As I See It: Benny Higgins
In one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s many memorable exhortations he said, “We always held to the hope, the belief, the conviction that there is a better life, a better world, beyond the horizon.” In this crisis we must confront reality and be willing to make choices that may have been unthinkable only a few months ago to protect our longer term ambitions for Scotland.
So much has been written about Covid-19 over the past month or so, but the stark truth is that our understanding remains incomplete. Moreover, the timing of a return to our erstwhile, familiar social interaction relies entirely on a vaccine or treatment, and both remain a distant prospect.
The focus on public health has, rightly, transcended all other aspects of life in the past few weeks, but we must also turn to the economic emergency. The immediate steps have reflected the priority to protect jobs and productive capacity in the economy. But it is paramount that we address the policy and structural choices that will underpin our undiminished aspiration to have a strong economy that secures the wellbeing of families across Scotland.
Gary Gillespie, Scottish Government’s Chief Economist, has reported a likely fall in GDP of around a third during this lockdown. One can expect the longer-term forecasts to change by the day as new perspectives and information emerge, but such predictions will, frankly, be constant in describing a hazardous future.
The social consequences of lockdown have illuminated inequalities in our society that must be tackled in recovery. Furthermore, whilst it is generally accepted that the young are less vulnerable to the serious health consequences of the virus, we must strive to ensure that this generation does not pay a high price in other ways.
I have been asked by Scottish Government to lead an Advisory Group on Economic Recovery. We face an unprecedented challenge in terms of its nature and scale. We must, therefore, be willing to act in a manner that too is different and commensurate with the challenge.
The Advisory Group is purposefully small with eight members to enable us to proceed with pace and agility. I am delighted to have been joined by extraordinarily able people with outstanding breadth and experience including Dame Sue Bruce, Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, and Dame Julia Unwin.
It is critical, however, that we have a framework of engagement across society to enable opinions and relevant information to be distilled by the group. It is vital that this engagement informs recommendations across a wide range of pivotal issues including how the labour market will respond and how different parts of society will be impacted by the crisis and the recovery.
In particular, views articulated from the vantage points that vary by sector or region will be captured. Lord Smith will lead a panel to draw on the experience of businesses to understand their priorities in the phase of economic recovery.
There is a multitude of opinions on how this crisis will affect our lives. For some it is characterised as a turning point. Perhaps, however, it will also be the catalyst for an acceleration in directions that we were pursuing in any case. The most obvious example is our mitigation of the climate emergency but there are so many more.
As we emerge from this strange darkness let’s make our country stronger and fairer in the long run.
Difficult as it may seem at the height of a crisis, we must maintain our emphasis on what matters most; to support wellbeing and deliver economic, environmental, and health resilience. In the words of Marie Curie, “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”
Benny Higgins is chairman of the government’s advisory group to provide expert economic advice to the Scottish Government in response to the COVID-19 crisis