Politics first; rebuilding the nation comes next


  By George Kerevan 
It is that time of the year when the nation’s self-appointed guardians give us their seasonal messages, in the hope that a dearth of regular news will grant them a headline or two. Unfortunately, these homilies usually extol motherhood, apple pie and the blindingly obvious, so the opportunity is wasted.

Admittedly, David Cameron managed to raise eyebrows this year by actually mentioning Jesus in his Christmas message – a reference that modern politicians usually eschew, doubtless because they already believe they are speaking ex cathedra.

Newly re-elected Barack Obama was less synthetic in his message, but then he could hardly avoid mentioning Hurricane Sandy or the massacre of innocents at Newtown, Connecticut. However, the fact that the US president issued his festive communication from sunny Hawaii rather than wintery New England rather undermined his point.

Johann Lamont, leader of the Scottish Labour Party, kept her Christmas message to the banal, claiming that in 2013 she would stick up for “families”. For the record, I don’t underestimate the potential appeal of Ms Lamont’s tactic; namely, taking Scottish Labour back to its West of Scotland, class-war roots. I’m just a wee bit depressed by her retro approach.

Then we come to my favourite: the festive appeal of David Watt, head of the Institute of Directors (IoD) in Scotland. Mr Watt used his Christmas message to criticise “the current obsession with our future governance”, which is a long-winded way of saying the independence debate. Mr Watt wants the referendum discussion suspended until the autumn of 2014 so Scotland can “focus on the wealth creation agenda and rebuild what was once the world’s most innovative and entrepreneurial nation”.

The IoD is not, as you might imagine, a group which speaks for business, but a membership organisation awarded a royal charter in 1906 – when the British Empire was beginning to feel the full weight of American and German industrial competition – to promote professional management practice. In the careful words of the IoD Scotland website: “The Institute of Directors exists to help, support, advise and set standards for directors”.

Which suggests to me that in entering the political arena – even in the disguise of a Christmas message – Mr Watt has laid himself open to the accusation that he has strayed from his organisation’s royal charter to improve the competence of company directors. (I say this, by the way, as a former member of IoD Scotland.)

However, let’s be sporting at this festive time of the year and examine what Mr Watt has to say. To begin: is he really serious in suggesting that the referendum campaign should be halted for the next 18 months?

Whatever your views on independence, the electorate gave a mandate to the SNP to hold a referendum, and the Westminster government has given legal sanction for this referendum to take place in 2014. The Yes and No campaigns are already rolling. Are we to conclude that the executive director of IoD Scotland really imagines this political bandwagon can simply be parked at the kerbside? (The IoD at a UK level has no such qualms about engaging in constitutional debate regarding British membership of the EU – it campaigns constantly for “radical reform” of that institution.)

Common sense suggests Mr Watt is being rhetorical, but that’s hardly helpful. Nor is it redolent of the focus and strategic clarity recommended for company directors in the IoD’s excellent training manuals. The referendum campaign is not going to go away, so Mr Watt might better occupy his time with trying to insert into the public debate some ideas on the Scottish economy; for example, on reforming corporate governance should there be a Yes vote.

I respect the fact that Mr Watt thinks the constitutional debate is secondary to re-booting the Scottish economy, especially in a time of austerity and possible triple-dip recession. However, I would direct him to his own argument, that Scotland needs to “rebuild what was once the world’s most innovative and entrepreneurial nation”.

As a Yes voter, I could not put it better myself. When the IoD was created, Clydeside industry and technology dominated the world. At the end of the First World War, Scotland was set to lead in the global manufacture of aircraft and motor vehicles. A huge swathe of 20th-century technology, from television to radar, was the fruit of Scottish inventors.

Does it not occur to Mr Watt to ask why this lead was thrown away? That it might have to do with the dominance of the City of London and a financial culture that promoted short-term profits over long-term investment. That Scottish entrepreneurial talent was almost destroyed by nationalisation and centralisation of management in London after the Second World War. That economic policy is still set in London by one of the most centralised political machines in the western world.

Will Mr Watt not concede that those of us who desire Scottish independence want it precisely to seize control of the fiscal and monetary levers needed to recover Scotland’s lost entrepreneurial energy? That far from being a distraction, the debate over economic sovereignty is central to Scotland’s recovery?

To give one example: Mr Watt argues for the Scottish Government to show leadership in promoting investment in transport infrastructure and broadband connections. But even after the recent changes to the Scotland Act, Holyrood still lacks the capital borrowing powers to drive such capital investment.

I have a great deal of respect for Mr Watt’s work at the IoD. And I can sympathise with his frustrations about the level of the referendum debate. The Yes side seems to want to downplay the disruption of independence – yet Scotland needs an economic revolution, otherwise why bother? The No side keeps implying that Scotland is an economic basket case that will always require subsidy – a recipe for economic stagnation, if ever there was one. There is no Chinese wall between politics and economics. Unless we sort the politics, we can’t sort the economics.

Courtesy of George Kerevan and the Scotsman newspaper