Stop Tinkering, Mr Swinney. Back the Private Sector or Scotland Is Finished

Daily Mail (London), January 20, 2010 | Go to article overview

Stop Tinkering, Mr Swinney. Back the Private Sector or Scotland Is Finished


Byline: by Hamish Macdonell

FOR more than a decade, Scotland's economic performance has been so poor that to describe it as sluggish would be an insult to slugs. Labour, the LibDems and the SNP have all tried - and failed - to improve Scotland's ponderous growth rate, which has bumbled along at just over 1 per cent a year since devolution, well behind the rest of the UK and Europe.

Jack McConnell's administration put economic growth at the top of its agenda - and then promptly failed to make any real improvements.

Alex Salmond's SNP Scottish Executive adopted the same approach with similarly depressing results.

Finance ministers of various political hues came out with streams of excuses, all of which amounted to the same thing: they just couldn't find the answer; they couldn't work out how to revive Scotland's faltering economy.

But there is an answer. It is very clear, very simple and available to anyone who just glances at the Scottish economy.

And, just in case our ministers had not noticed, it was spelled out yesterday by the Centre for Cities think-tank.

In its latest report, it named Edinburgh as one of the five UK cities destined to lead the country out of recession.

And what, according to the researchers, will drive the capital forward? The report says a strong private sector, a strength in entrepreneurship and an educated workforce.

The corresponding results for our weakest cities, Glasgow and Dundee, confirm this analysis. Glasgow and Dundee are going to find it tough because they do not possess the depth of private sector, the entrepreneurial base and the well-qualified workforce they need.

There it is. That is the answer to Scotland's economic woes. If Edinburgh can do it, then the whole of the country can, too.

Indeed, the message should be written in letters four-foot high outside the Executive headquarters: 'Grow the private sector, support new business and educate the workforce.' By doing so, everything else will follow. But why is this so important now? Because John Swinney's latest budget is to be put before the Scottish parliament today, starting a process of amendments and changes which should culminate in its passage into law this spring.

This is the only opportunity to set the future economic direction of the country. And what is Mr Swinney preparing to do? Batten down the hatches, trim the edges of spending and hope he can ride out the worst of the financial squeeze heading his way.

But that will do nothing to get our economy firing again: actually it will do worse than nothing.

At this point, we still have the time and the resources to plot the economic course for the next decade, a decade that will be the hardest for public finances in living memory.

Public sector budgets will have to be cut every year for the next ten anyway - but if all that successive finance ministers do is follow Mr Swinney's lead and cut back around the fringes while trying to keep the general shape intact, they will just shrink the size of the Scottish economy while doing nothing to grow it.

We need to start taking positive steps to grow our economy, not just live off it and offer the odd little meagre tax break in return.

This process has to start now. Ministers need to prioritise - really prioritise - the private sector and entrepreneurship while they still have the money and the flexibility to do it.

Only then will we be able to generate the sort of wealthcreation not only to sustain the size of public sector we have in this country but also to deliver the sort of economic growth that will make us all better off. First, there has to be a shift in emphasis. …

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