As he unveiled his new Cabinet outside Bute House on Wednesday afternoon, the new First Minister, Humza Yousaf, delivered the fastidiously rehearsed clichés that have become the norm at moments like this. While Yousaf told BBC Scotland's Sunday Show
last month that he is his 'own man and will do things my own way', sceptics would be forgiven for mistaking Yousaf's 'radical, progressive agenda' – designed to 'tackle the cost-of-living crisis, continue to invest in public services and progress our well-being economy' – for Nicola Sturgeon's programme.
While it is often said that the First Minister has 'failed upwards' in his various ministerial jobs – with one of his party's former advisers telling Politico that he is merely a 'placeholder for someone better' – Yousaf will require the upmost political dexterity to steer the SNP and Scotland out of the blind alley that his predecessor lead it up. If Yousaf is to morph into a substantive national leader rather than the 'Humza Useless' of popular conception, he will need to overcome the consensus, expressed by one of Alex Salmond's acolytes, Joan McAlpine, that he is only driven by a deep commitment to the career of Humza Yousaf, and will say and do whatever it takes to advance its progression.
Mentioned in most of his public statements since stepping into Bute House and with his campaign manager, the Orcadian Neil Gray, given ministerial responsibility for it, it is a good bet that the 'well-being economy' is going to be one of this administration’s recurring motifs. For those unfamiliar with the concept, Business for Scotland's Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp recently offered a succinct definition in The National
, writing that the well-being economic approach recognises that 'quality of life, equality, fairness, sustainability, happiness and health should be given equal weight to traditional measures such as GDP'.
As self-explanatory as this may seem, its proponents' penchant for politics-by-buzzword – the Scottish Government itself argues that the well-being economy is predicated on a 'just transition to a net zero, nature-positive economy based on the principles of equality, prosperity and resilience' – has lessened popular understanding of their cause and attracted the ridicule of political commentators.
Stephen Kerr, the Conservative MSP for Central Scotland, recently told Holyrood that its topic for debate that afternoon was 'almost totally meaningless', while Iain Macwhirter took to The Spectator
to argue that 'no-one knows what a well-being economy is, but we can assume it does not involve Scotland's biggest engineering industry, North Sea oil and gas'. Likewise, from his berth at the Conservative Party's in-house newspaper, The Daily Telegraph
, Alan Cochrane pointed to Neil Gray's £116,759 salary, writing that: 'I don't have a clue what his responsibilities will entail, either, but it's nice work if you can get it'.
Despite this, persistent increases in income inequality across the UK, the social and economic dislocation caused by Covid, and the ongoing environmental breakdown suggests that the National Performance Framework's Delivering the National Outcomes
report (published in May 2019) – which called for 'Inclusive Growth' (increased prosperity, combined with greater equity), 'empowered and resilient communities' and the preservation of our 'Natural Capital' – was on to something.
As last November's Scottish Health Survey
(conducted by the Scottish Centre for Social Research) highlighted, average well-being in Scotland is at its lowest since records began in 2008, with a noticeable decline during the pandemic after a decade in which well-being remained 'fairly constant'. While those in the most deprived areas continue to have it worst, ScotCen argues that greater food insecurity, a rise in online gambling, and increases in the number suffering from still undiagnosed psychiatric disorders have degraded the health of people across Scotland.
Another key factor, as Anoosh Chakelian highlighted in The New Statesman's
fascinating Weekend Report
, is the continued erosion of our free time. Recent evidence from the Centre for Time Use Research – which has been asking individuals to record their daily activities in sequential 10-minute intervals in 'time diaries' since 1974 – suggests that we are socialising, exercising and engaging in 'leisure activities' for shorter periods than ever before. Chakelian points to what Brigid Schulte calls 'time confetti' (the fragmentation of leisure time into 'small, unsatisfactory scraps') and highlights that the average length of a 'leisure episode' has fallen from one hour and 15 minutes in 1974 to just 25 minutes today.
Given that an international survey (which was also conducted in the US and France) found that 88% of workers in the UK have experienced 'some level of burnout' over the last two years, great electoral riches await the party that fixes 'Burnt Out Britain'. It is striking that the same survey found that over a third of us have now suffered extreme physical and mental exhaustion – as well as 'increased mental distance from one's job, which manifests as negativity or cynicism, and a sense of ineffectiveness' – 'frequently owing to pressures within the workplace'.
With coordinated trade union action and a renewed belief in collective bargaining being two of the most noticeable (and welcome) developments after Covid, we have a window in which to arrest the growth of this pernicious phenomenon. If the SNP's well-being economy can end the constant expectation that we must all work more for nothing extra and persuade the rest of the UK of both the virtues of a four-day working week and the harm done by hyperconnectivity, then count me in!
Tom Chidwick is a contemporary historian, who splits his time between London and Edinburgh