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  • Ian Ritchie : Business AM

Stop looking for excuses

WENDY Alexander’s article in yesterday’s Business a.m. is very timely. April has been a strangely fascinating month for those of us who puzzle over Scotland’s position in the modern world. The international image of Scotland has certainly been kicked around the park in the last few weeks. So maybe this is a good time to get a debate going – to try to build the consensus that Ms Alexander is looking for.

Tartan Day was held in New York , with Sean Connery, Jack McConnell, and 8,000 or more pipers on display. Americans seem to be increasingly willing to recognise, maybe even celebrate, the existence of a modern Scotland and, in many cases, their own Scottish backgrounds.

From what he must have thought the relatively safe distance of Sydney, Australia, Frank Cicutto, who runs the banking group that owns the Clydesdale Bank, said that Scotland “has been in recession for 200 years” and that, by comparison, Yorkshire has much more economic pep. By contrast, Professor Arthur Herman, the distinguished US historian, says, no less, that the Scots "invented the modern world” and “everything in it” in his best-selling book.

But on these pages last week, Paul Stokes and Lesley Campbell pitched a “why, oh why we are bothering with the new GlobalScot initiative?”, comparing it with the various 'caledonian clubs' around the world.

We continue to struggle to raise the game. The 'only an excuse' mentality that pervades Scotland has one of its favourite excuses back. It’s the 'all the politicians fault' excuse. If only they could give us a clear vision, a clear strategy.

In yesterday’s Business a.m., Wendy Alexander confronted these attitudes. We have a clear strategy, she says, it was published over a year ago, it has not changed and it is not about to change anytime soon. It is called 'smart successful Scotland'.

I have been around long enough to have met, and tried to engage meaningfully with, a rather long list of Scottish Industry ministers. People such as George Kynoch, Allan Stewart, Raymond Robertson, Gus MacDonald and Henry McLeish. Fine folk all – but I have watched them launch initiatives that they didn’t understand and cared even less about. Initiatives that satisfied some temporary need by their department, or some special interest group.

It makes me tired just thinking about it all.

I know it is unfashionable to write positively about politicians, but just for once, let’s try to be recognise what we have got here. Ms Alexander has a better understanding of Scotland’s economy and its needs than most anybody else in Scotland today. This is clearly 'her specialist subject'. Unlike her predecessors, she actually writes the words, such as those in yesterday’s paper, that outline the philosophy.

By any measure, Scotland is a relatively smart country. We have world class scientific research, we have a modern sophisticated and competitive financial community, we have excellence in our education system, and we are an open competitive economy. But we are not a successful one – our economic growth continues to trail our competitors.

The quick fix for the last 30 years was an inward investment policy and, to be fair, this was successful in creating volume jobs. We attracted far more than our fair share of new European electronics manufacturing.

But these days are now over – even if such projects still existed, they are no longer going to come to anywhere in Western Europe . There is no replacement 'magic bullet'. Finally, we have to use our wits.

The 'smart successful Scotland' strategy sets out three main themes: growing high quality businesses; making quality global connections; and ensuring every Scot has the right skills. The goals are clear and, as a member of the board of Scottish Enterprise, I can report that it has made quite a difference in setting the agenda for the agency going forward.

What we now need is to build a wider consensus around this mission. A common understanding of what, as a nation, we are trying to do. If we could do that, we could be much more effective.

The GlobalScot project is a good example. One of the reasons that Scottish businesses fail to compete internationally is that, too often, they lack a global perspective. GlobalScot aims to help find high-quality international business contacts – to offer advice and support; help with contacts for markets or investment; or perhaps even take up non-executive directorships in Scottish companies.

Maybe it’s because I am one of the originators of the GlobalScot project that I found (the normally sensible) Campbell’s views on this page last week so utterly depressing. She compares it with FriendsReunited, or being introduced to an international contact via “your son’s schoolteacher”. Actually the GlobalScot project is highly elite and selective – less than 400 very senior executives have been signed up worldwide.

I’m afraid the enterprise company will not be giving Ms Campbell the 'bloody plane ticket' so she can do her own networking - she will have to buy her own airfare.

If, however, she wants to build a quality international business relationship, at a senior level, GlobalScot will try to find a contact that might be able to help her understand and navigate her chosen market. And I can assure her that it certainly won’t be somebody who 'left Scotland to avoid prison'.

Ms Alexander has just come back from a trip to California. On the face of it, 'smart successful Scotland' is her attempt to create the conditions of Silicon Valley, where world-leading technology innovation leads to commercial success. But the real lesson of Silicon Valley is not the technology – it is the attitude of the people who live there.

Even today, after the huge technology crash, with lots of failed companies and an unprecedented level of unemployment, the level of confidence in the future within California has hardly been dented.

They have a clear consensus on how to rebuild their 'new economy', and we need one too.

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