ANDREW Wilson, who was tasked by the First Minister to overhaul the economic case for independence, is feeling bruised and hurt.

His pain was not caused by the febrile reaction to the report of the Growth Commission he chaired, but by falling off a trampoline and breaking his ribs.

In an extensive interview with the Sunday Herald, Wilson puts aside his discomfort to talk about a 354-page blueprint that could form the basis of the case for independence if there is a second referendum.

Wilson’s credentials are well established in the political world. At 28, he was elected as an SNP MSP, but only served a single term before joining doomed banking giant RBS. Now 47, he is one of the leading figures in “strategic communications” firm Charlotte Street Partners.

However, his legacy is likely to be defined by the work of the Commission, which Sturgeon asked him to lead in 2016. Criticised by the left of the Yes movement but welcomed as a realistic prospectus by centrists, the report has divided opinion.

Speaking in a plush side room at the CSP headquarters in Edinburgh, Wilson says of the reaction to the findings: “I was surprised by the ferocity in some small quarters, but having said that what surprised me equally was the broad SNP reaction [which] has been unbelievably positive.”

Wilson, who as an MSP was more favourable to the free market than many of his colleagues, says his report has been welcomed in the financial world and takes aim at his left-wing critics.

“If you are on the radical left, you might take a cynical view, ‘well who cares what the financial institutions think’, and that’s fine, but we have to build the country. And we have to build and earn the right over time to do other things.”

Wilson has always been on the SNP’s gradualist wing. As an MSP, he made the case for fiscal autonomy, which amounted to greater financial powers for Holyrood. And while he believes a second referendum is winnable, he is extremely cautious on rushing the process: “I think people are leery of referendums,” he says. “I think people are leery of politics full stop, but they also want to be sure they do the right thing for the long term.”

On why Yes lost in 2014, he argues that Scots were not “generally ready” for independence. So are they ready now?

“I don’t think people are quite ready yet, but I think they are readying, should the question be required. I don’t know when that will be, whether it will be months or years. That’s a really difficult call.”

His language on independence is fascinating. The Brexit debate is characterised by talk of a “soft” and “hard” departure from the European Union, and Wilson pointedly exports this wording to the Scottish constitutional debate: “What we would be hoping for is the softest of possible changes, compared to the hardest that we are seeing Britain dealing with [in] Europe.

“You want us to be respectful of 300 years of reality. Not just for emotional reasons, but for economic reasons as well.”

Wilson also refers to “independence within the UK” to explain what Scotland could achieve inside the Union. Could he ever be content with a settlement that involved staying in the UK?

“I definitely believe a reformed Britain which is able to allow its constituent parts to have much more autonomy, and be much more in control of their affairs, is better than the situation we are in now,” he replies.

“Would I ever be completely satisfied and stop arguing for Scotland to be the same as the countries that we’ve looked at? I suppose ultimately ‘no’ would be the answer to that.”

The Herald:

Image: Andrew Wilson (picture by Gordon Terris)

On paper, the Commission’s message was simple. An independent Scotland, it was argued, could halve a start-point deficit of 5.9 per cent of GDP within a decade, on the back of “trend” growth of 1.5 per cent. Sterling would also be retained without a formal monetary union. The plan was explicitly pitched at soft No voters.

However, the political reality is more complex. Experts have challenged many of the Commission’s assumptions and the deficit reduction plan could be based on spending growth as low as 0.5 per cent. In other words, belt-tightening. Hence the criticism from the left.

Wilson admits “spending constraint” would be part of the prescription, but urges critics to consider the long term.

“What we’ve done is looked at the other small countries that have been successful and said to ourselves ‘have they had to get their deficits and public finances on to a stable footing?’, and the answer is emphatically yes,” he says.

“Those [countries] who have chosen not to address the issue have got themselves into calamitously difficult positions. And in doing so they make the funding of public finances and spending much more expensive.”

He adds: “For anyone who is on the left ... the idea that you can keep borrowing and borrowing at very expensive rates, and somehow that is sustainable, is the wrong answer.”

Although trend growth of around 1.5 per cent is mentioned, figures last week showed that the latest year-on-year figure was 0.8 per cent. If that under-performance was replicated in an independent Scotland, deficit reduction would require huge spending cuts.

“I would be much more optimistic than you are saying,” he says. “But you are right to identify that if we carry on the way we are now, then it would be much more challenging, there’s no doubt about that.”

I read extracts of a piece by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, which argued that it was “inconsistent to claim that these plans do not amount to austerity but the UK Government’s current policy does”.

Wilson says he was “disappointed” by the way the IFS “top spun” its argument on austerity and asks: “When does austerity become austerity?”

I suggest 0.5 per cent spending growth could fit the bill. “When does it cease being it? One per cent? 0.75 per cent? Is it meaningful?” he replies.

“It’s a very Scottish thing this, isn’t it? Rather than saying ‘here is the challenge, here is what we think we should do to address the challenge’, all we are wanting to do is put a badge on somebody and shout at the badge.”

The Commission argued that a separate currency could be viable, but only after adopting sterling for up to a decade after independence. The plan was criticised on many grounds, including the fact that the Bank of England would set interest rates for Scotland.

“The idea that we can go there [a new currency] overnight is both economically and politically ill-considered for a whole variety of reasons,” he says.

Wilson is no Corbynista on tax. Asked if he supports a 50p income tax rate on earnings over £150,000, he cites Scottish Government research which claimed that the move could lose money: “Some might take the view that it’s worth it for symbolic purposes, but I think that’s self-harm.”

He adds: “Policies that say 1p across the board to pay for education are more honest than saying somehow we can scapegoat 13,000 people in the corner.”

On corporation tax, Wilson used to be a champion of cutting taxes on business profits, but the Commission report warns that such an approach would not be an “optimal strategic tool”. Isn’t that a screeching U-turn from him?

“It’s more of a long U-bend. I was increasingly uncomfortable with it,” he says, explaining that revelations of corporate tax avoidance were a key factor behind his change of heart.

Although Sturgeon hand-picked Wilson for the role of Commission chair, he has always been closer to his mentor, Alex Salmond. He says he and Sturgeon, who were rivals when they were MSPs, are friendly but not “best mates”.

If Salmond had asked Wilson for “strategic communications” advice on whether to host a show on Russian propaganda station RT, what would he have said?

He pauses. And stumbles: “Let me think specifically what I want to say on that ... I would rather he was doing bigger, more substantial jobs that reflect the depth of his intellect.”

Could Wilson ever seek a return to Holyrood? “I am well suited to the role that I am in now,” he says. “It’s been a privilege to be able to contribute, but the front line of politics – I don’t know if I am emotionally and temperamentally fit for it.”

I suggest he couldn’t afford the pay cut. “You might be right, but I see none of it,” he laughs, noting that he has responsibilities for five children under 12.

Wilson, even his detractors privately concede, is an asset to the Yes campaign who has injected a dose of realism into the debate on the economics of independence. The next step is for others to determine.

“It goes back to the core of this discussion,” he says. “What is the right thing to do? Let others worry about the politics.”