AS I SEE IT: TERRY MURDEN says knocking the country’s prize assets is becoming a feature of Scottish Government policy
Two items stood out in my LinkedIn feed this week, one directly above the other. The first was a lengthy criticism of the government’s negative attitude to the Scotch whisky sector and, specifically, its plans to effectively ban the promotion of one of Scotland’s world-beating industries. The second concerned the appointment of a chief business adviser to the First Minister. No prizes for guessing what should be high on Ellis Watson’s agenda.
The government’s plan to restrict the advertising of alcohol is a well-meaning measure that aims to tackle Scotland’s chronic drink problem and the resulting health and behavioural issues. To that extent it is justified, but not if it takes no account of the positive contribution of a craft and a sector that offers more than an invitation to pickle your liver.
Scott Laing, a director at Ardnahoe Distillery, is particularly incensed that in a recent consultation paper the government refers to Scotch Whisky as “essentially the same thing” as any other alcohol product, thereby dismissing the long heritage of Scotch and the unique characteristics of a Scottish product.
“Perhaps they could come up with some ideas that actually boost the profile of one of the genuinely world-leading industries that we have, rather than knock it down?” he says.
“Scotch Whisky is admired and loved the world over, but many other countries are making good whisky now and we can’t rest on our laurels. We have to be allowed to tell our stories, to talk about our hundreds of years of heritage and craftsmanship. This is what makes us unique.”
Laing argues that the government is on an “extremely slippery slope” because other countries will be watching. He says alcohol and Scotch whisky should not be treated as something “sinful” but as something to be appreciated and enjoyed responsibly, as the vast majority do.
Of course, the government has form at knocking its prize assets. It has only recently decreed the oil and gas industry past its sell by date and is arguing against licensing new oilfields against the advice of the very industry that needs to keep wells producing in order to meet essential demand, guarantee domestic energy security, and to produce the revenue that will be invested in the transition to clean energy.
The reality is that Scotland lacks an industrial strategy. Instead, we get piecemeal projections on energy or digital technology, but usually wrapped up in caveats about “sustainability”, “purpose” and “fairness” that cloud the bigger picture and risk handing the initiative to competitors. One business leader told me this week that the failure to appoint a chair for Scottish Enterprise is indicative of this lack of interest in providing the economy with direction.
Shipbuilding contracts? Send those to Turkey. Wind turbines to supply Scotland’s “next big industry”? Ten of the top 15 wind turbine manufacturers are in China, two are in Germany, one in Denmark and one in Spain. No sign of a major turbine developer emerging in Scotland which has an abundance of natural resources that give it a market leading position. And one that could be squandered if we don’t take care of it. Much like the Scotch whisky industry.
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