This could prove a tricky business for Sturgeon & Co
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