Economic approach: First Minister's speech - 17 May 2024

First Minister John Swinney's speech to business leaders at Barclays Campus in Glasgow, on Friday 17 May 2024.

Thank you Kate and thank you to Koral. And to express my warmest thanks to the team at Barclays for hosting this gathering today.

I came on a fact-finding visit to this campus six weeks ago.

I had all the time in the world on my hands. Nothing much to hurry me along in my schedule.

And now I find myself, six weeks later with, let’s just saw a somewhat more congested dairy than I had at that time.

So I’m delighted to be here in Glasgow at this magnificent global campus, which is emblematic of the investment that Barclays has made in Scotland.

But this is part of the International Financial District in Glasgow, and the renaissance of investment we are seeing here along the River Clyde.

Since this particular building opened in 2021, with support from Scottish Enterprise, the workforce has expanded significantly and now numbers in excess of 6,000.

I know the skills and talent of people in the city were a significant factor in Barclays choosing Glasgow as the location for the campus.

It just goes to show that people really do make Glasgow.

Among the employees Barclays have taken on are local people who can face barriers entering work, including those with disabilities and those who have experienced economic disadvantage.

The commitment of Barclays to the city is precious to my Government, recognising the scale of the investment, and the effect of the investment in broadening access to employment and opportunities for all.

I wanted to take an early opportunity in my term in office as First Minister, to set out how I intend to work with others across Scotland to strengthen our economy.

In the weeks and months to come I will have more to say on specific policies but today, I am keen to set out the general approach that I will take – alongside the Deputy First Minister and Economy Secretary, Kate Forbes – to stimulating economic activity in Scotland.

I was asked by one journalist what would be the key policy objective I would want to achieve as First Minister. I said I wanted to do all that I could to eradicate child poverty. I believe it to be a curse in a 21st Century, advanced Western society that children are brought up in an environment of poverty.

There are many measures we can take to fulfil that agenda to eradicate child poverty. We are implementing many of those just now, including a focus on employability support for parents and policies such as the Scottish Child Payment which are keeping an estimated 100,000 children out of poverty. It has been described by the academic Professor Danny Dorling as the most significant measure to tackle child poverty in Europe in 40 years.

But crucial also to eradicating child poverty, is a strong, successful, innovative and dynamic economy.

So as I embark on my role as First Minister, let me make it absolutely crystal clear, there is no conflict in my mind, or in the priorities of my Government, between eradicating child poverty and boosting economic growth.

For me, and for my Government, eradicating child poverty and boosting economic growth, go hand in hand.

Reducing poverty boosts spending power, improves productivity through a healthier workforce, and leads to greater and more equal labour market participation.

Boosting economic growth creates the opportunities for people to participate in our economy and valuable, skilled employment that brings fulfilment to individuals and those that they support.

Lifting children out of poverty – and giving everyone the opportunity to get on in life - is not just the right thing to do but it is an approach in line with the values I bring to Government.

My values in Government come from the foundation of my political attitudes. My politics come from a moderate left of centre policy position.

The Scottish Government I lead will take a moderate left of centre position - firmly rooted in the mainstream of European social democracy.

That strikes me as the strongest basis for constructing an inclusive and dynamic economy.

My approach to the economy will also be anchored in partnership.

I promise to reach out - to be collaborative and inclusive – not just with other political parties - as I must do in leading a minority Government - but with businesses, unions and communities right across Scotland. I believe that the concept of social partnership – so widely practiced in European societies and indeed encapsulated by the former Scottish Council Development and Industry now called Prosper – is a sound means of formulating an agreed economic agenda for Scotland.

That process will of course attract a range of views and I will do all that I can to bring people together in common purpose to achieve our aims. I suspect it will not always be possible to reach agreement.

But for my part I will take decisions after careful listening and full engagement.

So I want to assure you I am in the business of making things happen, of delivering swift and efficient decisions, based on the best available evidence. Government must have a can-do attitude. We must search to remove obstacles. We must offer certainty to those prepared to make commitments to our economy. Our planning, consenting and regulatory functions must be focused on making things happen. The Scottish Government under my leadership will act exactly in that way.

Rather more bluntly, I will demand from my government more concrete actions and fewer strategy documents.

A strategic approach is clearly essential.

I want the first question we ask ourselves to be: what can we do, rather than what can we write down.  

And overarching all of this I want to rekindle a sense of hope and optimism both about what Scotland is achieving and about the great possibilities of the future.

To potential investors I will go all out to sell Scotland as the great place it is to do business and to achieve returns.

I am determined to ensure the perception exists that the Scottish Government is a Government that is engaged with, and supportive of, business.

An integral part of that agenda is advancing our commitment to fair work principles.

