Flags outside the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, Scotland. Left to right: British flag, Scottish flag, European Union flag. The Scottish flag is unfurled. The others hang limply by their flagpoles.

The Scottish government’s recently announced programme for government – titled ‘A Nation With Ambition’ – has received considerable praise, writes Colin Imrie. But various issues, not least Brexit, need to be addressed in the correct manner if those ambitions are to be achieved. 


Nicola Sturgeon has attracted praise from across the political spectrum for the coherent, long-term vision she unveiled for Scotland in her Programme for Government on 5 September. Her emphasis on making Scotland a global leader in innovation and the low carbon economy provides a firm basis for public and private investment over the next decade, allowing Scotland’s economy to diversify and grow in line with how the world economy is developing.

The low carbon economy now supports over 58,000 jobs in Scotland and generates over £10 billion in turnover. Recent analysis by the International Finance Corporation indicates that the 2015 UN Paris Agreement will help open up $23 trillion worth of opportunities between now and 2030.

By placing emphasis in parallel on education and skills, and on making economic growth inclusive for all parts of society, the First Minister set out a vision for Scotland’s future which will capture the strengths of our whole economy and society, and enable us all to live more fulfilled lives. There are those who argue that Scotland can pursue the ambitions set out by the First Minister regardless the outcome of the ongoing Brexit talks. But those who wish to see as close a relationship as possible between Scotland and the EU cannot be content with such a head-in-the-sand approach.


There are those who argue that Scotland can pursue the ambitions set out by the First Minister regardless the outcome of the ongoing Brexit talks. But those who wish to see as close a relationship as possible between Scotland and the EU cannot be content with such a head-in-the-sand approach.

The current negotiations between the EU and the UK are increasingly making one thing clear: the UK as a whole, and Scotland within it, can only secure the benefits of continuing trade in goods and services with the EU single market if we maintain our commitment to key European values such as freedom of movement, and to a common regulatory approach on key issues such as food safety standards and low carbon technology.  If the UK wants to diverge from these principles and standards – for example, through negotiating new deals with the United States – then barriers will be thrown up by Brussels which will limit Scotland’s ability to pursue the goals the First Minister has set out for Scotland.

Looking in more detail at the proposals put forward by the First Minister, it is also clear that if Scotland is excluded from key European programmes, then funding streams will dry up which are crucial to the delivery of Scotland’s policy ambitions. There can be no guarantee that the UK will replace these programmes – either in full or in part – nor that it will allow the Scottish parliament to manage the budgets assigned to Scotland in the way it currently does. Serious questions thus hang over key Scottish initiatives which rely upon our strong relationship with Brussels. For example:


The establishment of an Innovation Fund to invest a further £60 million to deliver innovative low carbon energy infrastructure solutions across Scotland, such as electricity battery storage, sustainable heating systems, and electric vehicle charging, building on the momentum generated by the European-supported Low Carbon Infrastructure Transition Programme; 

The £18 million of support provided by the Scottish government and the European Regional Development Fund to Zero Waste Scotland to help manufacturing businesses unlock the economic potential of the circular economy;

The first tranche of the Scottish Growth Scheme – a key initiative which aims to stimulate over £200 million of investment to help businesses grow – was supported by the Scottish-European Growth Co-Investment Programme. Where will the next tranche come from?

More broadly, in the absence of UK-wide public funding for investment banks as the privatisation of the Green Investment Bank shows, who is going to step up to support the work of the new Scottish National Investment Bank in the way the European Investment Bank (EIB) supports regional development banks throughout the EU? The UK’s decision to leave key institutions like the EIB puts at risk key investments in areas such as renewable energy, where the EIB and EU have been the main public investors in Scotland in recent years.


Perhaps most worrying is the determination of the Prime Minister to restrict freedom of movement for EU nationals after 2019. This would create a major barrier to the delivery of the Scottish government’s ambitions. There is clear evidence that Scotland’s future economic health, key services such as the NHS, the strength of our key institutions such as universities, and our future public finances, depend on the continuing ability of EU nationals to work and study freely in Scotland. Freedom of movement is also a prerequisite for full participation in key EU programmes relating to student mobility (ERASMUS) and innovation (Horizon 2020).

It is for these reasons that the European Movement in Scotland, in its submission to the Scottish parliament’s inquiry on the Brexit negotiations, has called on the Scottish parliament to argue the case – on an all-party basis – for Scotland to take control of migration through the devolution of the power to work and study in Scotland. Whatever the result of the Brexit negotiations, giving Scotland the power to regulate who works and studies in Scotland will help to make Scotland a better place to live, and do business, for us all.


Whatever the result of the Brexit negotiations, giving Scotland the power to regulate who works and studies in Scotland will help to make Scotland a better place to live, and do business, for us all.

A further point for consideration must be the ability of the Scottish government to run effectively the development programmes that really bring about economic growth for Scotland. Much can be made of the fact that the Scottish economy is continuing to show signs of performance at the higher end of the UK scale. However, these levels of performance pale into significance compared with Eurozone economies such as Ireland, where the OECD expects Ireland to be able to maintain – albeit at a slower pace – growth levels which in recent times have been as high as six percent.

Serious questions also have to be asked about the effectiveness of the current delivery mechanism in Scotland, which are characterised by duplication, divisions, and lack unity of purpose. It is to be hoped that Nora Senior, the new Chair of the Strategic Board on Enterprise and Skills announced on 31 August, will have more success in achieving a joined-up approach which delivers results than the previous ministerial-chaired Strategic Board.

The freedom of manoeuvre of Nora Senior and her agencies is heavily tied to what Scotland’s European future looks like. The current pathway Scotland is on – through no choice of its own – seems likely to impact the pursuit of the goals set out in the Programme for Government. It is clear that Scotland’s exclusion from key European programmes will cut off partnerships and funding streams which are crucial to the delivery of Scotland’s policy ambitions. It begs the question: what is a nation with ambition to do about it?


Colin Imrie is an independent policy analyst. He has worked for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Scottish Government, and the European Commission. He is on Twitter at: @ImrieColin


Feature image: Flags outside the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, Scotland. Image: Calum Hutchison [CC BY-SA 2.5]