Lord Kerr of Kinlochard — come to the aid of the Scottish interest

Substance not symbols

“THINGS fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”. The words of Yeats’ poem — The Second Coming — echoed in my mind all of this past week. He wrote it in the aftermath of the Great War and the unspeakable chaos the world had just survived.

By comparison the political and economic chaos unleashed by last Friday’s vote, is placed into perspective. We should all bear that in mind before we let the turmoil shake our spirits.

But the challenges to our economy and governance are evident. So much has snapped out of our control and as a vacuum emerged at the top of UK Government and its official opposition.

Now is the time for composure, open minds and clarity of thought. It is time for candour and honesty and being allowed to think out loud. It is a time for giving our leaders and each other the time and space to think and reflect as well as act.

And it is time to dial down the partisan hysteria. Scotland is truly world class at amateur dramatics in our public discourse. Challenge is rarely bad, but seeking out dissent and division, clamour and imagined failure is not especially valuable in times like now.

The First Minister has made clear that her focus is on protecting Scotland’s position in Europe and getting the most from the UK’s negotiations in our national interest. The strength of the Scottish vote requires this of her.

So much is in the air it is extremely difficult to chart any scenario with any degree of confidence. We are indeed in uncharted territory.

That she is drawing on the skills and expertise of many of our finest minds to aid her government is a very good move. Lord Kerr for example is no supporter of the SNP or Scottish nationalism. But he is one of Britain’s most able and experienced senior diplomatic figures. Who better to invite into Bute House? And she has.

The Scottish Government is gearing up to receive advice and to engage with businesses local, national and multi-national to ensure that our economic interest is promoted.

While the discussion and uncertainty continues what do we have under our control that we can focus on while we await clarity?

The single most important thing for government, away from the diplomacy, is a laser like focus on our economy. The livelihood of us all depends on it as does the sustainable funding of our public services.

The risks of the moment are clear. We must move urgently to mitigate them and to explore what opportunities there are also.

If there is any policy at any level of government that will damage business interests and jobs now is a very good time to push the ‘pause’ or ‘stop’ buttons. If there is any decision that could be accelerated to invest in infrastructure and modernisation, now is a good moment to press ‘play’.

Senior and experienced people need to be recruited to client handle the leaders of major employers and wealth creators and the major international businesses that would consider expanding here or locating here. We need to make this our national priority — demonstrating in word and deed that Scotland is open for business and trade, international in our outlook and a magnet for talent wherever it comes from.

One of the most startling things about the Brexit aftermath is that there was no prospectus for what happened next. What little we heard was demonstrably false.

As politicians scoff at the failures of many companies it is worth reflecting that if any company had taken an action like Brexit, on the basis they just did for an entire country, then the lawsuits would already be flying. It is truly unforgiveable.

Much heat is in the air about whether the whole crisis will lead inexorably to an other independence referendum. It is not ideal circumstances but it would have been dishonest of the First Minister to say anything other than what she has. She is one of the most honest politicians I have ever known, her enemies would admit as much. It is also the leverage she needs to make negotiation real.

She will not want to put that question to the test until the country is ready to embrace the question and answer positively. Few have any appetite for another knife-edge choice. When the country is ready the question will be put, and not before. It is not inevitable. Unlike the European referendum, this is no jape, no game. The stakes are very high.

The First Minister will also be acutely aware that the case will have to be entirely remade from the prospectus put to the country in 2014. Not only does our enduring relationship with the rest of the UK and Europe remain unclear. Fundamental issues on currency and the economy need to be addressed.

Chief among these is the question of the economy and public finances. Both were deteriorating before last week’s vote, the pressure has just increased significantly. And there is no prospect of oil revenues to close the gap in the short or long term. Only purposeful effort will do that.

It is not a simple matter of cutting spending or increasing taxes on an ever-dwindling number of shoulders. The core question is how we grow the muscle of the economy and increase the tax base at every level. We need the immigration of talent, investment, business and companies as a priority.

We need a taxation mix that encourages growth and revenues. We emphatically don’t need political symbols we need economic substance urgently.

Staying in Europe won’t automatically deliver any of this and it would be a mistake to get misty eyed about that. And the very nature of Europe will undoubtedly change in response to this vote. EU membership is a contributory but not sufficient condition for success in my view.

It is a platform on which countries can co-operate and compete. It is up to us to ensure we can make the most of the European and UK single markets.

Time for the best, to be full of passionate intensity.

First published in the Times Scotland 1 July