Indeed a workforce that feels valued through the payment of the real living wage, with a voice in the workplace and access to high quality training can surely only lead to better outcomes for companies.  

The goal is to help people live happier and healthier lives with higher living standards, to help businesses boost profitability and build a more resilient Scottish economy that promotes the wellbeing of all of our citizens.

So I will ensure that values, evidence, a can do attitude, a focus on getting results, and partnership will be my guides in seeking to achieve that hope for a better economic future.  

All of that effort will be applied to build on the improved performance that has been delivered within the Scottish economy.

Since 2007 - when the current Scottish Government took office - both GDP per head and productivity have grown faster here than the UK as a whole.

Unemployment remains low and economic participation rates remain high.

Scotland continues to deliver a formidable performance in attracting investment, with our country being the most successful part of the UK in attracting foreign direct investment apart from London and the South-east of England.

And we are pursuing huge opportunities in growth sectors.

Scotland has huge potential to take advantage of technological advances and the global drive and demand for clean energy.

Offshore wind is at the heart of both energy and economic policy in Scotland.

It has been highlighted as the single most important opportunity for attracting capital to Scotland and raising Scotland’s wider investment profile. 

One of my first engagements as First Minister was to visit on Monday the former oil and gas fabrication yard at Ardersier on the Moray Firth.

There, Haventus, a new company founded after the success of ScotWind – the world’s largest offshore wind leasing round – has started building a new port to support offshore wind farms.

Once fully operational, Ardersier will be the largest dedicated offshore wind facility in Scotland.

It has done so with the help of a loan from the Scottish National Investment Bank. Indeed Haventus were hugely complimentary of the speed and efficiency of decision-making in Scotland, of their work with Highlands and Islands Enterprise and the Highland Council, to secure the investment and get the project moving. I want that to be the norm in every part of Scotland.

The Scottish National Investment Bank is investing in this project because it expects to make a return for the public purse.

The project itself will help promote a wider supply chain, create new jobs and use skills which lie across our energy sector.

And the expansion of offshore wind is part of our drive to tackle the climate emergency.

That is the type of action that should give all of us optimism for the future.

The day after I was in Ardersier, the Net Zero and Energy Secretary, Mairi McAllan, visited Nigg on the Cromarty Firth where work has begun on a new subsea cable manufacturing plant.

The £350 million Sumitomo project is one of the biggest ever inward investment projects in the Highlands and Islands and will create approximately 330 jobs over the next ten years

In total the Scottish Government will invest up to £500 million over the next five years to anchor our offshore wind supply-chain in Scotland.

This week we have also seen the establishment of the Scottish Offshore Wind Ports Alliance.

This initiative shows the strong appetite of the sector to work strategically and collaboratively.

That approach will be crucial to delivering transformational opportunities at scale and pace.

This week’s announcements are highly significant for our economic future.

The fact that we are now beginning to see major manufacturing for offshore wind projects here on Scottish soil is the start of a new era.

It is hard to over-estimate the potential prize.

So looking to the future we will do whatever we can to solve any problems, such as with planning consents, to ensure we remain a great place to invest as this renewables revolution gathers pace.

Our aspirations will not just be contained in the field of energy to renewables. We must also embrace the opportunities for research and innovation to develop the possibilities on hydrogen which has the potential to provide a formidable global strength for Scotland.

And just as Scotland’s international reputation grows as a focal point for green innovation and external investment, we will continue our focus on supporting home grown entrepreneurs and innovators.

We are backing the rise of a new generation of Scottish firms, that will generate new wealth by exporting their products and services across the world.

This approach will drive an economic future for Scotland that is defined by a powerful blend of international capital and Scottish invention.

It is little talked about but Scotland is well on its way to delivering one of the finest state-funded eco-systems in Europe dedicated to the creation of high growth start-up businesses.

I want our Techscaler programme to be much better known so we can help attract more investment to these truly exciting enterprises.

It is another example of the government helping to kick-start and encourage the industries of the future.

Launched in 2022 with government funding it is now a network of approximately 2,500 members, 500 startups and over 100 mentors.

There are eleven physical hubs – one of which is located in this building.

Since joining Techscaler, member companies have so far raised over £50 million in investment.

Those include companies providing services as diverse as an online marketplace designed to simplify the seafood trading process, a system to protect online platforms from counterfeit products and fake reviews, and software to help companies manage sales tax outside their home geography.

Scotland is still someway behind other comparable countries like Ireland and Finland in the number of tech companies we have.

We will not match that performance overnight but I am determined to do whatever I can to help build the tech sector.

And I want that sector to be fuelled by an effective partnership with our Universities, who have already demonstrated a hunger to work in partnership with business to develop new industries and businesses that will create the wealth of tomorrow. Our Universities have the talent and the spaces to make all of that happen and we must support them to make that possible.

