I am delighted that we are debating the economy early in the new session.
There are many positive aspects to Scotland’s economy, so I hope that we will not get too bogged down in being negative and running Scotland down. For example, the number of modern apprenticeships is going up from 25,000 to 30,000, which is good news. The small business bonus is helping 100,000 small businesses, which is good news. International exports were up 37 per cent from 2007 to 2014, which is good news. Tourism in Glasgow employs 30,000 people and business tourism is worth £1 billion to the city’s economy, which is good news.
The debate is wide ranging, as we can tell from Willie Rennie’s speech. I aim to focus on a few aspects, of which the first is transport. One requirement of a strong economy must be good transport. Transport affects our food and drink exports and our tourism sector in particular, but it probably has an impact on every part of the economy.
We should very much welcome the investment in recent years, including the M74 completion and the Airdrie to Bathgate rail link, as well as, most recently, the line to the Borders. Many people locally have told me how much they value the M74 since it was completed. The current upgrading of the A8 to the M8, and the M73, M74 and Raith interchange improvements can—and, I am sure, will—be of great benefit to business and the whole economy.
Roads all over Scotland impact on tourism. I spent the holiday weekend camping at Applecross in Wester Ross. The roads that lead there are single track with hairpin bends and truly are dramatic—I think that the area attracts visitors because of that very fact. The number of bikers at Applecross at the weekend was absolutely amazing and was certainly good for local business. However, Applecross is probably the exception—generally, we want good-quality roads to get tourists to their destinations in a reasonable time.
The A82 is a really important road for the Highlands and Islands, and much of it between Glasgow and Fort William is pretty good. However, the stretch between Tarbet and Ardlui alongside Loch Lomond, with the road at Pulpit Rock being the notable exception, seems to have hardly changed during my lifetime. I really want to make that a priority in our future road investments.
Road improvements should include improvements for cyclists and others. As I drove through Glen Coe last night, a large number of cyclists were on the road, and the congestion was frustrating to them and to other road users.
I am glad that inequality is mentioned in the Government’s motion and in the Labour and Lib Dem amendments but, unless I have missed it, I do not see that word in the Conservative amendment. It seems to me that an economy in which income and wealth are in the hands of a very few will not be a successful one, even if it is growing strongly, and will fail. Sure, I would like to see the economy grow, but more than that, I would like to see existing income and wealth shared out more evenly.
In its briefing, the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations makes the strong point that
“less inequality equals a stronger economy”.
That is also very much the theme of the book “The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone”, which my much-missed former colleague Nigel Don was always keen to quote. I accept that equality of opportunity is part of the answer, but more equality in what people actually have and receive is part of it, too.
The question of ownership is linked to inequality. Not every successful organisation has to be a private company or a plc. It is encouraging to see more emphasis on social enterprises, although I would still like to see more co-operatives. My understanding is that Germany has been much better than the United Kingdom at keeping businesses locally owned and controlled, and better at maintaining its manufacturing sector in general. Scottish Power, for example, was a very successful Scottish company, and I do not see any benefit to our economy from its being taken over. In fact, the takeover of such companies damages our economy and loses us jobs in general and quality jobs in particular.
Just yesterday, the back, main business page of
The Herald talked about the acquisition of an Edinburgh virtual reality start-up by Facebook. That was seen as a big success, but part of me feels a bit sad that our measure of success is how well we can sell off our businesses. Is there really no place in Scotland for businesses not only to be started here, but to grow and develop while remaining owned here?
One factor that helps an economy to grow is a growing population. It is clear that Scotland has a lot of empty space, even in cities such as Glasgow, and that we have skills shortages in the national health service, engineering and elsewhere. I commend successive Governments—not just the current Government—which have recognised that. I welcome the First Minister’s baby box initiative. I hope that that will lead to an increased number of babies. [
.] Not for myself, I hasten to add.