Leaders: Business must broaden horizons in search of growth

Business leaders such as Lena Wilson believe Scotland's economy must be proactive
Business leaders such as Lena Wilson believe Scotland's economy must be proactive
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GROWING Scotland’s economy to create jobs and prosperity has never been harder than it is now.

The world is dragging itself slowly and fitfully out of recession, the domestic British market is bumping along, the traditional export markets such as Europe and America still have the threat of a renewed downturn hanging over them, especially the Eurozone, and finance for expansion is hard to come by. The temptation is to throw up hands and sit things out until some sunshine shows up.

We do not believe that Scotland can afford such fatalism. Neither does Lena Wilson, chief executive of Scottish Enterprise, an interview with whom today begins a three-part examination of Scotland’s economic opportunities and challenges. Dr Wilson is, of course, paid to be an incorrigible optimist and ebullient salesperson for Scotland. But nonetheless, she has evidence that, with the right attitudes and effort, significant growth can be achieved.

Over the past five years, for example, exports of Scotland’s most famous product, whisky, have grown almost as though there was no recession, recording 50 per cent growth over a period when the world economy grew at less than a fifth of that rate. Dr Wilson singles out the success of Scottish salmon in overseas markets, which has enabled international food sales also to grow by a half over the last five years.

These are significant success stories and, as Dr Wilson recounts in the case of salmon exports, required the ruthless exploitation of a market gap that opened up unexpectedly when disease wiped out Chilean salmon stocks. If other Scottish industries can show such determination, there is no reason growth cannot be accelerated.

Much of this may well be in manufacturing, an industrial sector which has relentlessly shrunk as a percentage of the Scottish economy for several decades. But Scotland has much manufacturing expertise in growing demand. The oil and gas industry has developed world-leading technologies and skills to overcome the significant challenges of the North Sea.

While there are environmental questions which the industry has to answer, there is little doubt that across the world vast sums of money are yet to be spent on increasing oil and gas production from offshore fields. The world economy’s dependence on hydrocarbon fuels may eventually be reduced, but Scotland should have no compunction now about getting out there and selling equipment and expertise while it is still in demand.

Much of the opportunity may well be in markets unfamiliar to Scottish firms: high-growth Brazil, Russia, India and China are obvious examples, while countries like South Africa and Indonesia are other growing markets. This may seem a formidable task but some, notably distillers, are managing it. The reputation of the Scottish entrepreneur was forged in such places when they were weeks from home. Now just a day away, 21st century Scottish prosperity can be built in them again.

Robbed of purpose by circumstances

What are the Liberal Democrats for? Duncan Cumming, a councillor in East Dunbartonshire, thinks he knows what they used to be for, but does not think the party stands for that any more. So he has quit the Liberal Democrats and hopes to return as an independent. But his question still needs answering.

The party’s problems run a little deeper than Mr Cumming’s objections to welfare reforms being pursued by the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition against which Mr Cumming’s resignation is a protest. Its core values were historically about standing up for the individual against the big guys – workers versus exploitative bosses, small companies against over-powering big ones, minorities against aggressive majorities, citizen against state.

But these areas have been successfully colonised by other parties, first by the Labour Party becoming the party of the workers, then by the Conservatives being the champion of small businesses. In Scotland, the SNP has managed to claim both causes, while the Scottish Liberal causes of home rule and electoral reform have been pretty much fulfilled. And now the Lib Dems have also discovered that maintaining purity of principle in opposition is easy, but near impossible in government during tough economic times. Hard times necessitate hard choices and making them has meant abandonment of cherished ideals, for which the party has paid an electoral price.

Next month’s local elections promise to be no easier than the last Holyrood elections. Just to retain their position, they need a convincing answer to the question: “What are we for?”

Emergency call service sharing a new burden

Calling the police if water is pouring through the ceiling from a burst pipe would today be classed as a nuisance call to an emergency service. But from now on, this is exactly what householders in the Highlands will do. Highland Council has come to an arrangement with Northern Constabulary that its central telephone switchboards will handle such pleas for help outside normal office hours.

Presumably, the rationale is that as the police already have operators receiving emergency calls throughout the night and at weekends, they should be able to handle other calls as well.

We remain to be convinced that using the police as a call centre is a great idea. We assume that 999 calls about crime and accidents will get priority over dealing with someone’s complaint about their bin not being collected. But quite how dealing with these mundane problems will create greater “resilience” in the 999 service is difficult to comprehend.

We suspect this scheme is motivated by cash, and fair enough if genuine efficiencies emerge. But if, as some police officers suspect, logjams of broken street light complaints build up on Friday and Saturday nights when the police are busy with more pressing matters, and both services suffer, it could be a bright idea too far.