A decade ago this spring, a remarkable project was conceived.

Wendy Alexander, then a rising star in the Scottish Labour Party, resigned as enterprise minister to promote a new intellectual and political consensus modelled on what had been achieved in the Irish Republic following the 1980s debt crisis. For Scotland at that time there was no crisis, so the new thinking had to come from reasoned debate.

This was the genesis of the Allander Series of lectures, organised with the economist (and Alexander's future husband) Professor Brian Ashcroft, global thinkers, a neutral, an academic forum at Strathclyde University, and the sponsorship and support of Scotland's business community.

Alexander asked some of the world's greatest economic minds to research Scotland's problems and to generate new ideas to improve the country's performance with concrete proposals for how to use the hard-won powers of the Scottish Parliament.

The ideas they came up with were acclaimed at the time and still stand up to scrutiny 10 years on. But has that promise been fulfilled?

Professor Donald MacRae, chief economist at Lloyds Banking Group, who attended all the lectures, says: "Looking back at the Allander series makes you realise just how much has been achieved but also how much remains to do. Little has happened to change [one speaker's] conclusion 10 years ago that 'Scotland's performance in growth and innovation does not place it in the forefront among the industrial economies of the world'."

The genesis of the series lay in Wendy Alexander's view of devolution as a platform on which to build radical reform in enterprise, education, the public sector, the environment, planning and social policy.

In 2003 and 2004, Scotland welcomed a star-studded guest list; Nobel Prize-winning Paul Krugman with his research on international economics; William Baumol, a pioneer on the role of innovation; James Heckman, the Chicago economist and also a Nobel Laureate, famous for his work on education and the labour market.

Heather Joshi from London teamed up with the Canadian Robert Wright to address the demographic problems of Scotland. Then there was Edward Glaeser, the Harvard economist who specialises in the role of cities. John Bradley brought lessons from the Irish experience, and finally Nicholas Crafts, the LSE economic historian addressed the issue of productivity and performance in the public sector.

Their lectures cut through to the issues of low growth and deep-seated social problems. The solutions proposed used the range of policy levers, mostly available to the devolved institutions.

The Allander series of lectures demonstrated Alexander's philosophy that economics is not just about an annual tax and spend budget, but about people and society.

Two themes recurred throughout the seven presentations. Baumol, Krugman and Glaeser all spoke of the need to attract the tools of growth – technology, skills and capital – from outside. This is particularly so in a small, open economy such as Scotland's, exposed to the flows of finance and migration that characterise the global economy. Any incremental domestic improvements can be dwarfed by inward and outward movements of capital and skilled workers.

Baumol argued that Scots had to become skilled imitators as well as innovators, and this means developing policy to encourage the transfer of knowledge from abroad.

To achieve this, Scotland had to develop policies specifically designed to embrace its fate as a small, open economy. That meant encouraging competitiveness, light but effective regulation and, above all, attracting and developing skilled labour.

Edward Glaeser put this in concrete terms. What an aspirational global workforce wants is good housing and schools, good transport, moderate taxes, low crime, and an attractive cultural and environmental milieu.

FOR Scotland to succeed, it had to engage not so much in a race to the bottom to reduce costs, but a race to attract the best, a message reinforced by John Bradley's account of the Irish experience.

The second big theme was the importance of top-quality education. Baumol, Krugman and Glaeser saw world-class education as important both in developing a homegrown workforce capable of competing with the best, and also as a key ingredient for attracting talented families from elsewhere, something also stressed by the demographer Heather Joshi. Developing, attracting and retaining human capital is the key defining feature of successful advanced economies.

How to achieve this was the central concern of both James Heckman and Nicholas Crafts. Heckman preached a results-based approach to education policy. The greatest return on investment in education for society is investment in early years education. Welfare policy has to encourage stable family units as the incubators of human capital. Then, as the child gets older, concentrate on good teaching and results rather than resources. At the college level, most of the benefit goes to the individual, so there is no need for the state to finance university for any but the very poorest 10%.

For Nicholas Crafts, the message extended beyond schooling to the wider public sector. His historical analysis of economic performance shows the weakness that stems from monopoly provision. A key ingredient for economic success is to encourage competition in the public sector – which after all accounts for half of GDP in Scotland.

Ten years on, what have we harvested from this scattering of intellectual seed? How many of the ideas to have taken root?

Some undoubtedly have. It looks like we are going to have, one way or another, more of the "fiscal management" that Paul Krugman described. The relevance of James Heckman's work is being recognised in the "early years intervention" of the Scottish Government while the current austerity era is encouraging even more discussion of how to deliver what Nicholas Crafts called' "high-quality public services".

