Public services key to driving forward Scotland’s economy – The Scotsman

Ben Thomson, The Scotsman
6 March 2008

How many times over business lunches or the odd drink after work do we in the business community discuss how we could create the right environment for Scottish economic success? How often do we suggest ways in which we would improve the quality and effectiveness of our public services? Yet when it comes to making our views known in public and influencing the policymakers, we are quiet.
That’s why a group of like-minded people have set up Reform Scotland – a new, independent non-party think tank. The ambition of Reform Scotland is to promote new directions for public policy based on the traditional Scottish principles of limited government, diversity and personal responsibility, with the aim of delivering increased economic prosperity and more effective public services here in Scotland.

I agreed to become the Chairman of this new organisation because I believe we are entering an exciting era for Scotland with for the first time a different party governing in Holyrood than in Westminster. It is important that as many people as possible become involved in the debate about how we move forward as a country. Reform Scotland can act as one of the focal points for that debate. We can make a real difference to ensure that we provide well researched debate on the right issues and come up with solutions that will benefit everyone living and working in Scotland. Reform Scotland is non-party aligned as this debate goes beyond party politics and consensus across parties will be needed if real change is going to be implemented.

Attitudes have been changing, both those of the business community and of politicians, over the last twelve months. Not so long ago, the feeling was that politicians in Scotland weren’t interested in business or its concerns. Now, politicians in all parties are engaging with the business community and are keen to hear their ideas. The last Scottish elections showed that clearly with parties keen to receive the endorsement of leading figures from business.

This has drawn more people from business into the debate about Scotland’s future – a trend very much to be encouraged. Already, Reform Scotland has attracted support from leading figures such as David Milne of Wolfson Microelectronics, Leslie Knox, Chairman of The Alliance Trust and Trevor Matthews, formerly Chief Executive of UK Financial Services at Standard Life. They have all agreed to join our Advisory Board and see the advantages of an independent think tank that can research policy areas and develop new ideas unconstrained by the need to win elections or represent the interests of its members.

The objective of Reform Scotland is simple – to inform and influence the political debate in Scotland. In particular, we will look at how we can create an environment conducive to economic growth and improve our public services so that they match the best in the world. We will do this by carrying out rigorous research into specific areas of public policy and publishing reports and research papers on these issues. Uniquely though, we will ensure that, wherever possible, our research is relevant to topical issues and that we use our research to formulate a coherent set of policy recommendations. We will then promote our ideas to those involved in the public policy debate such as politicians, civil servants and the media.

Our starting point is not that everything in Scotland is wrong. There are many aspects of our economy and public services which are admirable. However, there is still room for improvement in many areas. We must have high aspirations for our country and not just accept things as they are because it is difficult to bring about change.

In economic terms, our goal should be nothing less than to match the growth rates of the most successful economies in the world as that is the only way to raise the living standards of everyone living in Scotland. To achieve this goal, we must look at what has worked in other countries and enabled them to move ahead of Scotland, which will be the focus of Reform Scotland’s first report to be published in the next few weeks.

Not surprisingly, almost all business people are interested in how we can improve the performance of our economy. Encouragingly, more and more are recognising the importance of improving our public services. We all have a stake, as citizens, in ensuring that our education standards compare with the best in the world, that we have a reliable and affordable healthcare service, a modern and efficient transport system and safe streets. These issues affect the quality of life of our families and in our local communities.

They also have important implications for businesses which need a well-educated and healthy workforce in order to grow and flourish. Equally, they need a high quality transport system that gets products to markets and people to work.

Reform Scotland’s second report will focus on the performance of these vital public services. It will look at how we compare with other countries to see what lessons we can learn and how these lessons might be applied in Scotland. In particular, we will look at the common features of successful systems in other countries and the mechanisms they have used to achieve value for money.

Following the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, the powers to improve our public services lie in our hands and we should use them accordingly. However, I accept that there is still an ongoing debate about further powers that could or should be devolved from Westminster. Reform Scotland does not take a political position on the different constitutional options, however we will look at how any additional powers could be used to improve the performance of the Scottish economy and our public services. In this way, we will seek to inform the debate over the coming years.

I think there is a huge opportunity to change Scotland for the better over the next few years. Achieving that requires an openness to new ideas and a willingness to work across parties as that is the nature of politics in Scotland under proportional representation. My aim as Chairman of Reform Scotland is, therefore, threefold: to have a genuine influence on the direction of policy in all the parties in Scotland; to draw in as many people as possible from business and other backgrounds, so that they become involved in the policy debate; and, above all, to come up with new, practical ideas that will make Scotland an even better place to live and work.

Ben Thomson is Chairman of Reform Scotland and also the Chairman, and former Chief Executive, of Noble Group, the Scottish investment bank.