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Colin Borland: So how will these grand plans be put into action?

Now that the stated aim of both the UK and Scottish governments is nothing less than wholesale economic and societal transformation, neither can be accused of aiming low.

The day before the Prime Minister told his party conference that we’re embarking on a journey to a high-growth, high-skill, high-wage economy, the Scottish Government was unveiling its Covid recovery strategy, which aims to tackle the “systemic inequalities made worse by Covid”.

At the same time, we have a Scottish Government Advisory Council, who are tasked with no less than shaping a new 10-year national strategy for economic transformation.

So, ambition and far-sightedness are certainly not among the commodities currently in short supply.

But can we pull this off?

Are we serious about spending the amount of time, effort and money it will take? In August, for example, the Centre for Cities said the UK Government’s levelling-up agenda would require investment on a par with what went into reunifying Germany after the fall of the Berlin wall (a snip at €2 trillion over 20 years).

But, if we are up for the challenge – and believe we can rise to it – what are the first steps on this new path to making the country happier, richer and fairer?

Well, you can’t follow a map without first working out where you are, so I’d start there. We need to understand the economic landscape that’s actually around us – not the one we might think or wish we had. And, when we survey it, we see it’s an economy dominated by small and micro businesses which have had to strain every sinew to survive the last 18 months.

It’s an economy where a third of small employers are finding it hard to hire staff, where newly acquired debt weighs heavy on investment plans, where input-price rises show no signs of slowing and where materials are stuck in depots or shipping containers.

So the first step must be to stabilise our business base – and, in just a few weeks, the Chancellor has a golden opportunity to help do just that by unveiling a Budget squarely aimed at making it easier to employ and invest.

There is, of course, a lot more that needs to happen to address the immediate crises consuming our business community. But if we accept, for now, that these issues can be resolved, and firms can begin to look slightly further ahead, how do we make sure that we all get to go along on the journey?

You can’t be engaged in, to borrow the Scottish Government’s phrase, a national endeavour if you don’t take the vast majority of the nation’s businesses with you.

Government economic strategies down the ages have tended to put all their eggs in the basket marked “the next big thing”, focusing on a handful of companies or sectors with exceptional growth forecasts, but none has delivered the economy we want to see.

So it’s encouraging to hear Scottish Ministers talking about making economic transformation as relevant to a beautician as a blue-chip board. And, to make good on this, it’s similarly heartening that there’s some serious work going on with the Scottish Government to reform how it makes policy and assesses its real-world impact on small businesses.

Finally, to be truly transformative, we need to see a revolution in entrepreneurialism – where self-employment is a more attractive, less risky and fairer option for a far wider range of people. The prize on offer is huge if we get the support right.

The scale of what our political leaders are seeking to do is genuinely exciting. The question of how they are going to do it is genuinely fascinating.

Colin Borland is director of devolved nations for the Federation of Small Businesses



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