This could prove a tricky busi­ness for Stur­geon & Co

The Scottish Mail on Sunday - - Femail - HAMISH MACDONELL

IT seems a world away now, but, in 2004 when Alex Sal­mond re­turned as the ‘king over the wa­ter’ to take back charge of the SNP, his party was in a mess. The Na­tion­al­ists had not just lost the 2003 elec­tion to Labour, they had been hu­mil­i­ated. The SNP se­cured just 27 seats in 2003, eight fewer than it won in the first Holy­rood elec­tion, in 1999. To put that re­sult in per­spec­tive, it is a lower num­ber of MSPs than the Con­ser­va­tives have now (31) and not even half the 63 seats won by the SNP in 2016.

Mr Sal­mond re­turned to bring iron dis­ci­pline to his party. He also stream­lined de­ci­sion-mak­ing and cau­ter­ized the open wounds tear­ing the party apart.

But it was what he did in terms of the party’s ap­proach to wider Scot­land in gen­eral – and the busi­ness sec­tor in par­tic­u­lar – that is most in­struc­tive to­day.

Mr Sal­mond went on a charm of­fen­sive aimed at Scot­tish busi­ness. He knew that the SNP would never win an elec­tion – let alone an in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum – while it was viewed with sus­pi­cion by wealth cre­ators.

So he sent two of his most trusted lieu­tenants, Jim Mather and An­drew Wil­son, around the board­rooms of Scot­land and their task was sim­ple: stop busi­ness from hat­ing the SNP.

AT the same time, Mr Sal­mond forced the SNP to em­brace more busi­ness-friendly poli­cies, like the slash­ing of cor­po­ra­tion tax. And it worked. By the time of the cru­cial 2007 elec­tion, busi­ness was no longer uni­ver­sally op­posed to the SNP. By 2011, many busi­nesses were pub­licly en­dors­ing the SNP and by 2014 and the in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum, there was an im­pres­sion that busi­ness opin­ion was di­vided over in­de­pen­dence – which was as good as Mr Sal­mond could have hoped for.

Given that Mr Sal­mond erected such solid foun­da­tions, it is now per­plex­ing to see his suc­ces­sor trash­ing the pro-busi­ness rep­u­ta­tion Mr Sal­mond took so much time and ef­fort to build up.

Ni­cola Stur­geon did try to talk a good game. In­deed, she came to power promis­ing that grow­ing the econ­omy would form the cen­tre­piece of her premier­ship.

Yet, with every month that has fol­lowed, Ms Stur­geon seems to have re­gressed fur­ther, back to­wards the old-fash­ioned Left-winger many feared she would be.

One of her first acts was to ditch the prom­ise to slash cor­po­ra­tion tax in an in­de­pen­dent Scot­land. She then ap­proved a plan to hit big busi­nesses with a hefty new rates charge, be­liev­ing they had pock­ets deep enough to bail out Scot­land’s fal­ter­ing public ser­vices.

But it goes deeper than that. Derek Mackay is Ms Stur­geon’s key fi­nance min­is­ter. He should be woo­ing the busi­ness com­mu­nity in the same way as Mr Mather and Mr Wil­son did. He should be tour­ing the board­rooms of Scot­land, eat­ing those cold prawn sand­wiches and per­suad­ing our cap­tains of in­dus­try to back the SNP and in­de­pen­dence.

But there is lit­tle sign of him do­ing that. In­stead, he is do­ing deals with the Greens which may sit well with the more ra­bid el­e­ments of his mem­ber­ship base, but in­spire noth­ing but fear within the busi­ness com­mu­nity.

Then there’s econ­omy sec­re­tary Keith Brown. Per­haps he is the one spend­ing time with busi­ness lead­ers, get­ting them on­side, per­suad­ing them that they noth­ing to fear from in­de­pen­dence? But there is lit­tle ev­i­dence of him do­ing that ei­ther.

But the big­gest threat to busi­ness is the cur­rent reval­u­a­tion of rates which has seen crip­plingly large in­creases handed down to firms all over Scot­land, many of them in the hos­pi­tal­ity sec­tor.

Some are be­ing hit with in­creases of 300 per cent or more, and while Ms Stur­geon is right to claim that the rates’ re­vi­sions were the work of an in­de­pen­dent as­ses­sor, not the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment, the First Min­is­ter MIKE Rus­sell, the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment’s Brexit min­is­ter, was asked last week whether he was off to yet an­other meet­ing with his UK coun­ter­parts to dis­cuss Brexit.

‘Oh no,’ he said. ‘I can’t pos­si­bly do any more than one a week. My doc­tors wouldn’t al­low it. I need time to re­cover. It’s like get­ting the bends, you have to get over each one slowly.’

Glad to hear things are go­ing so well. is per­haps the only per­son who can do some­thing about it.

The rates reval­u­a­tion pack­age is sit­ting on the First Min­is­ter’s desk and Ms Stur­geon is be­ing urged by com­pa­nies all over Scot­land to pro­vide some sort of re­lief to stop them go­ing un­der.

This is not just a test of her com­mit­ment to grow­ing Scot­land’s econ­omy, it is the test. This is what she will be judged on by the busi­ness com­mu­nity. If Ms Stur­geon fails to pro­vide any help to these strug­gling com­pa­nies, then the whole busi­ness com­mu­nity will judge the SNP gov­ern­ment ac­cord­ingly.

FOR some in the busi­ness com­mu­nity, Ms Stur­geon ap­pears to view trade and com­merce with sus­pi­cion, a sec­tor to be tol­er­ated and taxed so it can help the state pro­vide what’s re­ally im­por­tant. There is a fear that Ms Stur­geon does not see busi­ness as it re­ally is: the only thing keep­ing the coun­try go­ing. Rather, she sees it as an in­con­ve­nience, a part of the un­pleas­ant cap­i­tal­ist world which needs to be taxed and reg­u­lated.

If, as many com­pa­nies fear, Ms Stur­geon does not in­ter­vene in the worst ex­cesses of the rates re­view, then many will fold.

The hos­pi­tal­ity sec­tor, on which much of ru­ral Scot­land re­lies, could suf­fer from clo­sures and job losses, all of which are within Ms Stur­geon’s gift to avoid.

The irony of it all is that Ms Stur­geon’s pre­de­ces­sor would not have let it get to this stage. Aware of the im­por­tance of the busi­ness com­mu­nity, Mr Sal­mond would have done any­thing to keep them on­side.

The cur­rent First Min­is­ter should take heed: it may well end up be­ing her great­est po­lit­i­cal mis­take if she fails to do the same.

CODE NAME RED: Se­cret agent Anna Chap­man was caught in the US in 2009 be­fore be­ing sent back to Rus­sia

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