was to highlight what we considered to be the key socio-economic issues facing Scotland, and then contribute to the informed debate that would take place during the election period.
CPPR’s first, pre-election, contribution was an in-depth background assessment of the Scottish economy, which was published in March. This report set out what we considered to be the ‘drivers’ of economic growth in Scotland (concentrating on productivity) and how the economy was performing in terms of overall GDP and the labour market. We also set out our analysis of capital/infrastructure spending and current budget issues facing Scotland. Set against the recent recession and significant cuts in spending on public services, this analysis highlighted our concern that Scotland was underperforming in certain key areas such as innovation, and that youth unemployment had once again become a matter of deep concern, with potentially serious consequences for the future health of the Scottish labour market.
The first Election 2011 briefing paper that was published was widely commented upon in the media. Entitled ‘The relative economic performances of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland since devolution’, it set out the position of the three devolved regions since 1999; the Financial Times highlighted their coverage with the banner ‘Scotland gained most of devolved regions’ (FT, 21 March).
The second and third Election 2011 briefing papers covered ‘Scotland’s Economy – Future Challenges and Policy Options’ and ‘Financial Implications of Different Fiscal Arrangements for Scotland’; however, given the low level of engagement by political parties on economic issues we were beginning to get a sense that these were not going to be at the forefront of the campaign to the extent that we had predicted. They are however, likely to be of interest in the months ahead.
Our fourth Election 2011 paper, ‘Manifesto Costings: What each Party is proposing and how they intend to pay for it’ repeated the exercise we had first introduced for the 2007 Parliamentary Election. We examined each manifesto in detail and listed all the pledges and their stated costs, relying primarily on each of the main parties’ estimates of how much was needed and how they proposed to pay for their election promises. This allowed a like-for-like comparison of the main party manifestos.
Press coverage was significant at both national level (e.g. The Times, Daily Telegraph and Financial Times) and in Scotland. The FT had the more sedate headline of: ‘Scotland’s parties urged to confront cuts’ (21st April); while the Scotsman went a little further ‘Scots political parties “not playing straight”’ (21st April), and the Herald warned ‘Voters told to be sceptical of manifestos’ (21st April).
CPPR’s fifth Election 2011 briefing paper covered ‘The Scottish 2011 Election: The big questions that remain unanswered’. Coming towards the end of the campaign, and with one week to go to the Election itself, we sought to restate our main concerns as the debate focussed on the key manifesto pledges. We covered: the Council Tax freeze; efficiency savings; jobs and wages policy in the public sector; the future status and funding of Scottish Water; capital funding by the public sector in Scotland; and a return to our initial concerns about economic growth in Scotland. We gained widespread coverage in the Sunday newspapers on 1st May and also important airtime where we highlighted our concerns regarding economic issues. My colleague, Professor McLaren, was interviewed on the BBC Politics Show regarding our report, and CPPR also featured in a question on public sector job cuts in the televised BBC1 Leaders’ Debate that same day.
In the last few days before the election, CPPR issued its final comment, choosing to highlight the issue of how the council tax freeze and wage freeze would impact on public sector jobs. The way this was reported in the Scotsman was ‘Populist freeze on Council Tax puts thousands of jobs at risk’ (5th May). We also featured on the BBC’s Reporting Scotland, Good Morning Scotland, BBC Newsnight, Radio 4’s ‘Beyond Westminster’, and various other media programmes. The volume of our output and invitations to contribute to the debate demonstrates CPPR is highly valued and recognised as one of the most important independent contributors on public finance and the economy in Scotland.
We believe that our public policy role becomes even more important following the election; as whatever else might feature in the debate regarding the referendum on independence, one of the key features that it will ultimately centre on is its impact on achieving long-run economic prosperity for Scotland. Questions such as whether Scotland pays more into the Exchequer than it gets out, and whether gaining more fiscal powers for Holyrood is a good idea, need to be substantiated by impartial evidence provided by a think tank like the CPPR. There is even more need to have independent analysis of how the current system works, and to provide as robust an evidence base as possible by the time of the referendum as to the likely fiscal (and wider economic) consequences of independence. Forthcoming contributions from CPPR will address this need.