IT was good to go and get The National on Monday morning and to find, in the lead story, that Nicola Sturgeon will after New Year set out “new economic thinking” drawn from the growth commission set up by her government in 2016. But I did wonder how that squared with what Derek Mackay, her secretary for finance, had just had to say in an interview with Andrew Whitaker published in the Sunday Herald, under the heading “Scotland facing most brutal Budget since devolution”.

In contrast to what we expect from the mealy mouth of Philip Hammond, his counterpart at Westminster, Mackay did not mince his words: “When you take everything into account – the decade of Tory austerity, changing demographics, the impact of the pay cap, a worsening UK economy and an impending Brexit – it is no exaggeration to say that we are facing the most challenging Budget in the history of the Scottish Parliament.”

I find myself a little surprised to be in agreement with a lot of what was said in this interview. It is of course true we are suffering from a decade of Tory austerity. It has never met its targets, though heaven knows what would have happened to us on the international money markets if it had never tried: think Italy or Greece.

As a matter of fact, in view of this dismal performance, the UK Government has quietly abandoned its targets, or at least put off reaching them till 2025, otherwise known as the Twelfth of Never.

Changing demographics will without doubt hit Scotland increasingly hard, as our numbers of old folk rise against an ever smaller proportion of workers to support them. It is a problem to be faced in most western countries, though especially acute in Scotland because a relatively large number of our active population seek their fortunes through emigration. That is why we need immigration to redress the balance, from the EU or elsewhere – precisely the requirement spurned by a UK government claiming to represent all four nations in the Brexit negotiations.

The impact of the pay cap I don’t agree with so much. By this Mackay means the cap on the public sector that over the last 10 years has let wages in the private sector rise faster. As a result a shortage of personnel has appeared in certain key occupations, from policemen to radiologists. But these things go in phases, and previously the public sector had done better than the private sector.

My view is that nobody in the UK deserves much of a pay rise while our productivity remains so poor, meaning the average UK employee turns out 30 per cent less per hour than the average French, German or American employee. If you want more money, Brits, work harder! Without that, the whole country is going to sink into relative poverty anyway, with less cash for everything. Here is the gospel from the house of the dismal science.

Yet in the last few months the UK economy as a whole has seen a little bit of an upturn, while the Scottish economy has continued to flatline, more or less. Since both are being impacted by Brexit, this can’t be the entire explanation. Perhaps the different government policies in London and Edinburgh have something to do with it? Let’s take a look at the suggestion.

By all accounts, Mackay means in his Budget next week to put up Scottish levels of income tax, regarding it as his prime responsibility to protect public services in a constitutional relationship under which the government at Westminster will always have the whip-hand over the government at Holyrood.

But suppose, for the sake of the argument, this condition were to be relaxed. If Scotland had recently become an independent nation, for example, I should think most economists would be advising its government to cut taxes, so as to give a kick-start to an economy long languishing under Unionist misrule. Can opposite policy implications follow from the same economic premise?

It is certainly odd that Derek Mackay, in giving what I suppose he thought to be an exhaustive list of challenges, passed over in silence the one highlighted the next day by Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish rate of economic growth. No doubt she felt inspired by the example of all the Nordic countries, the club we are yearning to join. They enjoy social services far superior to ours because they can afford them through much higher growth rates – Germany probably 3 per cent by the end of 2017, Sweden and Finland the same, Netherlands more than 3 per cent, Norway the same.

Scotland? We only have results for the first half of the year, but at the pace things have been moving we’ll be lucky to hit 1 per cent. Let me put it in cash terms easier to grasp. If we had matched these other countries we would have had £3 billion extra to spend on schools and hospitals or anything else we like, enough to reverse all the cuts being imposed on us from Westminster this year and next.

Once I phrase it like that, surely it looks as plain as a pikestaff that economic growth should figure in the Finance Secretary’s catalogue of desirable aims “when you take everything into account”. I can understand, given the Scottish Government’s complexion, that growth might not be the topmost priority, but its total absence from the list of things to do is bizarre.

I know Mackay and his Cabinet colleagues believe touchy-feely sustainability and inclusiveness are more important, but these and all other policy aims would be easier to fulfil if we had the money to spend on them.

And as things stand in this post-crash world, where there are no free rides for anybody, the only way we are going to get more money is when we earn it ourselves from economic growth.

If we did go for growth, it would be no good putting up taxes. Taxes restrain demand in the economy, demand that represents people spending their money on goods and services or companies investing to supply those wants. Taxes are therefore best raised by governments when the economy is booming, while taxpayers still have cash in their pockets and companies are making plentiful profits. We can then put these reserves away against harder times. By contrast, with an economy teetering on the brink of recession, as the Scottish economy has been doing all this year, raising taxes is only likely to push it over the brink. Production and incomes will fall and we will have less for our personal consumption or our public services.

Economic restraint needs to be followed by governments too. In times of recession, they should hold back public spending so as to leave room for private spending by consumers and companies, through which recovery will come.

This may seem especially difficult under the sort of pork-barrel politics that Scotland is developing, but such electoral temptations are better resisted. After all, we do in this country face a special problem if we are to win our independence.

We have to show the Scots people that once they achieve their freedom they will be at least as well off as if they had remained shackled to the UK, not just in touchy-feely ways but also in hard cash.

A higher rate of economic growth is the sole way to make that clear. Ignore it, Derek Mackay, at your peril.