Brian Wilson: Scotland needs inward investment – and an industrial strategy at home

Brian Wilson, promoting Harris Tweed in its biggest export market, Japan, during the Rugby World Cup, says Scotland must learn from the mistakes of the 1990s and maintain its own industrial base as well as attracting overseas investment.

Mount Fuji, seen from Japan's capital Tokyo (Picture: AP)
Mount Fuji, seen from Japan's capital Tokyo (Picture: AP)

From my 25th-floor hotel room overlooking Yokohama Bay, it all looks relatively benign – the quiet before the impending typhoon.

Like everyone else, I can only hope Scotland’s match goes ahead. Wiping out fixtures that cannot be played in the appointed place at the appointed hour seems a crude way to run any great sporting event.

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I owe my presence here to my involvement with Harris Tweed Hebrides. Japan is our biggest export market and the World Cup an excellent platform, particularly through our partnership with Scottish Rugby and Walker Slater to provide formalwear for team and officials.

One of the events surrounding World Cup participation was a reception hosted by the British Ambassador at his residence for Scottish Development International and the visiting Scottish Government minister, Fiona Hyslop.

Ministers always need something to announce and her eclectic highlights were a partnership to develop subsea technology and an agreement for the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra to perform at next year’s Edinburgh Festival – both thoroughly commendable.

A bit uncomfortable

The setting always takes me back to 1997 and my first overseas foray as Scottish industry minister. At that time, the priority stops on that circuit were always Japan and Taiwan – then sources of massive investment and tens of thousands of jobs.

Every hour on the hour, I was on the top floor of another glittering corporate citadel exchanging formalities with the president of some mighty engine of the Asian economy which gave work to large numbers of people in Scotland.

In these days, it was hardly worth a press conference unless there were 500 new jobs to announce, reflecting the hard graft of Locate in Scotland, as it then was, rather than the genius of ministers.

I remember being a bit uncomfortable about what I had become front man for. There was no secret about why so much investment came to the UK.

First, we were inside the EU – still worth bearing in mind. Second, the Tories had created the most “flexible” employment environment within the EU – a euphemism for paying people less and getting rid of them more easily.

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This latter attraction had been actively marketed, not least by Locate in Scotland, and criticised by Labour because it was likely to mean most of these jobs would disappear once there was somewhere even more “flexible” to take them – which is exactly what happened.

Nonetheless, the 1990s was a golden era of inward investment which left positive legacies, even if most of the names once familiar in Scotland as large-scale employers have now faded in the memory, just like our heavy industrial giants before them.

Cavalier treatment

The wheel needs constant reinvention so it is entirely right that the Scottish Government should still look around the world for partners in innovation and investment, particularly where there is a history of good relations and cultural empathy, as is the case with Japan.

These links go back into the 19th century when Scottish engineers played prominent roles in developing Japanese industry. As well as inward investment and academic links, whisky, golf and textiles have kept awareness of Scotland strong. You don’t need to introduce Japan to Harris Tweed.

In the 1990s, the concern was less that so much effort and money were devoted to inward investment but that there was such a contrast with the cavalier treatment of our indigenous manufacturing base which was collapsing like a pack of cards.

With hindsight, that criticism is vindicated. The other mantra of that era – everything we used to be good at could be done more cheaply elsewhere, so why shouldn’t it be? – is equally confirmed as deeply flawed short-termism.

The continuing moral of the story is that yes, we need inward investment. But even bigger yes, we should have maintained our own industrial base so it would now be capable of maximising benefits from renewable energy and other sectors with long-term prospects.

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The two priorities are compatible and essential whoever is in government. The days of big inward investment announcements are long gone but we are still looking for some discernible industrial strategy to provide the quality jobs Scotland badly needs.