Covid recovery: SNP needs to start listening to business if poverty and inequality is to be tackled – John McLellan

Was England’s shock ejection from the 1970 Mexico World Cup the cause of Labour’s defeat at the General Election four days later, as ousted Prime Minister Harold Wilson is said to have believed?

Scotland is unlikely to get much of an economic boost if England wins Euro 2020, but it needs one from somewhere Picture: Mike Egerton/PA Wire)
Scotland is unlikely to get much of an economic boost if England wins Euro 2020, but it needs one from somewhere Picture: Mike Egerton/PA Wire)

Did Tony Blair really fear triumph for the Three Lions at Euro 96 would increase John Major’s survival chances? Would more Scots have shaken them up by backing devolution in 1979 if Ally’s Army had returned from the Argentine clutching a gleaming Jules Rimet trophy as Andy Cameron promised they would?

The jury’s out on the transformational effect of sporting triumph beyond bar takings, so who knows if a business or political boost will follow an England victory in tomorrow night’s European nations final, but there’s no shortage of speculation that it will.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has said he expects a consumer confidence bounce from the tournament ─ he’ll be hoping so after the UK’s distinctly unbouncy 0.8 per cent GDP growth in June ─ and we’ve even had the Alba Party’s Christopher McEleny, more for the publicity opportunity than serious political analysis, claiming victory for the Auld Enemy will boost support for independence.

Sales of Italy shirts might outstrip England merchandise in Scottish stores, but it’s safe to say no-one is talking about a Euro feel-good factor to kick-start the Covid-stricken economy up here.

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Covid Edinburgh: Council says it wants to work with business on city's recovery

Neither is there much expectation of an immediate boost for Scottish business of any kind, but there is plenty of talk about the need for one, and it was with an unmistakeable overtone of exasperation that a 60-strong group of major East of Scotland institutions this week promoted their “Prospectus for Growth” pamphlet which outlines their proposals for economic revival in and around Edinburgh.

Under the banner of the Edinburgh Business Resilience Group (EBRG) and chaired by the former Scottish & Southern Energy chief executive Ian Marchant, nearly all the big employers are represented, with the notable exception of the company formerly known as Standard Life, now under its ridiculous new Countdown moniker Abrdn.

Their manifesto identifies five priorities, but three of them relate to improving leadership and communication and the central theme is the relationship between politicians and the capital’s business community needs to be “reset”. In other words, it’s broken.

Such is the urgency with which the situation is regarded that the group has already secured a meeting with Kate Forbes. And while agreeing so readily to meet reflects the weight of an organisation which represents significant public, private and voluntary organisations, it is also a sign that the Finance Secretary recognises there is a problem.

There is no shortage of critics of the Scottish Government’s industrial strategies ─ an investment bank which doesn’t invest, the nationalisation of bust operations, ferries which never float ─ but in Edinburgh dismay tends to focus on the city council’s ruling SNP-Labour coalition which has at best paid lip-service to wealth creation because of its pre-Covid belief that growth brought problems and was something to be controlled.

It has also appeared Janus-faced, allowing its Hogmanay partner, entertainment entrepreneurs Underbelly, to expand their sprawling city centre Christmas attractions without the necessary planning permission while fighting planning battles with other businesses in the courts.

The Edinburgh business community’s dreadful relationship with the council administration is an open secret, and while Glasgow City Council launched a City Centre Task Force nine months ago, it was only with some reluctance that Edinburgh Council backed the Edinburgh Tourism Action Group’s “Forever Edinburgh” campaign to encourage local shopping.

Its success is debatable, but the EBRG proposes a new “Edinburgh Rewards Local” campaign but more significantly a new “Edinburgh Means Business” organisation, a joint venture with the council to sell the city and “provide a landing space for potential investors and businesses who want to make their home here”.

This sounds an awful lot like Marketing Edinburgh, the arms-length company the council administration chose to dismantle at the end of 2019 when warned not to, because of belief that tourism would grow by three per cent a year without doing anything.

It was wrong-headed then and was blown away by the pandemic, after which officers were forced to concede its closure was a mistake. Marketing Edinburgh still exists as a shell and this month it was revealed that, never mind selling the city in internationally competitive markets, for the second year running the council wasn’t even capable of submitting its accounts on time.

Now having done so, they show that the council spent over £200,000 on “restructuring costs” to absorb a company whose assets are now worth about £40,000. Despite this, the “Prospectus for Growth” advises that “Edinburgh Means Business” should initially report to the architects of Marketing Edinburgh’s destruction, which is hardly the best way to instil the confidence of the wider business community.

But there is no point in fighting old battles, and even if it has taken a pandemic to motivate the business community to challenge Edinburgh’s political establishment openly, there are signs the crisis has wakened up the SNP/Labour administration to the reality that without thriving commerce few, if any, of their ambitions can be met, certainly not tackling poverty and inequality.

What hasn’t changed, however, is an attitude that private enterprise is a cash cow to be tolerated as long as it produces milk and a background paper published last month for a renewed economy strategy still talks about how revenue from a new tourist tax will be spent when the sector is not on its knees but lying prostrate.

“To have successful businesses, we need policies that encourage growth,” said Ian Marchant. “We believe that by making the views of business known and by harnessing the expertise and energy our businesses have to offer, we can work with local and national government to deliver a better, stronger recovery. But we need them to listen and we need them to engage.”

He could have added “For once.”

John McLellan is a Conservative councillor in Edinburgh

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