Salmond's seduction wins over business
A SCOTSMAN survey today reveals the Scottish National Party is winning the battle for the hearts and minds of Scotland's business community.
As the party prepares to celebrate 12 months in office after winning the election a year ago tomorrow, Alex Salmond will be delighted at the results of our poll which shows that the business community is starting to believe in the SNP. Backing from business is vital if the Nationalists are to achieve independence and the First Minister has made great efforts to woo its support.
His cuts in rates for small businesses and the axing of tolls on the Forth and Tay road bridges have proved popular.
Many businesses have said they now feel that they have someone who is willing to listen and who will fight their corner.
Influential figures such as the entrepreneur Sir Tom Farmer say that while the SNP has made an encouraging start, the party now needs to "put some meat on the bones". However, The Scotsman's poll, of 648 businessmen and women, will put a smile on the First Minister's face as it found 39 per cent were now more in favour of independence than 12 months ago.
And 57.5 per cent of respondents believed the SNP was doing a good or excellent job in power.
Only 18.2 per cent thought that the Nationalists' performance had been poor or disastrous.
According to people from across the business community, the SNP's cut of business rates, in the Small Business Bonus Scheme, has brought cheer to many and swung support towards them.
It has seen many small businesses save hundreds or even thousands of pounds a year, boosting their profit margins by up to a third.
The aim of growing Scotland's economy, recently dismissed by leading Scottish economist Arthur Midwinter as being impossible to measure, has been popular within the business community.
Other measures like ending the bridge tolls, bringing in a new qualifications scheme for schools and giving a clear schedule for transport works have pleased the business world.
Also, the much politically criticised move of calling in Donald Trump's 1 billion golf resort in Aberdeenshire, after it was rejected at council level, has deeply impressed businesses.
Iain McMillan, the director of CBI Scotland, told The Scotsman: "The Trump issue was very important because it gave a signal, after the terrible decision by the council committee, that Scotland is open for business and whatever the political fallout, businesses viewed the SNP's actions very positively.
"We have been very impressed that the Scottish Government has set growing the economy as one of its top priorities."
But he added: "I think the jury is out at the moment. There have been many positives and some negatives. The SNP have engaged with business, the cuts in small business rates have been good, we like the skills and qualifications scheme and we are pleased that the Scottish Government has given a timetable and committed to spending money on transport infrastructure improvements.
"On the other hand, we were not pleased that they cancelled the Edinburgh Airport rail link and a lot of members are not happy that they are trying to get Scotland out of the UK.
"Also, we worry about the local income tax proposal and the message that will send out, that Scotland is the highest-taxed part of the UK. That is not a business-friendly attitude.''
Mr McMillan went on: "In addition, the changes to Scottish Enterprise have been a mixed bag. We were pleased with the general direction, but not with giving business gateway responsibilities to councils."
After emerging from the 3 May poll last year with one more seat than Labour, the SNP had to persuade bosses that business would not be placed way down the agenda.
So Mr Salmond picked one of their own to go and talk to them. Jim Mather, the enterprise and tourism minister, has a strong track record as a businessman and is at the heart of pushing the efforts to boost tourism by 50 per cent in Scotland.
"We like the efforts Jim Mather has made, although time will tell on the target," said Dumfries and Galloway B&B owner Alan Keith.
Mr Mather said his approach was to talk go out and talk to as many sectors of the business community as he could.
"My feeling is that the business community did not feel the previous administration engaged with them properly," he said. "One of my main tasks is to go out and talk to all these sectors, get people together and see what we could do about growing Scotland's economy.
"We have set that as one of our top priorities and I think that has chimed well with business people."
Sir Tom Farmer does not regret the 100,000 he gave to the SNP to fight the 2007 election. "There's a buzz about the country at the moment," he said.
"People in the business world who questioned my actions before now say that the change has been a good thing for the country."
But the SNP's political opponents have warned the Nationalists are enjoying a honeymoon period which will end.
Labour's finance spokesman, Iain Gray, said: "These results are not surprising considering the effort and public money ploughed into putting a positive spin on independence."
Tory finance spokesman Derek Brownlee said: "This reflects that many in the business community are enjoying the benefits of the cut in business rates pushed through in the budget by the Conservative Party."
And Lib Dem finance spokesman Tavish Scott noted: "I have yet to meet a businessman who wants the SNP government to waste its time debating independence."
ALLAN KEITH, Bed and breakfast owner in Dumfries and Galloway.
"On the whole I've been impressed with the way that Jim Mather has approached some of the problems, especially by tackling the VisitScotland website. That has impressed people in the trade.
"There are still problems, especially with over-regulation. Their aim of 50 per cent increase in tourism is positive, but they need to deliver."
MOHAMMAD SHEIKH, 41, who owns the Home Collections in Kilbirnie, North Ayrshire
"I voted Labour last year, but now I would vote SNP. I think Alex Salmond is a strong leader who is fighting hard for Scotland, much harder than Labour did before him.
"I was very pleased with the cut in business rates because it means I have a lot more money I can spend on my family. I have three children, so having extra money in my pocket really makes a very big difference.
"I'm not sure about independence but I think it's worth looking at down the line and there needs to be more of a campaign on it first."
ANDY WILLOX, FSB Scotland's policy convener.
"The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) in Scotland has been impressed by the SNP's first year in government.
"The introduction of the Small Business Bonus is having a real and positive effect on the cash flow of around 150,000 of Scotland's small businesses and is endearing the SNP to the small business community. Other key commitments, such as the abolition of tolls on the Forth and Tay bridges, are again giving the small business community reasons to be positive. However, there are still some areas of concern as energy and fuel prices spiral upwards and large scale supermarkets and out-of-town shopping centres continue to get the thumbs up."
JIM McCOLL, Chairman and Chief Executive of engineering company Clyde Blowers.
"I think most of what has happened over the last year has been pretty positive. I like the idea of the focus of the government being on economic growth. I get the same message from business colleagues.
"It has been good to have a government that recognises we need to grow the economy and encourage entrepreneurs to pay for all the other things we need to improve the quality of life for all people in Scotland.
"The SNP are a minority government and do seem to have accepted that they need to work with people, including the business community. I'm just a bit disappointed that some of the opposition parties have been a bit more negative."
SIR TOM FARMER, leading Scottish entrepreneur who gave the SNP 100,000 to fight the 2007 election.
"I am very pleased with my investment, because the money I gave to the SNP was an investment into the future of Scotland.
"There seems to be a buzz around the place at the moment, it's hard to put your finger on why that is exactly, but the change of government has brought a positive feeling to Scotland.
"However, the SNP now need to put the flesh on the bones of what they have achieved over the next three years. I only gave them money to help even up the fight because I thought Scotland needed a change.
"I think even the Unionist parties have quietly agreed with more independence for Scotland, even if it is not total independence, but it is hard to really see what independence really means."
The Scotsman did not use a professional polling company for the survey. Nevertheless, it is a useful snapshot because it questioned subscribers to scotsman.com's Business Briefing service.
Thousands of managing directors, senior managers and business people have signed up to the service, to receive daily updates from Scotsman journalists.
To read Business Briefing, go to business.scotsman.com
Registered users who wish to join the thousands of others who receive the Business Briefing daily newsletter, visit the Members Area portion of the site (button top left of any screen) and select Email Preferences.
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