Since the Spring of 2014 – in the space of little more than three years – Scottish voters have trooped to the polls no less than seven times. Great news for pupils and weary teachers enjoying an extra holiday as schools become polling stations, less so for parents arranging childcare.
One output from the current period of political upheaval and increased electoral activity we are experiencing, has been an abundance of fresh faces newly elected to represent our interests.
At Westminster, more than 90 per cent of Scotland’s MPs took their seats for the first time after 2015. In the Scottish Parliament, last year’s election saw an enormous intake of new members – some 40 per cent. At May’s local elections (remember them?), the political control of more than 50 per cent of Scotland’s 32 local authorities changed hands.
Scottish political life continues to undergo great change and a new generation of politicians have been catapulted to the fore. The greatest influx of new policy makers since devolution happens to correspond with some of the greatest challenges and most complex political decisions requiring to be made for a generation.
Fresh legs, enthusiasm, and much-needed thinking from outside the political bubble are one side of the coin. The other reveals a pressing need to up-skill and prepare new policy makers. This generation of politicians must navigate challenges of a complexity and magnitude that most of their forebears never had the opportunity or obligation to wrestle.
Brexit, Scotland’s constitutional future, and hard decisions over public finances loom large. Beyond seeking the views of their own constituents, turning to the internal apparatus of political parties, following the media and, for those in government, relying on the Civil Service, where might politicians – at all levels of office – turn for insight at this time?
There is undoubtedly a role that Scottish business can play here. As the producers, suppliers and vendors of the products and services upon which the population depend on a day-to-day basis, businesses have an unparalleled insight into the lives of the public. Businesses prize customer service and invest heavily in understanding their customers’ needs and wants, in order to preserve and deepen relationships. Business also navigates change and volatility, both locally and globally, on a regular basis. At a time of heightened distrust of many public institutions, and the business of politics generally, a similar approach adopted in the political world could pay dividends.
Business is a constant which operates beyond, and despite, the day-to-day noise of adversarial party politics. It can also act as a strong barometer as to the likely impact of policy options. It is famous for moving faster than policy – as evidenced through rapid market reaction and swift decisions taken in response to political shocks. Closer political engagement with the business world to explore likely impact, before ideas are crystalised into formal policy, would undoubtedly be beneficial if smooth economic sailing is to be a government objective.
Evidence suggests that on some fronts a recognition is growing of the need to work more closely with business. For example, whilst later in the process than some would have hoped, the UK Government recently announced the creation of a business advisory group on Brexit.
Comprising some of the largest business membership organisations, the group will be led by senior cabinet members and meet fortnightly – an importance afforded perhaps in response to complaints that the business community had struggled to make heard its concerns over a “Hard Brexit”.
The rough-and-tumble of two referenda in as many years may have understandably led some organisations to favour “keeping the head down” on particularly contentious matters. However, business can offer powerful insight to policy makers on the economic and “real-world” impact of policy options.
When it works well, engagement between business and the political community is symbiotic. It equips policy-makers with a better understanding of the likely impact of the policies they are designing, whilst also ensuring that the views of business are heard and its interests actively considered, alongside others.
During turbulent times, business should work harder than ever to ensure its voice is heard.
Andrew Henderson is Director of Public Policy at Pinsent Masons