ONE obvious result of the capture of the SNP national executive by dissident forces is that the path may be open for former leader Alex Salmond to return to party membership. Of course, Alex may not want to – I’m not in his confidence. But his publication of an economic strategy paper last week, co-authored with MSP Alex Neil, suggests the former first minister wants to get back in the political game.

The document is entitled “Action Plan to Tackle the Covid Unemployment Crisis in Scotland”. Co-author Neil, like Salmond, is an economist by profession, and was previously cabinet secretary for infrastructure and capital investment – so knows the subject.

Neil, of course, is standing down at next May’s election, which I think is a pity. Those of us long in the tooth see Neil’s new alliance with Salmond as significant.

Originally, Neil was a protege of Jim Sillars. In 1976, he quit his post as Scottish Labour’s research officer to join Sillars in creating the short-lived, pro-Home Rule Scottish Labour Party (SLP). Others in the SLP included Maria Fyfe, who died last week, and yours truly.

After the SLP imploded in factional infighting – a wasted opportunity if ever there was one – Neil followed Sillars into the SNP. Thereafter, Sillars and Salmond were famously at daggers drawn. Jim accused Salmond of favouring devolution as a halfway house, a strategy that risked marooning Scotland inside the UK forever. In this battle, Neil remained a Sillars loyalist.

Which makes the new alliance of A Salmond and A Neil very significant. And doubly interesting because the Salmond-Neil action plan is a direct riposte to the proposals for a post-pandemic economic recovery commissioned by the Scottish Government and published in June.

The Scottish Government plan was written by Benny Higgins, former boss of Tesco Bank and now chair of the Duke of Buccleuch’s property company. Higgins is pro-market, anti-nationalisation and lukewarm on too much government economic intervention. But Alex Neil is an old-fashioned interventionist and famously a Leave voter in the Brexit referendum. And while Salmond has flirted with neoliberalism, he remains at heart a devout Keynesian.

​READ MORE: Tories fighting for a lost ideal of Britishness firmly rooted in England

What does the Alex & Alex action plan propose? It starts by noting the prospect of a significant rise in Scottish unemployment as a result of the pandemic and Brexit. Few reputable analysts are predicting a return to “normal” unemployment levels till the end of the decade.

As a solution, A&A propose a crash programme of housebuilding. This would be spearheaded by a new, public national housebuilding company – a concept originally put forward by the Common Weal think tank and endorsed by the SNP conference.

A&A argue that the new NHC would be tasked to build an additional 10,000 homes per year over and above the existing Scottish Government target. Funding would be generated from rolling up future rent on the properties so can be financed within the present devolution rules.

In addition, the NHC would organise a training programme to expand the construction skills base. It would also source inputs from Scotland to expand the indigenous supply chain. And it would prioritise energy efficiency in the new housing stock.

Is the A&A plan feasible? House completions in 2019 totalled 21,851. So: the recovery plan means increasing construction by circa 50%, which is a lot. Housebuilding has already recovered significantly since its nadir in 2012, but the highest annual output this century was in financial year 2004/05 when it hit 26,473. I think the A&A construction plan is a sound one, but in the way lie obvious bottlenecks in labour and land availability.

Unless, of course, we have a government willing to bulldoze through completion. Which would mean rejecting Benny Higgins’s recent advice to Nicola Sturgeon not to create a national housing company and rely instead on the private sector. It would mean sequestering existing land banks from private sector builders – which in extremis the Scottish Government can do by taxing unused commercial land till the pips squeak. But is the current SNP centrist leadership willing to go down that road?

THE A&A action plan also makes the interesting point that there are an estimated 20,000 derelict properties in Scotland’s rural areas which could be renovated. A&A propose a new subsidy regime to get these properties back into use.

This is a crucial step because adding 10,000 extra houses a year on top of existing construction programmes threatens to overload the water, sewage and road network – something the action plan fails to take account of.

​READ MORE: Stuart Cosgrove: What happened when I met Oscar Pistorius

The solution is to utilise low density projects (including renovations) in rural areas – allied to small-scale workshop and office provision to generate employment. The barrier to this lies in conservative local authority housing plans.

As an MP, I tried to get East Lothian Council to allow farmers and village communities to develop low-density local housing projects. But the planners demurred in favour of concentrating housing in huge new estates linked to existing large settlements. This placates the big building companies but does nothing for rural communities. Here, we need the Scottish Government to intervene.

The action plan then calls for the Scottish Government to bring forward so-called “shovel ready” infrastructure projects. I’m less convinced by this idea. Partly because many “shovel ready” projects turn out to be not so ready after all. Unless they already have planning permission, nothing happens very quickly.

Solution: we need to change the planning laws, so each local community agrees basic rules for building (density, height, etc). Then a project can go ahead automatically if it complies with these pre-existing rules, rather than suffer the normal decade of political infighting to win approval.

The A&A action plan was published in the week that BiFab finally teetered into administration. Its demise underlines the need for a state-led industrial strategy in Scotland. The BiFab fiasco has many causes. But the most significant one is the failure by government to make the big energy companies source their renewables plant in Scotland. Obviously, they will go where they can get the lowest cost. This usually involves purchasing from subsidised foreign manufacturers in Chinese and Gulf “freeports”.

READ MORE: How Covid misinformation is used for malign political ends

BiFab’s Canadian owners are also at fault. They thought they could make a fast buck with easy contracts, thus avoiding having to invest their own cash. With that plan up in smoke, the Canadians would be only too happy to dump BiFab in the lap of the Scottish Government.

I am not saying the public sector should pick up the tab for every failed private venture. Equally, we can’t go on dabbling with the renewables sector. It requires long-term investment which can only be guaranteed by the state – an independent Scottish state.

Which brings us back to the Alex & Alex Show. Their action plan is simple Keynesianism and perhaps a tad old-fashioned for some. But the plan’s very simplicity is its strength. Also, it is written in plain English and not the public relations verbiage that pads out the Benny Higgins document.

The A&A plan has its faults, but it is a plan for direct action in a time when action is needed. But will anyone read it? Well … perhaps the new SNP NEC.