CONCERNS have been raised about the removal of “wellbeing economy” from the ministerial portfolio following John Swinney’s appointment as First Minister.

Following Humza Yousaf’s victory in the SNP leadership election in 2023, Neil Gray was appointed as cabinet minister for wellbeing economy, fair work and energy.

However, following Swinney’s reshuffle there is no mention of wellbeing economy in any of the ministerial briefs. 

The term wellbeing economy was first introduced to the Scottish Government during Nicola Sturgeon’s tenure as first minister.

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It refers to a method of measuring the economy that isn’t solely reliant upon the growth of a nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

For example, the success of a nation’s economy may be measured by determining the safety, happiness or financial comfort of the population instead of just looking at GDP growth.

It has previously been defined by the Scottish Government as “an economic system operating within safe environmental limits, that serves the collective wellbeing of current and future generations first and foremost".

“Disappointed and concerned”

The Wellbeing Economy Alliance Scotland – which campaigns for an economy which exists in line with planetary boundaries and doesn’t promote infinite GDP growth – released a statement following the reshuffle which expressed concern about wellbeing economy being absent from any ministerial portfolio.

It said: “We are disappointed and concerned to see that the wellbeing economy name has been dropped from the new cabinet portfolio.

“We sincerely hope that changing the name does not imply a change in the Government's commitment to building a wellbeing economy in Scotland.”

Their concerns have been echoed by Gerard McCartney, professor of wellbeing economy at the University of Glasgow.

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He told The National that prioritising economic growth above all else put commitments on tackling climate change and poverty at serious risk.

“The worry is that this signals a prioritisation of economic growth at all costs,” he said.

“This would represent a return to a fairly neoclassical approach to understanding how the economy works and moves away from what will serve the interests of people and the planet.

“The risk is that the Scottish Government make all the same mistakes that have been made for the past 40 years. 

“Ultimately, that approach hasn’t delivered on achieving our climate goals, hasn’t reduced income or wealth inequalities, hasn’t allowed the transition away from fossil fuel intensive industries towards new alternatives, and hasn’t created the social and health benefits that we need.”

Climate targets 

In 2022, the Scottish Government launched its Wellbeing Economy Monitor.

At the time then finance secretary Kate Forbes said it would be used alongside GDP to guide future economic decision making in Scotland.

Yet both Swinney and Forbes have emphasised driving economic growth as one of their main priorities in government.

McCartney said that while the economic situation facing Scotland was difficult and complicated by limited borrowing powers, there was no reason to suggest that a return to prioritising economic growth would help Scotland reach its climate targets or reduce pressure on public services.

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“We’ve had 14 years now of austerity policies across the UK, where public services have been disinvested in.

“That's been made all the more acute with the more recent inflationary pressures that have affected households but also public sector organisations.

“That’s the context in which this conversation is happening and that makes it very difficult for the Scottish Government with the limited borrowing powers it has.

“Nevertheless, if the Scottish Government were to move back towards an economy that simply tries to maximise economic growth, it will not prevent these problems from happening in the first place.

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“For example, an economy that's designed to be more equitable will have better health outcomes and will have lower carbon emissions as well as better social outcomes.

“Those, in turn, will reduce demands on public services and therefore save money for government.”

He added that a return to prioritising economic growth would be “short-sighted” and “leave us very vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss, which will have almost innumerable consequences for the economy and for people.”

“To downplay that, or to neglect that in any way, I think it's highly problematic,” said McCartney.

“We've seen from international evidence that there's no country that's managed to decouple its carbon emissions from economic growth in absolute terms.

“So, what the Scottish Government are saying by both committing to maximising economic growth and saying they're going to achieve net zero is somewhat contradictory given that no other country has managed that decoupling in the past.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: "When the new ministerial team was appointed this week, a decision was taken to simplify job titles across government.

"The principles of a wellbeing economy continue to be a priority for the Scottish Government, and will be taken forward by the new Economy Secretary.”