As a country we are at the forefront of small satellite manufacturing, our screen sector is going from strength to strength and we have huge strengths in more traditional areas like food and drink, financial services, as we can see from this formidable investment by Barclays in Glasgow, and in the tourism sector.

So Scotland is open for business and open for investment. And my Government will do everything we can to ensure that is the case in the future.

No explanation of the approach my Government will take to stimulating the economy can be complete, without assessing some of the challenges and impediments that we face in our way. I don’t want to be gloomy but I do have to be realistic.

I find the prevailing economic climate in the United Kingdom profoundly worrying.

The decision to leave the European Union – which Scotland did not support – has inflicted significant economic damage on Scotland and indeed on the United Kingdom as a whole. The cost of doing business has increased for many sectors of the economy. The end of freedom of movement, and ever wilder rhetoric about migration, cannot do anything but harm our economic prospects. And of course the question of population growth is so central to an ambitious agenda of growth and opportunity in Scotland.

Just this week the UK Government’s Migration Advisory Committee advised UK ministers not to tighten the rules on graduate visas.

But the clamour at Westminster to do so is continuing.

This week the Prime Minister tweeted that he had taken action to reduce migration.

Accompanying the tweet was a short film showing someone with a big ink stamp which said “stopped”.

And that stamp marked “stopped” was brought down on bits of paper saying: “Foreign masters students bringing family members”  - stopped - and “Overseas care workers bringing family dependants” - stopped.

The UK Government is celebrating making it harder for overseas students to study in the UK and for overseas care staff to work in the UK.

I find that astonishing.

As a First Minister wrestling with a social care crisis in the community and the necessity to encourage and fuel the dynamism of our universities, the stamp I would like to see would be one marked “welcome”.

It is in Scotland’s interests to have a more generous system, not a tighter one.

All of our future population growth is expected to come from inward migration.

So we have a very different and specific population challenge.

And those who choose to make Scotland their home are making a big contribution, and many others that will come will make a big contribution.

A summary of the available evidence by the Bank of England suggests migration by EU workers boosts long-run GDP per capita.

And key parts of our economy, particularly in rural areas are suffering from post-Brexit shortages.

We are unable to deliver the economic capacity in these areas because there aren’t enough people to do the tasks for which there is employment to be had.

We badly therefore need the return of European freedom of movement.

For students, we would like a five-year post-study work visa to help the best and brightest settle here.

But there seems little prospect of any of this happening while Scotland’s migration policy is decided at Westminster.  

For Scotland’s economy, the prevailing attitude by the UK Government is damaging.

My answer to that challenge of course, is for Scotland to be able to chart her own course economically and to make the best decisions on our own terms. For me that would involve re-joining the European Union as an independent country and making our own economic decisions. Making that argument will be at the heart of my Government’s agenda.

At the start of my speech today, I spoke about the values and political positioning of the Scottish Government aimed at taking Scotland in a different and I believe better direction.

I believe those to be the mainstream beliefs of many people in Scotland.

That, together with the agility that comes with our size, means it should be easier to build consensus, encourage partnership working and offering stability in policy-making: all characteristics that are crucial for attracting investment.

Indeed it is striking that countries of Scotland’s size tend to dominate international league tables of national income per head, equality and happiness.

The economist David Skilling has studied the remarkable success of those independent countries.

Among other things they have strong political institutions supported by high levels of trust in decision-making.

They are flexible.

They demonstrate high levels of levels of international competitiveness.

And they tend to invest heavily in the future – from infrastructure to research and development.

In some, social partnership models combine greater collective bargaining with high levels of productivity and therefore higher living standards.

That all sounds like a worthy ambition for Scotland and much to learn for Scotland.

I want to close with a very personal reflection on where I am as I embark on being First Minister.

please believe me when I say that I want my country to do well.

When I left office last year, I thought I had held my last senior office in politics. I didn’t realise it at the time but it was in fact a sort of sabbatical year. During that time, I began to see the world and crucially our politics from a very different perspective. To be honest, I didn’t like what I saw. I saw our politics as polarised, combative, disinterested in finding common ground, more interested in dragging down than building up.

And much to my surprise I now find myself as First Minister of Scotland, an honour and a privilege that I never thought would come to me.

So I intend to approach my time as First Minister in a way and in a manner that tackles all that is wrong in our politics today and give it all that I have to make my country a success.

I am going to do it by bringing people together.

I am going to do it by creating common ground.

I am going to do it by focusing on what works.

I am going to do it by building up and I am going to do it to change lives.

I want Scotland to be a much more prosperous, dynamic, innovative, diverse country as a result of my work as First Minister and I invite you to join me on the journey.

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