There will be no Scottish economic revival under current political leadership – Brian Wilson

When I was in the old DTI, the Secretary of State had come through the McKinsey consultancy route and was very attached to “away-days” for deep thinking.
Finance Secretary Kate Forbes spoke about the need to be 'bold, ruthless and laser-focused' (Picture: PA)Finance Secretary Kate Forbes spoke about the need to be 'bold, ruthless and laser-focused' (Picture: PA)
Finance Secretary Kate Forbes spoke about the need to be 'bold, ruthless and laser-focused' (Picture: PA)

These involved ministers and senior civil servants decamping for some gloomy London suburb to stroke their chins earnestly, produce brilliant ideas and write inspirational words on Post-its before attaching them to a board. It was a complete waste of time but very funny, like a scene from The Thick of It.

I was reminded of it this week when I thumbed through Scotland’s National Strategy for Economic Transformation which seemed to have lumped together every old cliché into one acronym-laden document before sprinkling it with a few more advisory boards and action plans, to add to the existing jungle of such creatures.

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“Innovation”… “courage”… ”action”. I could almost see the Post-its being stuck on the board at an away-day in Leith. Finance Secretary Kate Forbes topped the lot with the proclamation that “we must be bold, ruthless and laser-focused to maximise the impact of the actions we have identified”.

All we needed was an Action Group on Laser-Focusing to sit alongside the Advisory Panel on the Collaborative Economy (that one’s for real) reporting to the about-to-be chief entrepreneurship officer. There are 53 pages of this stuff.

Despite the army of spin doctors employed on our behalf, the launch could not be claimed as one of their finest hours. A hand-picked audience excluded pesky journalists who might have asked troublesome questions. Just stick to the controlled sound-bites for the cameras.

The STUC disowned the vacuous document. Sir Tom Hunter described it as “a wish list without a magic wand”. Even Holyrood’s presiding officer had her nose out of joint after Ms Forbes launched this epoch-making tome in a Dundee business park rather than to MSPs.

Meanwhile back in the real world, the Scottish National Investment Bank, the last Big Idea which had pretty much disappeared, carelessly mislaid its chief executive, but we were told by the laser-focused First Minister that this was none of the Scottish Government’s business (or ours). It was a matter for “the board”.

Now, I distinctly recall Ms Sturgeon turning up for the photo opportunity when Eilidh Mactaggart was appointed. So how come it’s nothing to do with her when she leaves 18 months later, confirming the widespread impression that the whole SNIB thing is another piece of superfluous window-dressing. What has it done that wouldn’t have happened anyway?

What I hear repeatedly from business people who deal with the Scottish Government is (a) they don’t care about or understand business and (b) their processes are so cumbersome that it is best, if possible, to stay clear of them. The Sturgeon regime is scarcely a laser-focused enhancer of entrepreneurial vision.

Scotland once had powerful development agencies which had close relations with sectors and regions they served. These have seen their budgets eroded while power has transferred to centralised bureaucracies close to political control but distant from commercial realities.

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A striking feature of Scotland’s National Strategy for Economic Transformation is how few nods there are in the direction of regionalism or localism. Indeed, everything is being drawn in the other direction. We have national strategies and advisory boards for everything while much of the real economy struggles to survive.

In a rare moment of introspection, the document admits that to match the UK average, we should have 60,000 more businesses. That’s a heck of a shortfall in a small country. Yet we have plenty natural entrepreneurs, we have world-class universities, rich natural assets, so what’s the missing link?

The document contains the usual girn about Scotland not having all the levers at its disposal, but we have a lot more levers and public money than other parts of the UK, like Manchester and Teeside, which are doing very well thank you, with the help of high-quality, pragmatic political leaders.

To introduce some economic dynamism, Scotland’s urgent need is a change of leadership to make way for fresh thinking without the distraction of a constitutional obsession. It is the electorate that needs to become bold, ruthless and laser-focused.

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