Who needs time travel when you have enterprise?

The economy is back to where it was in 2006 - where do we go from here?

It’s strange to be waking up in summer 2012 to find ourselves in an economy that is no bigger than it was in 2006. So how can we travel "back to the future" and get the economy back on track? In the absence of a plutonium-powered car, the vehicle to get us back to economic growth is enterprise.

Centre for Cities’ new report, "Open for Business", shows how important enterprise is to a city economy. The research, sponsored by ICAEW, takes a detailed look at the make-up of city economies to establish what makes a city economically successful.

It finds there are two prongs to private sector economic growth in our cities – the ability to attract businesses from elsewhere (other UK cities and abroad) and the ability to "grow your own’. Our strongest cities are those that have been able to do both.

A detailed breakdown of the business bases of UK cities reinforces this point. The majority of the UK’s strongest cities are those that have a large proportion of branch businesses and high levels of enterprise:

Of course, being open to external business also means that in the short term some cities may be even more exposed to turbulence in the global economy. The Eurozone crisis may impact upon businesses headquartered in the Eurozone, potentially leading to consolidation of businesses and knock-on job losses. Cities like Coventry and Swindon, with a higher proportion of Eurozone-owned businesses, will need to focus on policies that can support domestic enterprise to help offset any potential fallout from troubles across the Channel.

Overall it is clear from the research that cities with a mix of home grown businesses and branches are best placed to weather any storms heading our way. But what does this mean for policy?

There has been no shortage of enterprise initiatives from previous Governments, ranging from Thatcher's Enterprise Allowance Scheme to New Labour's Local Enterprise Growth Initiative. The recently launched Start-up Loans are the latest addition to the list. But the impact that these schemes have had upon levels of enterprise is difficult to quantify based on existing evidence. So what can the government and cities do to hit the accelerate button on enterprise at a time of economic instability?

One thing that can make an important difference is for national government and cities to continue investing in the core themes that make a big difference to business. This means improving transport and skills and making the planning process more responsive to business needs.

Cities also need to respond to the specific challenges facing their local economies. Our work shows that open, entrepreneurial cities are best placed to grow, and cities should aim for this mix of home-grown business and receptive to new ideas and people.

Depending on the city’s specialisms and where it needs to improve, this could mean implementing policies from support for start-ups or existing companies to ensuring the city is working with UKTI and others to showcase where there are opportunities for external investment.

It will take time to get back to where our economy should be. But by getting enterprise policy right today, cities can help to steer the wider UK out of economic underperformance and into growth.

TechHub, a start-up shared space in Old Street, West London. Photograph: Getty Images

Alexandra Jones is the director of the Centre for Cities

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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