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So, every announcement from both the Prime Minister and First Minister these days mentions the economy, as well it should. The UK economy is heading for its biggest annual slump in three centuries. The impact of the loss of jobs, delayed care for other medical complications, and declining mental health are beginning to far exceed the impact of the virus.
The Westminster Government is no great shakes, but like all readers of this newspaper, I’d like the Scottish economy to be comparable with the best in the world and to do that we need to have the most appropriate people to advise us.
Thousands of jobs are being shed each week, and as furloughing ebbs this will accelerate. Andrew Wilson, a former SNP MSP and Ms Sturgeon’s head of Growth Commission, has predicted that Scotland’s economic recovery from the virus will be the worst in the developed world and said, ‘Poverty will kill many more than COVID.’ We have desperate times ahead. Scotland’s growth has been anaemic since the oil price peaked in 2014, and despite committee after committee little has actually happened.
We need a thriving business community: it is successful companies offering lots of well-paid jobs and all concerned paying taxes that fund the public sector. Without this money coming in teachers, health workers etc. will not be affordable.
Nicola Sturgeon is a lawyer by profession. The world of business is alien to her. Her ministers have minimal business experience: the ministers with an economy or business brief include her deputy, John Swinney, 23 years a politician, Kate Forbes, the finance minister, studied history before becoming an accountant in a bank briefly, and Fiona Hyslop, a lifelong politician who has an arts degree. There is a minister for business, anyone know who? He studied history and politics and has only ever worked in politics. I spoke at an entrepreneurial event at The University of the Highlands and Islands and asked the hundred-strong audience, and no one there had the answer either. It’s Jamie Hepburn, of course.
A basic tenet of success in business is to surround yourself with experts in the field who know about the importance of growth, have handled crises throughout economic collapses; people who have real credibility. So quite rightly, the Scottish Government has established an ‘advisory group on economic recovery,’ which reported last Monday recommending a focus on education, the environment, employment and equality.
So who was appointed to join this crucial body? The colossus of Scottish business: Sirs Ian Wood, Tom Hunter, Brian Souter or Martin Gilbert? Perhaps the head of Baillie Gifford or Aggreko? No, it’s chaired by Benny Higgins, a highly regarded banker, and included are the outgoing general secretary of the Scottish TUC, the principal of Glasgow University and the economist John Kay. Apart from the chairman, the other members of the committee are four academics, two lifelong public-sector employees, and a trade unionist.
As the Sunday Times noted, key points made at their recent meeting included ‘opportunities for carbon capture and sequestration’ and what Scotland can offer ‘Future international trading and investment partners to help in the green recovery towards a wellbeing economy.’ Will that really reassure the business owners in Oban who have seen a 68 per cent drop in debit card use compared to the same period last year as tourists stay away?
With the economy having contracted by 25 per cent since the outbreak of COVID-19, and massive unemployment coming, we are in a desperate state. Do we really have the right team guiding us towards safer economic times?
Successful business people have suffered the gut-wrenching, cold sweat-inducing fear of failing to meet payroll as well as mustered the courage to take on a new factory or adopt a brave business expansion plan. We need the titans of business to get together and plot our way out of this financial mess.