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  • Ian Ritchie : Business AM

Enterprise minister right to adopt hands-off approach

One city has already discovered what it takes to achieve a Smart, Successful Scotland

WE MUST be in the 'silly season'. Front page stories in Scottish Sunday newspapers declare that 'business has lost faith in Jack McConnell and the Scottish executive', and that Iain Gray’s 'honeymoon period' as minister for enterprise, lifelong learning and transport is over. Oh really?

Personally, I hadn’t actually noticed the business community erecting the barricades as they prepare to lay siege to the parliament on the Mound. In fact, from where I am sitting, I don’t see the business community doing anything much different than usual. Which is, of course, if they have any sense, getting on with their businesses.

The fact is, in today’s global economy, most real business conditions — the ones that actually affect us all - are dictated by the state of the world economy, and rarely by what is done by local politicians.

Frankly, the main task for our politicians, in their relationship with the business community~ is to do nothing very much.

It would seem that Mr Gray, the man with the big portfolio, is fully aware of this. On taking office, he made the rounds of various organisations, companies and individuals that make up much of the Scotland’s business community Most of the time he was in listening mode, stating that he was keen to learn as much as possible about his brief.

The fact that he hasn’t rushed to announce any dramatic new initiatives in his first few weeks in office should be seen as an excellent sign, and gives every impression that he has a very balanced attitude to his responsibilities.

After all, there already is a strategy for economic development, called 'Smart, Successful Scotland'. Jack McConnell was at pains to insist in May that, although the development of this strategy had been led by Wendy Alexander, it had been the policy of the executive as a whole. And Mr Gray has taken every opportunity to reinforce this message.

Smart, Successful Scotland recognises the failures of past industrial policies, such as that of propping up national 'strategic industries' such as coal or steel; or bribing Japanese or American electronic companies to set up assembly plants here. The former collapsed in the eighties, and the latter is being unwound as the manufacturing plants of Silicon Glen close or relocate to cheaper economies in Eastern Europe or Asia.

There is no 'magic bullet' this time. Finally, we have to recognise that Scotland has to generate its own future business success. Mostly this will be by ensuring the kind of open, competitive economy that allows ambitious companies such as Royal Bank of Scotland, Scottish & Newcastle Breweries, or Stagecoach Holdings , to build and prosper as international players.

But Smart, Successful Scotland looks particularly to the future, and to the generation of knowledge-based companies spinning out of the research wealth in Scotland’s universities. It is to be hoped that some of these businesses may form the leading companies of the future.

But will it actually work? One answer might be found in Dundee .

Dundee has been a sluggish, failing, economy for most of the past 50 years. The famous jute, jam and journalism industries have mostly closed down or, in the case of publishing, are in slow decline.

But the economy of Dundee today is one of the most dynamic in Scotland , and this situation can he directly related to the city’s two universities. The University of Dundee has consolidated its position as a world centre in life sciences research. Sir David Lane is clearly on the short list for a future Nobel prize, and his company, Cyclacel is only one of the world leading new biotech businesses that are emerging from this dynamic environment The Wellcome Trust and leading biological and pharmaceutical companies are also investing in the area.

The city’s other university, Abertay, has bravely positioned itself at the cutting edge of computer games and creative media technologies — a superb example of how a “new” university can make a direct impact on a local economy. Partly as a result of Abertay, Dundee has become a hotspot for computer game design, with companies such as Visual Sciences, VIS entertainment and Denki, who are responsible for the most played games on digital television.

We don’t have to wonder whether Smart, Successful Scotland is the right approach. We only have to look at Dundee.

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