Scot­land’s firms need cham­pion

The Courier & Advertiser (Angus and The Mearns Edition) - - NEWS OPINION - Jenny Hjul

Ever since Sir Iain Mcmil­lan re­tired as head of the Con­fed­er­a­tion of Bri­tish In­dus­try in Scot­land, the voice of the wealth-cre­at­ing sec­tor has been oddly silent. Sir Iain, if you re­mem­ber, staunchly de­fended the in­ter­ests of his mem­bers, and there­fore the whole coun­try, by ar­gu­ing pas­sion­ately for the preser­va­tion of the United King­dom and, with it, Scot­land’s largest mar­ket by far.

For this he was nat­u­rally vil­i­fied by the po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship of the day, namely one Alex Sal­mond, who for much of Sir Iain’s time in of­fice was try­ing to or­ches­trate Scot­land’s de­par­ture from the rest of Bri­tain.

This cul­mi­nated in the Scot­tish Na­tion­al­ists’ de­feat in the in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum of 2014, af­ter a Union­ist fight­back in which the CBI boss played no small part.

But as Mr Sal­mond made way for a new Na­tion­al­ist chief, so too did Sir Iain hand over his reins, af­ter 19 years. And then what hap­pened?

Well, the sep­a­ratists kept up their game un­der Ni­cola Stur­geon and, in fact, upped the ante some­what, re­fus­ing to ac­cept the re­jec­tion of 2014 and threat­en­ing a ref­er­en­dum rerun.

It hardly needs point­ing out that they are still at it, ex­ploit­ing any po­lit­i­cal sce­nario, but mainly Brexit, to stoke the se­ces­sion­ist flames and try to create the con­di­tions for fur­ther con­sti­tu­tional upheaval.

Of the CBI, though, we have heard scarcely a word; it’s al­most as if the busi­ness com­mu­nity has been com­plicit with SNP at­tempts to de­stroy Scot­land. I even had to look up the name of Sir Iain’s re­place­ment (Hugh Aitken) who, af­ter three years in the job, has now gone.

But there are early signs that his suc­ces­sor might be a more for­mi­da­ble con­tender. Tracy Black, in­ter­viewed by a pro-na­tion­al­ist news­pa­per over the week­end, was asked about the sup­posed ‘brain drain’ of tal­ent from Scot­land in the wake of the Brexit vote in 2016. This is one of the Na­tion­al­ists’ and their sup­port­ers’ favourite catch cries at the mo­ment. If they can’t get any­where ac­cus­ing West­min­ster of a ‘power grab’, as EU pow­ers are re­turned to the UK (and that in­cludes Scot­land, by the way), they can al­ways fall back on Scot­land’s re­cruit­ment prob­lems.

While some busi­nesses north of the bor­der un­doubt­edly do de­pend on their EU work­ers, it is hard to be­lieve that all Scot­land’s staffing is­sues, which are real, can be blamed on Brexit.

Ac­cord­ing to a re­port by Lloyds Bank­ing Group last week, 34 per cent of busi­nesses in Scot­land said skills short­ages had im­pacted their ac­tiv­ity. Half said they af­fected their rev­enue growth and busi­ness ex­pan­sion, and 45 per cent said they had made it harder to re­spond to cus­tomer needs.

In Jan­uary a sur­vey by the Scot­tish Cham­bers of Com­merce found that man­u­fac­tur­ing, tourism and fi­nan­cial and busi­ness ser­vices were the worst hit by re­cruit­ment chal­lenges.

The SNP has ar­gued for a unique im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem for Scot­land post-brexit to ad­dress staffing gaps, but per­haps it needs to look closer to home for the real cause of the cri­sis.

Ten years of Na­tion­al­ist rule, with its per­sis­tent theme of tear­ing Scot­land from the UK, have done lit­tle to in­spire busi­ness con­fi­dence, or per­suade peo­ple to set­tle here rather than in Eng­land. But it is more ba­sic eco­nomic fac­tors that are likely to be be­hind Scot­land’s present dif­fi­cul­ties.

The new CBI head said her Scot­tish mem­bers were not in favour of a sep­a­rate im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy to help fill their va­can­cies, es­pe­cially since many em­ploy­ers worked ‘across the United King­dom’.

But asked what might help per­suade work­ers to stay in Scot­land, rather than move to other parts of the UK, she said: “I sup­pose I could men­tion the word ‘tax’. We don’t want to be at a dis­ad­van­tage to other parts of the coun­try.

“It is not just in­come tax – it is the whole pack­age,’ she warned, re­fer­ring pre­sum­ably to coun­cil tax and John Swin­ney’s land and build­ings trans­ac­tion tax, which is crip­pling the hous­ing mar­ket.

“We don’t want to get too far away from every­one else… the ques­tion is, once you have done it once (used dif­fer­en­tial tax pow­ers), will you keep us­ing that as a so­lu­tion?”

Her pref­er­ence, she said, and that of her mem­bers, would be to fo­cus on pro­duc­tiv­ity and growth, on higher wages and higher skilled jobs.

“We are all aware Scot­tish growth, and our pro­duc­tiv­ity per­for­mance, isn’t where we would like it to be.”

It was not an overtly po­lit­i­cal state­ment, and it is too soon to pass judge­ment on Tracy Black, but her re­marks at least sug­gest she has the po­ten­tial to be a bold mouth­piece for busi­ness.

Scot­tish com­pa­nies need a force­ful cham­pion to con­test the Na­tion­al­ist nar­ra­tive that Brexit – and, by im­pli­ca­tion, the UK Gov­ern­ment – is be­hind all their trou­bles, when this decade-long ad­min­is­tra­tion it­self is clearly most cul­pa­ble for the na­tion’s woes.

CBI Scot­land di­rec­tor Tracy Black.

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