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1 September 2023

The battle for Scotland’s business vote

Anas Sarwar is looking to exploit SNP weakness on the economy.

By Chris Deerin

Anas Sarwar, like, really, really wants this. In his bid to boot Humza Yousaf out of Bute House, the Scottish Labour leader has appointed Mike Soutar from The Apprentice as one of his key business advisers.

Soutar is to join a panel of experts that will guide Labour’s attempts to unlock stronger economic growth. Whether he will be asked to fillet the party’s manifesto with the same terrifying ruthlessness he brings to the business proposals of Alan Sugar’s desperate, hapless contestants is as yet unknown. Given the vast gap between most manifesto commitments and ultimate reality, that would probably be unwise.

Nevertheless, the battle for business and economic credibility is well and truly joined. As well as Soutar, who is a former media executive with DC Thomson, Labour’s panel includes well-respected figures such as Willie Haughey, chairman of City Facilities Management Holdings and a major player in the Glasgow economy; Bob Brannan, the chairman of Walkers Shortbread; Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce; and Sandy Begbie, who runs Scottish Financial Enterprise, the “trade union” for the nation’s financial sector.

Sarwar sees the economy as the crucial policy area for both next year’s general election and the Holyrood election in 2026. After a period in which the Scottish electorate voted mainly according to its constitutional preference, there is a belief that the cost-of-living crisis and the sheer length of the SNP’s 16-year reign mean politics will return to something closer to normal. This week the Scottish Tories revealed their own economic wish list, including tax cuts, a “regulation handbrake” on changes that affect businesses, and greater co-operation between Holyrood and Westminster.

It seems that all parties require business advisers these days. Yousaf created his own group shortly after taking office in March, in response to criticism of the SNP’s lack of engagement with the community. Whether this represents a genuine attempt to change tack or is merely to be seen to be “doing something” depends on who you talk to. There remains considerable doubt in reform-minded SNP circles that Yousaf, who has continued in coalition with the explicitly anti-growth Greens and wants to raise income taxes further, intends anything resembling a game-changer on economic policy. He ran for the leadership pledging to continue the high-spending, social-justice focused agenda of Nicola Sturgeon.

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[See also: When will the SNP put itself before the Greens?]

That said, the past few weeks have been busy ones for the First Minister and his staff. When Holyrood returns from recess next week, Yousaf will set out his first Programme for Government, clarifying his legislative plans for the next 12 months. This is widely viewed as a make-or-break moment for Yousaf, who has struggled to establish his personal authority since taking office. The SNP has slumped in the polls, while the police investigation into the party’s finances has rumbled on. Yousaf has also been beset by crises stemming from the large number of policy stumbles made by Sturgeon in her final months. His own early steps have failed to grab the attention.

I’m told the First Minister will show he is taking a tighter grip of his administration through the publication of “mandate letters” to cabinet ministers, committing them to delivering on the Programme’s central goals. This is an innovation first adopted by Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada, and identifies the leader’s priorities within each minister’s portfolio. The mandate letters are also intended to indicate heightened accountability and transparency, but Trudeau has faced questions as to whether they amount to much more than a PR exercise. Yousaf will likely face similar questions: what, for example, is the sanction if the directives are not achieved? Are outcomes likely to be improved? Do ministers have any space for independent policy thinking or are they expected to be mere puppets of Bute House?

With the next election now in sight and the SNP’s dominance at last being challenged, the coming months promise to be brutal ones. Yousaf is far from being secure as leader, and a disastrous showing at Westminster – polls suggest Labour could take as many as half of the SNP’s 44 seats – might yet prompt an internal uprising. The independence movement is restive and less united than at any time since before the 2014 referendum.

The contenders could do worse than pay heed to Soutar’s thoughts about how to win The Apprentice: “If you’re going to be one of the candidates you have to balance up two things: you have to be a really good team player and at the same time you have to really stand out. The people who tend to rise to the top… are people who have an inner confidence but not an arrogance – there are some people who just take up all the oxygen in the room and they don’t tend to last very long. Neither do the ones who are wallflowers.”

He has advice for the voters, too: “A good investor backs the person first and the idea second.”

[See also: Scottish Labour must do less, better]

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