Jim Stevens

Born: February 11, 1953;

Died: April 24, 2023

Jim Stevens, who has died aged 70, was an economist at the University of Strathclyde and researcher at the Fraser of Allander Institute who commentated with authority over four decades on the Scottish economy.

Stevens joined the academic world at a time when the Scottish economy was undergoing rapid and painful change in the early 1980s. His specialist subject was the steel industry and he approached its challenges with hard-headed pragmatism as well as emotional attachment.

This derived from growing up in a steel-making community and working for seven years at Glengarnock Steelworks before entering academia. That background gave him concerns about the campaign for Scottish steel becoming so singularly focused on the future of the Ravenscraig complex.

The best which could be achieved, he wrote, was a stay of execution on social grounds since its location made it inherently uncompetitive in the rapidly evolving global industry. Instead, Stevens maintained, the focus should have been on investment in the port of Hunterston, linked to the relatively nearby location of Glengarnock. In this analysis, he found himself on the same side as Ian MacGregor, the much-vilified chairman of British Steel in the early 1980s.

“Coastal locations with deep-water docks capable of handling bulk carriers with adjacent steel manufacturing capacity have long been regarded as the most cost efficient model”, wrote Stevens, “but the tendency in Scotland, as in the rest of the UK, has been to retain steel plants in traditional sites at or near coalfields which also once had deposits of ore”.

Stevens was wary of the “Scottish lobby” approach involving “Scottish Office Conservative ministers, Labour MPs, trade unionists and clergymen” which formed itself round lost causes, however noble, rather than moving on to reflect updated circumstances.

Along with Jim Love, he wrote in 1990: ''Those who make reference to steelmaking in terms of a declining, low-tech and expendable Scottish activity misread the global situation. If the Scottish steel industry is to survive through the 1990s the Scottish lobby must identify the strongest case.”

As it turned out, Ravenscraig remained on life support only until 1992 while the Hunterston option, first mooted in the 1960s by Sir Monty Finniston, was never pursued beyond MacGregor’s tenure. Stevens remained convinced that the “Scottish lobby” had fought the wrong battle.

Prestwick Airport was another case in point. In the post-privatisation world, he wrote, “it is only a matter of time before the market realities overtake the empty rhetoric”, a prediction which has resonance down to the present day.

Professor Emeritus Roger Sandilands said: “Jim was a larger-than-life and down-to-earth character who livened up his classes with humour and relevance that partly came from his involvement in the real world of politics.

“Despite his relatively left-wing activism, he had an unexpectedly keen interest in and support for the relevance of monetarist theory and policy that is often unfairly decried by the left. He won the prize for the best honours-year dissertation. It was an empirical study of the behaviour and significance of world gold price fluctuations”.

Jim Stevens was born in Kilbirnie to Jim, a steelworker, and May, and an older brother to Jan. He attended Glengarnock Primary and Speirs Academy before taking the expected employment route to the steelworks. When he eventually went to Strathclyde University, he gained a first class degree and was kept on as a lecturer in macroeconomics.

His political commitment drove his interest in economics while his inquiring intellect caused him to challenge the orthodoxies of left as well as right. His conclusions on any particular issue lay where the economic facts led him.

As chief economic forecaster at the Fraser of Allander Institute, Stevens became something of a bête noir for the SNP with his rigorous assessments of their economic claims. In advance of the 1997 General Election he calculated they had had inflated Scotland's true fiscal position by £18.1bn over the next four years and their economic predictions were "about as useful as a chocolate fireguard".

Away from his day job as an academic, Jim was far removed from the stereotypical image of that calling. Having decided at an early age that his hyperactive nature did not need alcohol to stimulate it, he appeared to be fuelled by a constant flow of Diet Coke, discoursing on the issues of the day, local and national, usually in the Garnock Labour Club.

Professor David Hillier, executive dean of Strathclyde Business School and associate principal of the university, paid tribute: "Jim was a remarkable economics lecturer and a cherished presence in the Fraser of Allander Institute and department of economics. He was highly regarded by his students, winning numerous awards for his exceptional teaching and supervision. Beyond his role as an educator, Jim's warm and caring nature extended to his workplace colleagues”.

At the funeral service in his home town of Kilbirnie, Rev Archie Currie, said: “As a child he would be described as hyperactive but highly intelligent” – characteristics which were evident throughout Jim’s life. Rev Mr Currie described him as “a lifelong Labour man, very much respected by his peers and a real man of the people. In particular, he could identify with young people”.

Rev. Mr Currie added: “Locally he was very well known for feeding the seagulls in the public park - something that he himself knew perhaps didn’t endear him to everyone. Jim had a lifelong passion for nature; he would nurse injured animals over the years. He just loved all animals.”.

The former MSP for Cunninghame North, Allan Wilson, recalled: “Jim was a lifelong member of the Labour Party and a key member of its Scottish Executive Committee in the eighties and nineties, representing the National Association of Labour Clubs. The era was dominated by the need to reform and modernise the party and its policies to make it electable once more. Jim was firmly on the side of reform”.

Jim Stevens is survived by his daughters Katie and Elain, son Scott and grandchildren Ryan, Kayla and Jason.