The Centre for Public Policy for the Regions gets a lot of attention in the Scottish media. Its tousle haired economist John McLaren is almost as familiar to viewers of Newsnight Scotland as Gordon Brewer himself. This weekend its report on the Scottish government's spending priorities in the budget got considerable attention.
The report suggested that the SNP was wrong to ring-fence health spending - just after the party launched its 2011 camapign with this very pledge. It also cast doubt on the SNP government's ability to fund big infrastructural projects using the non-profit mechanism they have created to replace PFI/PPP. This also echoed the attacks of the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats.
So is this report a dispassionate piece of analysis by lofty academics who are above the dirty business of politics? Or should we should look again at the CPPR and ask how non-aligned some of its people really are. John McLaren, for example, was once an adviser to the Labour First Minister Donald Dewar - not something that is flagged up on television.
But it is the background of Jo Armstrong, McLaren's co-author of the weekend paper on Scottish public spending, that concerns me much more. Ms Armstrong was an adviser to another Labour First Minister, Jack McConnell. She is also a controversial figure with what many believe are strong ideological views in favour of liberalising public services. She has advocated the privatisation of Scottish Water. She has associations with those who have most to gain from a return to PFI/PPP - the cost of which has multiplied and delivered huge profits to banks and business consultants. She was involved in the establishment of the Glasgow Housing Association, an organisation backed by the banks, who were given the city's entire housing stock but had the debt for that stock completely written off.
I am indebted to an online directory called Powerbase, which attempts to chart the connections between lobbying/academia/consultancy/think tankery and politics.
Here is part of their fascinating entry on Jo Armstrong:
"Jo Armstrong has also involved herself in other areas of concern to the Scottish people. For instance the area of Public Private Partnerships (PPP'S) is one that she has written on. She appears to be a proponent of PPP despite evidence that they are a bad deal for the people of Scotland see refs below     .
She herself says that she has had,
- 'Key roles:
- advising on the development of partnerships and projects
- ensuring financial viability & acceptability to the private sector
- assuring value for money & public sector affordability'.
- 'The provision of analysis and advice in support of the Royal Bank of Scotland’s Structured Finance deals covering
- PFI/PPPs for UK hospitals, roads, prisons and housing
- gas and coal-fired power projects worldwide
- oil, mineral and petrochemical installations world-wide
- leisure and hotel projects in the US and the UK' .
Despite this business relationship with the Royal Bank she also took on an, 'an initial review of the Scottish Executive’s experience of, and role in Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) in Scotland reporting to the Scottish Cabinet through the Minister for Finance' . "
Jo Armstrong, has also worked for the Fraser of Allander Institute, another academic organisation that appears to employ a disproportionate number of folk of a Scottish Labour persuasion...Now I am not saying that Ms Armstrong has done anything wrong. But I do believe that anyone presented with her work has a right to view it in the wider context of her career.
There is considerable personnel cross over between the Fraser of Allander, the CPPR, and the Calman Commission on Scottish Devolution which was set up by the unionist parties to block moves to give Scotland more control of her own resources and economic decision making. The Calman Commission report forms the basis of the Scotland Bill, currently going through Westminster which the Scottish Government says would have resulted in Scotland losing £8bn in the first ten years of devolution.
Jim Gallagher, the former civil servant who is believed to have written the Calman report and who has been appointed as expert adviser to the Holyrood Scotland Bill Committe is listed as an associate with the CPPR.
Wendy Alexander, who had the idea for the Calman Commission while Labour's leader in Holyrood and who now chairs The Scotland Bill committee has worked for the Fraser of Allander. As a minister in a previous Labour administration she pushed through the establishment Glasgow Housing Association that Jo Armstrong worked on too
Brian Ashcroft, Wendy Alexander's husband, is a member of the CPPR and Fraser of Allander.
Julia Darby and Peter McGregor of the CPPR were two of six economists who signed a letter in The Scotsman yesterday claiming fiscal autonomy would not help the Scottish economy.
Julia Darby was also on the Calman expert group.
Of other letter signers Anton Muscatelli, Clemens Fuest and David Ulph were also members of the hand-picked expert group.
David Ulph is also an expert adviser to the Scotland Bill committee at Holyrood. Does he not believe that a conflict of interest might arise? How can he offer supposedly impartial advice on Scotland's fiscal future when his colours are nailed so firmly to the mast? A look at Ulph's CV also reveals that he was employed by HMRC until 2006. The Treasury and HMRC are among the strongest opponents of any move that decentralises power away from them.
I am sure there are many other academics whose impartiality is not perhaps as straightforward as is presented to the wider public. I am not saying that academics should not have political views - that would clearly be absurd. But we should at least know their background and their associates when listening to their contributions. (Just as we should know the backgrounds of journalists - I recently became an SNP candidate). So Professors Andrew Hughes Hallett and Drew Scott were recently attacked by Wendy Alexander's committee because their research had been used by the SNP government to support the case for fiscal power. Contrast the way they were treated with this report in The Telegraph on evidence given at the same time by Iain McLean, of Oxford University, to the same committee. Professor McLean, another member of the Calman expert group, is not an economist but was allowed to talk at length on how the SNP's plans (not part of the committee's remit) would "substantially increase the risk of a financial black hole appearing". For good measure he defended the Scotland Bill plans not to include corporation tax and national insurance and dismissed oil revenues as "too volatile."
Nowhere in the report does it explain that Professor McLean is a very good friend to Labour and was a councillor in Oxford and Tyneside. (Though Professor McLean is himself open about this on his CV) Nor does any report on Prof McLean's evidence to the committee explain that Jim Gallagher (its expert adviser remember) has recently joined Prof McLean at Nuffield College. I'm a told Gallagher found a welcome there after leaving the civil service shortly after the change of government last May.
Lastly, looking at the CVs of the economists on the CPPR, it is clear that "regional economics" is a bulging academic area. Many have moved from the regions of England, where they have developed their expertise. I don't think of Scotland as a region...but perhaps it suits others very well for it to be treated as such.
Just a few examples:
NOTE: In the interests of transparency, I am an SNP candidate for the South of Scotland. But you probably knew that already. I also write for The Scotsman. My column will appear on Tuesday from now on. Tomorrow it looks some more at the economic choices on offer to Scotland and in particular how to fund capital spending.