Friday, June 14, 2013

Scotland the braver – the North of England’s noisy neighbour

I was up in Glasgow this week for Scotland’s Technology Show. It was an exhibition of a wide range of technology companies and featured a large presence from Scottish Enterprise, of which there is no equivalent in England, or in our Northern cities. And on the back of BBC’s Question Time from Edinburgh last night, I came away with 5 thoughts that have shifted my view of our Caledonian cousins.

Maybe it’s because I’m a political anorak, but I kept musing about what difference an independent Scotland would make to this event in the future, and to the business owners I met up there. I’ll be honest with you, I just don’t get Scottish nationalism. I thought any ambitions of a new independent nation joining the “arc of prosperity” from Norway to Iceland and Ireland would have been buried in the rubble of the financial crisis of 2008. The rhetoric of the SNP is also of a bygone era of high state spending with no real understanding of the kind of dynamic economy an independent Scotland will need to be. Plus, most of the oil is in English waters if you draw the line correctly.

Yet there is still a momentum behind this most implausible of political projects, one that will grow stronger as the gap between London and the other regional cities grows larger. I am pretty sure that full independence will be bad for Scotland, even though I’m not really entitled or required to have a view on that. But I’m still not sure as to whether it will be good for the North of England, or not.

What I am sure of, however, is that the institutions that Scotland has are making a better job than I previously thought of creating the kind of economy that it needs, whether a devolved part of the UK, or a small independent member of the European Union.

As we prepare for the Northern Revolution conference in Salford Quays, on the 4th of July it’s as well to learn from other places where policy and planning are working.

Here are five things I learned this week that show Scotland is heading in the right direction. And maybe Northern cities, or a collaboration between them, could study a bit closer.

1. The Scottish Investment Bank (SIB) – I like how the umbrella body of SIB operates a suite of investment funds. It provides clarity, a relatively lean and no nonsense model and does co-investment with a well established network of business angels through both the three equity funds and is also the lead investor in the privately managed Scottish Loan Fund.

2. Scotland’s Technology Show – the spirit of co-operation and excitement amongst disparate companies in Scotland to show off their products at a domestic trade show was impressive. It wasn’t to meet buyers of subsea marine engineering products, but it was to share ideas and meet other technology companies with similar ambitions.

3. There are more entrepreneurs in Scotland than ever – this was a trend that surprised me, but beyond the headlines, start-up rates are still way behind the rest of the UK. According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, Scotland is retaining start-ups and has a high proportion of people of working age who have started a business. Sir Tom Hunter, who endowed the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship at Strathclyde University, thinks there is a reason for this: “Ultimately it seems we need to continue the cultural shift towards enabling our people to recognise entrepreneurialism as a real career option. We are in the teeth of a recession but when I started out in a similar recession there was very little by way of support. Today it’s different and I really do believe that we are finally integrating the support network for aspiring entrepreneurs.”

4. Entrepreneurial Spark – I led a panel debate with Jim Duffy, the CEO of this incubator and accelerator, and he had a great story to tell. His free Start Up Accelerator takes businesses through a tough 5 month process to get them in good shape.

5. Royal Bank of Scotland edging towards privatisation. Stephen Hester has done a good job getting RBS ready for a return to private ownership, even though he won’t get any thanks for it. But the reach of the bank into Scotland’s business base means it desperately needs clarity of its future if it is to be effective. It either shrinks and withers, or it is managed to a sustainable size. Never again can it be allowed to be sprawling empire Fred Goodwin spawned.

From a lower base, and with a much weaker entrepreneurial culture the picture in Scotland is looking brighter. It’s as well to keep an eye on this noisy neighbour, whether we need our passports to do business with them or not.

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