Bill Jamieson: How the pecking order was turned on its head

Tracy Black was appointed as CBI Scotland director this year, succeeding Hugh Aitken
Tracy Black was appointed as CBI Scotland director this year, succeeding Hugh Aitken
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Not all that long ago, the world of Scotland’s business lobby groups seemed set in stone: the giant Confederation of British Industry Scotland on top, a richly decorated cake oozing with fat cat cream and with a marzipan layer of senior business worthies across the big combines of manufacturing and construction.

CBI Scotland, quick on the draw with policy announcements, was the “first stop shop” for business briefings and news reaction.

Below – well below – came the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, hot on local business issues, road traffic bottlenecks and planning hassles.

And at the bottom was the Federation of Small Businesses Scotland, the voice of the small trader and corner shop proprietor, ever ready to gripe about rising business rates, business bureaucracy and red tape.

It seemed a settled order. But all this has changed dramatically – as the business universe too, has changed, with the ever-expanding service sector and the rise of the digital economy, bringing a host of small-scale, light-of-foot head offices and rapid changes of business function and model.

The biggest and most brutal change has been a collapse in the prestige and authority of CBI Scotland. Four years on from the shattering dispute over its pro-Union stance in the Scottish independence referendum, it is still struggling to recover.

While most big businesses supported its chief Sir Iain McMillan at the time, his bruising encounters with then First Minister Alex Salmond, coupled with the walk-out of several big public sector organisations such as the universities and the BBC – strange members for a body devoted to business concerns and lobbying – took their toll. After 18 years as CBI Scotland director, Sir Iain bowed out soon after the convulsion (though his departure had been previously scheduled) and Hugh Aitken, a senior if unassuming IT figure, brought in by CBI HQ “to steady the ship”.

That he certainly did. So low profile was Aitken, he was once likened to a pair of shuffling carpet slippers. CBI Scotland fell out of the headlines, to the relief both of the SNP administration – and, one suspects, CBI HQ in London.

Now the CBI Scotland guard has changed again. Graham Hutcheon took over as chairman, saying the organisation still had to rebuild its relationship with the SNP government – this three years on from the imbroglio. The whisky industry executive admits that he is no politician, “more a hands-on type”.

Arguably the biggest break from the past came in January with the appointment of Tracy Black as CBI Scotland director to succeed Aitken – the first time a woman has been appointed to the top post. A former executive at UBS Investment Bank and Goldman Sachs, she ran a London-based consultancy Interactive Partners.

Hand in hand with the personnel changes has been a more sotto voce approach to business issues. The effectiveness of business lobbying should not be measured in terms of decibel count: much important work is done in low-key meetings and private discussions with ministers. In recent months CBI Scotland has met organisations on issues ranging from Brexit to digital connectivity.

Black recently attended a roundtable with Scottish Secretary David Mundell on Brexit negotiations. The CBI team also met Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington on the return of powers from Brussels to UK institutions and the value of immigration to Scotland’s economy. She has also championed the formation of the CBI Scotland Under 35 Network.

However, on more immediate day-to-day issues of pressing importance to many in Scottish business, this period of self-effacing quietude by CBI Scotland has brought the Scottish Chambers of Commerce to the fore – and in particular its tireless and feisty leader, Liz Cameron.

It could fairly be said that she is now the indisputable public face of business support in Scotland and with a string of accolades attesting to her performance. The most recent of these is the Scottish Women of Inspiration Award presented on International Women’s Day earlier this month.

Her career spans more than 30 years, covering senior positions in the private sector. She is a sought-after commentator on behalf of business, and recognised for her success in setting up and successfully running a number of small businesses.

She has held a range of non-executive directorships in Scotland and the United States and was awarded an OBE in 2014 for outstanding services to business and commerce.

Her work has substantially raised the public profile of the SCC – the umbrella organisation for 11,000 members and 26 local Chambers of Commerce – representing more than 50 per cent of private sector jobs in Scotland. It has now established itself as Scotland’s premier voice for business at national and international level.

Her dealings with the SNP administration, while often critical, are professional, tightly focused on business concerns and with no evident political bias. The SCC picked up on Chancellor Philip Hammond’s announced consultation on VAT in his Spring Statement, suggesting improvements to reduce bureaucracy for businesses crossing the VAT threshold.

And on business rates, where the Chancellor announced that the next revaluation would be brought forward to 2021, SCC said its priority was to minimise potential disruption to businesses paying rates on both sides of the border.

Also emerging with a notably higher profile has been the Federation of Small Business Scotland. It has around 19,000 members, and works with the Scottish Government, parliamentarians, agencies, councils, media, regulators and others to represent members’ interests and ensure the small business voice is heard.

It has recently campaigned vigorously against the closure of RBS branches in rural areas and pressed for more vigorous action against late payers. Dedicated personnel, such as Colin Borland and Stuart Mackinnon, are rarely out of the headlines and have done much to raise the FSB’s voice and profile.

As Scotland’s business has changed, much greater importance now attaches to service sector activity and in particular the fast-expanding range of small scale digital firms. There is much more to business than the traditional ‘Confederation of British Industry’.