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8 April 2021updated 26 Jul 2021 6:06am

Independent or not, Scotland must get over its fear of business

When was the last time a Scottish cabinet minister made a speech about the vital role the private sector plays in funding public spending and creating jobs?

By Chris Deerin

Despite the splits in the independence movement, Jim Sillars remains a member of the SNP. But the legendary former deputy leader will not be voting for the party in May’s Holyrood election. He told a Reform Scotland event on Wednesday (7 April) that the 14-year nationalist government should have been able to do “two things at once” – campaign for independence and improve the governance of devolved Scotland. But, he said, it had made a success of neither, and instead become a personality cult based around Nicola Sturgeon.

Sillars’ disgruntlement with the party leadership is well known. Nevertheless, he was speaking at a presentation by Malcolm Offord, a Conservative candidate for the Scottish parliament. He had just heard Offord set out an eight-point plan to “turbo-boost the Scottish economy”, which included criticism of the SNP’s handling of the education system, of the “scandal” that 20 per cent of statutory school-leavers are not in employment, further education or training, and of the strained relationship that exists between Nicola Sturgeon’s government and the private sector.

In an election that will largely be centred, as usual, on the constitutional question, the issue of the economy has suddenly and unexpectedly taken centre-stage. Offord’s critique came on the same day the business magnate Tom Hunter published a study of Scotland’s economic growth rate, commissioned from the Oxford Economics consultancy.

The report pointed out that in recent decades Scotland’s GDP per head of population has consistently lagged behind that of the UK as a whole. In 2019, it was 8 per cent lower. Scottish workers are less productive than their UK counterparts in most sectors, while the nation’s business start-up rate, its levels of business investment and its rate of scale-ups are all low. Forecasts for the future of Scotland’s growth rate were gloomy.

Oxford Economics called on the devolved government to spend more of its budget on economic development. It also proposed “significant tax cuts and deregulation to improve competition and incentives in the economy”.

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“It is not realistic to think that the current economic policies of either the UK or Scottish governments will produce a transformation of Scotland’s economic performance,” it said. “Transformational economic improvements require some serious rethinks at either the Scottish or UK levels.”

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Fair points, but they will fall on deaf ears. Holyrood has a serious problem with the wealth-creating part of the economy and tends to have a seizure at the merest mention of tax cuts. Its politicians are more comfortable praising the public sector than the private. The hard left doesn’t get many votes north of the border, but it has an outsize influence on the national debate. There is a sniffiness about words and phrases such as wealth creation, profit and entrepreneurialism.

As we come out of lockdown, this needs to be dealt with. I can’t remember the last time a Scottish cabinet minister made a speech about the vital role business plays in beneficial innovation, funding public spending and creating jobs. There is (justified) applause for NHS staff, but little if any for the business owners who have made sacrifices over the past year to keep their employees in jobs. There is little due paid to the timeless prescriptions of Adam Smith and almost no discussion of the philosophic and economic values that should govern the years ahead. Scotland, for example, is a centre of the ethically important “impact investing” sector, but you wouldn’t know it from a day spent in Holyrood.

You don’t have to be a Tory to understand that Scotland needs to raise its economic game. I recently interviewed Anas Sarwar and was intrigued when the new Scottish Labour leader stressed the need for his party to repair its relationship with the business community. “If we are going to focus on recovery, if we are going to rebuild our economy and get people back to work, quality work in the economy of the future, then we need to see the private sector and business as a partner in that work, not as an opponent,” he told me. He has reconvened the Labour Business Network and asked Brian Wilson, the former Labour MP and trade minister, to chair it.

Sarwar said: “I want people to understand that, yes, we are the party of workers, and, yes, we want to have well-paid, good work, but we also want to be a party of business again, so we have successful businesses to help grow our economy, to create jobs, and through that help get people out of poverty and create a better society.”

Hallelujah to that. I have lost count of the number of business leaders who have lamented the disconnect between parliament and the private sector. There aren’t enough MSPs with experience of business or with an interest in the subject. Offord, a successful investment banker, is fifth on the Conservatives’ Lothian list, where they are likely to win a maximum of four seats.

There is extraordinary work going on in the Scottish economy in areas such as biotech, data innovation, digital healthcare and space technology. But it too often feels like these good things are battling against the political wind, rather than it filling their sails.

Whether Scotland becomes independent or remains in the Union, there will be the need for an energised and properly supported private sector. There is a need, too, for more politicians who know what they are talking about, and with the guts to tackle the nation’s economic failings.

[see also: “War on woke”: the meaning of the Alba Party]