SEVERAL of the readers who wrote in to berate me for my column last week about the gig economy did so on the assumption that it is a means of spreading poverty and misery in our wicked capitalist system.

But this is not true at all, and not the reason why I argued in its favour. For example, many medical consultants operate in a gig economy of their own, treating private patients, even if they are already on their standard NHS salaries of £83,000 to £107,000 a year. They hardly need the money, then, and I suppose they embrace this extra workload because they like what they do or to relieve suffering patients who find themselves too low down the waiting lists.

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Nor are consultants the only well-paid workers in the gig economy. They are common enough in the cultural sectors: actors, musicians, painters, photographers, writers. And while a good few of these people can indeed often be found hanging about in pubs hoping somebody will buy them a drink – just till they get their next job, mind – it is only necessary to open the pages of the tabloid press to see them flaunting their wealth if they finally become stars.

The proletariat can partake of the bean-feast too. It is not so long ago since it was reported how a jobbing plumber in North Lanarkshire had earned £50,000 in the previous year from his contracts with the council. I don’t suppose he and his mates are any poorer now, not in these days of housing shortage and a Scottish government so eager to build.

The real issue is not the nature of the gig economy, which in one form or another has existed as part of our society for a long time, but why it is now expanding so fast. Since 2000 it has doubled in size, to cover five million workers in the UK and probably half a million in Scotland, one-sixth of the total labour force.

As a member of this new cohort, let me give a big reason and a somewhat smaller reason for it.

The big reason is that in all advanced nations the nature of work has started to change and is likely to continue changing through the century, probably at an accelerating pace. Ten years ago the iPhone did not exist. Today it is an indispensable tool for me and many others, and helps to make our economic activity much more productive. It is also the graphic symbol of a technology-driven shift towards the fragmentation of employment.

A downside exists, however. The digital revolution, as we can justly call it, is already destroying swathes of the corporatist capitalism of the 20th century, together with the jobs it supported. Replacing it is an economic culture that reflects the individualist and unconventional character of the millennial generation. Its vanguard lies in computer-savvy kids just out of college, and their start-ups exploiting the new technology. Oldies like me struggle to keep pace. I just about manage, though I’m often out of breath. But there are other older folk, and indeed under-achieving younger folk, who are left behind.

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Capitalism has always been like this. Over 300 years it has gone through successive revolutions. Each one has brought strains yet still as a net result also higher standards of living for everybody. Socialism, by contrast, has known only one era of revolution, in the early twentieth century. It ended about 1990 in stagnation and failure for both citizen and society. Looking at today’s burgeoning of China and India, I see no reason to suppose capitalism is losing its vitality or capacity for renewal in the most varied conditions.

There’s the big reason, and the somewhat smaller reason is that the digital revolution is otherwise at its most dynamic in the English-speaking countries, which thanks to the long-term influence of Adam Smith have often been in the forefront of capitalist innovation. Taking the UK in particular, we had in the post-war period an economy with a high degree of regulation, but also with rising levels of unemployment over time, as measured from recession to recession.

Then Margaret Thatcher came along and tore down the fabric of regulation. In the aftermath that we are still living through, recession no longer throws people out of work: at the moment we have full employment. What it does do is hold back wage rises.

So our fully employed population has not for more than a decade seen an improvement in its living standards. The squeeze on real wages is understandably billed as bad economic news. But given how unemployment is a lot worse in the long run for any individual, perhaps we have been billing it wrongly. The gig economy turns out after all to have its benign uses.

At the SNP’s spring conference a couple of weeks ago, the ruling party – under the wise guidance of my pal Joe Farrell of Maryhill – debated what it should do about all this. A wee country like Scotland has no influence on underlying developments in the global economy. That does not mean we are unable to cushion their effects or better – adapt our own economy to deal with them.

For the time being, dependence on the ultimate say-so of a UK government with far different priorities is a ball-and-chain round our feet. Independent economic policy will offer the chance to do better. It must be focussed on productivity, on getting more output for our inputs as the key to new jobs.

While we think about this, we can begin by eliminating proposals that will do no good at all. In his speech to conference, my pal Joe complained, for example, that the gig economy does not provide for holiday pay, sickness allowances, a minimum wage or guarantees against unfair dismissal. This struck me as like asking for a transport policy which includes the airship and the penny farthing.

The gig economy has, to some extent, been recently regulated by the courts, in cases which have defined more closely the concept of an employee. But when it comes to legislation, governments fear to rush in.

There has never been a law saying, “The gig economy may exist.” It has emerged as an example of spontaneous order, which could only happen by the will of all parties concerned. Does the Scottish government know better? I doubt it.

Altogether, then, my pal Joe’s suggestions bring the hoary principles of 20th-century trade unionism to bear on a new job market which has emerged for the very reason that those principles failed to guarantee full employment.

By setting so many conditions, we would be asking job-seekers to talk or claim their way out of a livelihood which they really need or want, and which a progressive economy in a new global economic order is willing to offer them.

Winnie Ewing said after her stunning victory at the Hamilton by-election in 1967: “Stop the world, Scotland wants to get on.”

It would be strange if, half a century later, Nicola Sturgeon were in effect to say: “Stop the world, Scotland wants to get off.”