AS I SEE IT: Politicians should avoid creating the damaging divisions of the past, argues TERRY MURDEN
The debate over the shape of economic renewal in Scotland and rest of the UK inevitably leans towards investment in green energy, broadband, financial technology, data analytics and coding. These will be the pillars of the fourth industrial revolution and there is a growing demand from within business, as well as from the working population, that they must be built on a level playing field: not just economic, but political.
Manufactured grievances that seek to divide rather than unite are as damaging as the “benign neglect” eloquently blamed by CBI director general Tony Danker as a cause of the “branch line economy” that emerged from de-industrialisation in the 1980s.
There was a lot written about the branch economy at the time: head offices and investment planted in the south east with lower paid ‘supporting’ roles and ‘screwdriver’ plants offered to the rest of the country. When things got difficult it was easy to save the tree (in the south) by lopping off a few of those branches (in the north).
As the Prime Minister blasted out figures and policies at the CBI conference about building the most successful economy in Europe, the comments from Mr Danker will have reminded him of the mistakes made by his predecessor Margaret Thatcher in rebuilding post-industrial Britain. She may have ushered in an era of enterprise, but in the process she created huge division that left many communities in the economic wilderness.
There were few more stark examples than the handling of the pit closures. Irrespective of the damage to the environment that was being done by coal (though few considered this so much of a concern at the time) it was the manner in which thousands of miners were cast aside at short notice and even less care. Former mining towns were left shattered, with little or no compensation. Many are still pitiful shells with no economic purpose.
There are warnings that this should not happen in the shift from oil and gas to clean energy. The goal of tackling climate change must go hand-in-hand with protecting jobs and communities. Former SNP leader Alex Salmond accuses his successor Nicola Sturgeon of abandoning the industry on which its case for independence was once built. Not so. She has spoken up for the “just transition”.
However, she does so with a forked tongue. On the one hand she backs a gradual shift; with the other she calls for the Cambo oil field licence to be revoked, thereby denying the oil companies of the very revenue they need to invest in cleaner forms of energy and putting more jobs and Britain’s security of supply at risk. This is poor, opportunistic leadership that gets us nowhere.
Boris Johnson, for all his bluster, has acknowledged the need to “unite and level up” the country. It is, of course, an agenda fuelled by a need to reward voters in the north of England who gave him a thumping majority in 2019, and also to counter the nationalist threat in Scotland. Hence his desire to clarify the rail investment that will replace the abandoned leg of HS2 north of Birmingham and the regular announcements of investment north of the border, not least through the new UK Shared Prosperity Fund, a replacement for the money that would have flowed from Brussels.
It is difficult to justify criticism of any investment that creates jobs and new industry, though the Prime Minister’s vision of a united nation gets somewhat blurry to Scots when his government is reminded of the border chaos caused by Brexit and the failure to approve a carbon capture and storage scheme in the north east that would have ticked numerous boxes for the climate agenda as well as for him and his party.
Some of this, of course, is wrapped up in more political posturing that goes beyond challenging government strategy. In Scotland, the constitutional debate colours every strand of policymaking and is a threat to getting things done at a uniquely difficult time for the economy.
Brexit is not a uniquely Scottish problem, and the stalled discussion over creating a freeport is because of conditions demanded by the SNP that do not seem to be a problem in any of the other UK locations that are getting on with setting them up. This could leave Scotland at a disadvantage, and would be of the SNP’s own making.
Nor can the Tory government be blamed for the catastrophic handling of the ferry contracts at Ferguson shipbuilders or the collapse of the BiFab plant in Fife, both of which were salvageable by a Scottish administration that prefers to blame others when anything goes wrong.
Ultimately, it will be the willingness of investors to part with their cash and a stable, competent political regime that will determine the shape of the economy.
High on the agenda are low taxes, non-obstructive regulation and the availability of skilled labour.
There is also a requirement for politicians to work together on these shared goals, rather than fabricating differences that create more uncertainty and, worryingly, more “benign neglect”.
Terry Murden held senior positions at The Sunday Times, The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and The Northern Echo and is now editor of Daily Business