Other ideas, such as the vital role of cities, are at last being taken seriously by policymakers.

Another of the concepts that caught on is the importance of using international connections to attract investment.

But reform of the public sector – which accounts for half of Scotland's GDP and is the main business of the Scottish Government – has taken a very different path from that suggested.

Reflecting last week on the Allander anniversary, Nicholas Crafts told the Sunday Herald: "Since the Allander papers were written, an increasing body of evidence shows that careful introduction of competition raises the efficiency with which services like education and health are delivered.

"Given the increasing divergence between Scotland and England in this regard, there is valuable information to be obtained by structured comparisons of the outcomes north and south of the Border per pound spent. This is even more true now than it was in 2004".

Heckman's analysis, that educational effort should be focused on results rather than resources, and that higher education should not be a priority for state funding, has been roundly rejected by the Scottish political establishment. Competition, fees, deregulation and payment by results tend to provoke horror in Scotland.

One paper in an eighth lecture – the series was extended after the first seven – was delivered by the Scottish economist Ronald MacDonald and the American Paul Hallwood, and became the subject of intensive political scrutiny. They argued that greater fiscal autonomy for the Scottish Parliament might encourage better economic decision making.

But for many nationalists the need to settle the independence question has greater priority than trying to implement radical reform.

Jim Mather, former SNP enterprise minister, said his recollections were that the Allander series ''was largely aimed at parking the [constitutional] issue". "Wendy Alexander felt the need to add a paper on fiscal federalism, which my research proved did not even have the enthusiastic support of [its own] author, Professor Ronald MacDonald, who soon after recanted and in 2009 wrote a book advocating full financial powers and arguably supporting independence.

"I remember asking Professor Baumol what advice he would give the citizens of Vermont if they had accepted a Barnett Formula deal with Massachusetts that resulted in low growth, an ageing population and a brain drain.

"His answer? He would ask them to stand on their own two feet – and then when he looked at Wendy, he said "However, as a guest in your country, I think I will take the Fifth Amendment."

Others argue that it is the very obsession with constitutional change that precludes serious debate and prevents measures of the kind proposed by the other Allander contributors. According to Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser, convener of the Scottish Parliament's Enterprise, Energy and Tourism committee, "the obsession with constitutional change which has dominated Scottish politics over the last decade has crowded out serious thinking about our future economic and social development".

"Even a bright spark like Wendy Alexander has departed the stage, finding that intellectual argument has little place in the bearpit of a Scottish Parliament dominated by Alex Salmond and constant squabbles with Westminster."

For Fraser and others, Scotland suffers not so much from a lack of powers, but a lack of focus on the substantive issues that confront it. They believe that Scottish politics has so far been dominated first by an administration that eschewed action for fear of rocking the boat than by one that avoids action that could undermine its chances in an independence referendum.

At a time of great economic hardship Scotland needs a radical overhaul of the kind the Allander experts suggested. The problem is that at present it appears nowehere on the horizon.

The Herald/Fraser of Allander seminar "Scotland's Fiscal Future" takes place at the University of Strathclyde on April 19, with speakers including Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Moore MSP, Jim McColl, Professor Andrew Hughes Hallett and Andrew Goudie. Contact colin.donald@sundayherald.com for more information


Revisiting the Allander series 10 years on is to be reminded that Scotland needs more cross-party, non-party, business and civil society conversations about the issues that count.

The series demonstrated the appetite for debate around how Scotland makes a living in the world, how our cities co-operate, how our children are raised and even how we provide for the public services we want.

It demonstrated that going to world-leading authorities to access the best research makes it easier to build consensus around change.

Allander reaffirmed my belief in the power of big ideas to deliver progress. And it shaped my own career choices.

As leader of the Labour Party in the Scottish Parliament, by 2008 I wanted to see the constitutional question quickly addressed and resolved so we could make progress together. My call to "bring it on" was not heeded. Thereafter it seemed inevitable that our national conversation would become dominated by a prolonged "should we stay or should we go?"

In consequence these are fallow times for those seeking common purpose on the big themes mentioned above. Instead, we live in a time where people are compelled to choose. Constitutional debates are inevitably visceral and therefore divisive.

The search for ideas is temporarily suspended under a blanket of constitutional fog. For me this process helped drain Scottish politics of life. The Scots, however, remain a curious, enquiring, engaged people. The momentum that led to the Allander series will resurface again. When it does, I for one will be cheering.