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  • Ian Ritchie : Scottish Business InsiderIan Ritchie

Time for Scotland to follow Israel's high-tech example

AS THIS turbulent year draws to a close we can only look back wistfully on the wreckage of many of the former giants of the Scottish economy.

For 2008 has been the historic year that we lost major global brewery business Scottish & Newcastle after 259 years of trading. We also lost our oldest bank, Bank of Scotland, after 312 years, to be swallowed up in a hastily-arranged marriage to Lloyds TSB.

British Energy - technically a Scottish public company - was sold to EDF, which is largely owned by the French government. And our other major bank, the Royal Bank of Scotland - only recently the world's fifth biggest bank - had to be bailed out and effectively nationalised by the UK government.

As this year closes, there are precious few independent Scottish companies left to fly our flag.

Scotland's reputation for prudent management of major financial institutions has been 'shredded'. It is hard to imagine that we will have any independent banks within a few years, for when the UK Government decides to sell its stake in RBS - as it surely will - it is most likely that it will be to an international business, such as an HSBC or a Citibank.

So what next for the Scottish economy? What can we specialise in as a nation? There is a limit to the economic value of running buses and trains, one of the very few healthy business sectors we have left. And our old comparators with countries like Ireland and Iceland don't look too smart either.

Maybe we need to look further afield for a model. One of Scotland's strengths is our performance in science, technology and engineering, where our academic researchers are world leading, especially in several economically significant areas such as informatics, life sciences and alternative energy.

One of our competitors in this field, indeed about the only country in the world that can regularly beat Scotland in scientific achievement, is Israel which - with 7.2 million people - is only a bit larger than us.

Over the last 25 years or so Israel has built an impressive list of mostly high-technology global businesses from a standing start. Over 50 Israeli businesses are now listed on the London Stock Exchange and over 90 are listed on the US technology-oriented Nasdaq.

Indeed six of these Nasdaq businesses have market capitalisations of over $1bn; businesses in emerging areas like pharmaceuticals, software, defence and medical equipment.

Obviously Israel has some advantages over Scotland. Its unique political and geographic position means they invest substantial sums in defence technology, and they have managed to create economic development programmes which exploit such technology for commercial development.

And unlike Scotland, inward immigration to Israel has been very high in recent years, as a large number of often scientifically-educated Russian Jews have moved there, and immigrants also tend to be more entrepreneurial in nature.

However, we may soon have our own new supply of relatively wealthy top brains that, although not Russian, will have been newly ejected by the UK's financial sector, who no longer need their scientific skills in financial modelling. Lord Drayson, the UK's science minister thinks that many of them should now consider setting up science-based businesses.

So there has never been a better time to restructure our economy. Can we build a high-technology sector in the next 25 years to compete with that of Israel? It might be our best chance of success .•

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