Brian Wilson: More at stake for Scotland than teacakes

Tunnock's employs 600 people at its bakery in Uddingston, Lanarkshire. Picture: Robert Perry
Tunnock's employs 600 people at its bakery in Uddingston, Lanarkshire. Picture: Robert Perry
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TUNNOCK’S is still a success story while other Scots industries need a helping hand, writes Brian Wilson

The Republican Right in America has the Tea Party. Never to be outdone in the outrage stakes, Scotland now has its equally angry Teacake Party, threatening boycott and retribution against the mighty Tunnock’s empire.

Even though vying with the North Korean bomb and a race between Saudia Arabia and Iran to be the world’s leading executioner, our Great Patriotic Teacake controversy secured more than its fair share of headlines and airtime, thanks to the ever-reliable fulminations of the cybernat ­community.

“Bye, bye Tunnock’s – you know where you can shove your teacakes” hinted one patriot.

Another was more specific in his instructions: “Boycott Tunnock’s. F***ing traitors. Don’t buy their s*** teacakes or anything else. Scumbags”. And much more in the same deranged vein.

It was, of course, yet another marketing triumph for Uddingston’s behemoth of the biscuit barrel. For less than the price of a caramel wafer, Tunnock’s secured publicity which, if measured on the abacus used by PR agencies to justify their existence, was worth a million. There’s no need to teach an old baker new tricks.

But beneath the attacks on a business which employs 600 people in Lanarkshire – and there ain’t many of them – lies a practical point. You don’t sell teacakes in London by calling them Scottish. In fact, there are very few things which you sell specifically on the basis of where they come from. In that respect, Scotland is no different, better or worse.

• READ MORE: Tunnock’s drop iconic lion branding to be ‘more British’

It is delusory to base any exporting strategy on the idea that sticking Saltires on things will sell them anywhere except, possibly, in Scotland. Nobody cares. Whatever the product, it is quality, design and marketing which are far more important than any flag. These are the characteristics Scotland should be promoting and where existing successes lie. There are just too few of them.

There are, of course, exceptions to the identity rule. Scotland has Scotch whisky which can bring in some other food and drink products on its coat-tails. In fashion, the British identity is extremely strong worldwide. But a sensible exporter plays to all its strengths – Harris Tweed, for example, has the Hebridean, Scottish and British images to utilise, depending on market. But provenance (hand-woven at the home of the weaver), style and quality are the constant selling-points.

For a country which built its wealth on trade, we don’t do very well at exporting. Only 5 per cent of UK companies which sell manufactured goods to the world are based in Scotland.

It is a longstanding problem for the Scottish economy and the challenge needs to be addressed by making it easier for companies to take first steps into exporting. We should be asking Tunnock’s for advice rather than beating it up on Twitter.

Our exports are dominated by a few large sectors – whisky, oil and gas, financial services, aviation and defence. But that then begins to beg the question of what we mean by exports. For example, 90 per cent of financial services are “exported” to the rest of the UK. Being part of the UK jurisdiction for financial services has been crucial to the growth of the sector in Edinburgh and will remain so.

Overall, in goods and services, we export twice as much to the rest of the UK as to the rest of the world. If we assume the ‘rest of UK’ share to be evenly distributed, we sell more to Yorkshire than to China. That is a necessary perspective which was largely overlooked in the referendum debate. There would be far more serious issues to worry about than wrappings on Tunnock’s teacakes if this island was ever divided into competing states.

• READ MORE: 10 things you probably didn’t know about Tunnock’s

Even now, I do wonder how many decisions unfavourable to Scottish investment and employment are being taken quietly, particularly within the financial services sector, when they hear Nicola Sturgeon again talking of another referendum and all the uncertainty which would accompany it. That may be music to the ears of the Teacake Party and kindred spirits but others are not deaf to the same tune.

Much the same argument applies to membership of the EU. We will hear assertions – as we did in the Scottish context – about how life would go on sweetly as before, in spite of having done our level best to tear apart an economic union. Almost half of Scottish international exports go to the EU. Many companies are here because we are in the EU and are unlikely to be persuaded that non-membership would make no difference. Their scepticism will emerge when that argument gets properly under way.

Meanwhile, forget the Tunnock’s nonsense – there was a far more significant story this week involving another long-established Scottish firm though it has not attracted the same level of interest. I refer to the sad descent of Hawick Knitwear into administration, directly threatening almost 200 jobs in a small town. Here was a company with a good product and a strong history of exporting, operating in a sector with strong Scottish identity. So what went wrong?

One after another, the Borders textile industry is going under. A few months ago, Robert Noble of Peebles was bought for its name but with all the work moved out. Other well-known names have disappeared while Barrie Knitwear survived only because it was bought by Chanel to protect its own supply chain. Surely this cannot be accepted as an inevitable process of attrition? Others seem to recognise the value of what still exists.

The time to set up Task Forces is while there is still something that can be done to turn a problem around. I’m sure that applies to the Borders textile industry but where is the coherent, government-led approach to what, by any standard, must now be deemed a crisis for an entire industry? Symbols count for nothing if there are not the products to put them on.

The plight of Hawick Knitwear should trigger urgent ministerial intervention and an appraisal of practical support this industry needs in order to survive. Amidst all the diversions of Scottish politics, there is precious little sign of an economic – far less industrial – strategy which will either create new industries and exporters or even sustain the ones that already exist.