Leaders: Next year will be critical in addressing business concerns

Director of CBI Scotland, Iain McMillan. Picture Toby Williams
Director of CBI Scotland, Iain McMillan. Picture Toby Williams
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FROM two of Scotland’s leading business organisations this week have come two sharply contrasting New Year messages.

David Watt, head of the Institute of Directors Scotland, urges Scotland’s political elite not to spend 2013 obsessing about the independence referendum and concern itself more with the pressing issues facing our economic well-being.

In contrast is a detailed message today from Iain McMillan, Director of CBI Scotland. This urges the Scottish Government to address the many questions for Scotland’s economy and businesses prompted by the 2014 referendum.

Any hopes First Minister Alex Salmond may have entertained of a relaxing New Year break will be instantly dispelled when Mr McMillan’s missive lands with a thud in the Bute House in-tray. It runs to more than 6,000 words and poses a large number of questions for Mr Salmond to sort out in time for the White Paper promised next autumn.

While the two business statements may differ in tone and length, the underlying message is similar. Both speak to a growing apprehension over the uncertainties posed by the referendum, and at a time when the economy is on its knees. Both leaders also well know that central to any economic recovery and the employment this would bring is an upturn in business investment in Scotland.

This in turn requires a high measure of clarity over the future tax and regulatory environment. However, concern is now evident, not just over the uncertainty in the approach to the referendum, but over the length of the negotiation process with the UK government and the European Commission in the event of a Yes outcome.

Taking 1996 and the approach of the devolution referendum as the starting point, Scotland would thus have spent 20 years in which constitutional re-arrangement dominated the attention of the political elite. That the economy went into a tailspin and the public finances faced their worst crisis in a hundred years has been treated as of secondary importance. There has been all too little thinking as yet about how an independent Scotland would generate economic recovery and address its share of the UK’s crushing debt and deficit burdens.

No less question-begging is how a future independent Scotland would maintain welfare provision and “free” universal benefits against a backdrop of North Sea oil revenues diminishing as a share of the tax total. The White Paper thus has a huge role to play. But it must be written in good faith and with the maximum of consultation.

For until there is greater clarity over key matters such as tax and economic policy and the myriad other issues, the uncertainty already troubling business will grow increasingly corrosive and toxic. The year 2014 will see the referendum. But it is 2013 that will be critical in ensuring that attention also focuses on the key concerns of business.

Body-swerve the January guilt-trip

Piled on the pounds over the festive period? Help is on the way. A diet of quail’s eggs on low-fat crispbread accompanied by steamed bamboo shoots and finely chopped coconut hairs will have you trim in days – even trimmer if you sign up to a daily SAS fitness regime and five mile jog. You’ll wonder how you managed it!

We enter the season of those New Year come-ons promoting “miracle diets” and “flab-fighting fitness regimes” for a public already bombarded with warnings over unhealthy eating and clinical obesity. Never in history has an era of austerity been so marked by frantic attempts to curb over-eating and guilt-trips about over-indulgence.

But just before we dust down the fruit blender and prepare for a blow-out on a teaspoon of liquefied goat’s cheese comes a timely warning from Jo Swinson, Women and Equalities Minister and Liberal Democrat MP for East Dunbartonshire. She has aimed her remarks at health, celebrity and gossip magazines, appealing to them to “shed the fad diets and fitness myths”.

Well said, Ms Swinson. Her sensible intervention spares us that national January guilt-trip and worse still, the inevitable depression when over-ambitious diets are abandoned in a rage of hunger within a week. There’s nothing more self-defeating than a saucer of diced bean sprouts requiring a massive chocolate blow-out afterwards to cheer us up.

Better a prolonged spell of sensible eating and a brisk daily walk to counter the ravages of all those “take a tub of double cream” celebrity cooking programmes in the run-up to Christmas. Let’s love our shapely diversity – especially while that big slice of Christmas pudding still awaits in the fridge.