Innovation nation: an interview with Keith Brown

The second edition of SNP Insight, our magazine for Scotland’s businesses, is out now. You can read the Autumn 2016 edition in full here.

Below is an interview, featured in the magazine, with the Cabinet Secretary for the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work, Keith Brown MSP, on how he wants to grow the Scottish economy in a sustainable and inclusive way.


Scotland is a nation of pioneers. From the past inventions of James Watt, Alexander Graham Bell and John Logie Baird to the modern-day innovation of Rockstar North, the country has always pushed the boundaries of what is possible.

It is this inventive spirit that Keith Brown MSP is looking to harness in the economy, as he undertakes his new position of Cabinet Secretary for the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work. “We have an incredibly rich history, whether it’s Dolly the Sheep,the tarmac we drive on, the tyres on our bikes, the telephone or the television. Scotland has a fantastic heritage, and there shouldn’t be a mental barrier or any other barriers to what we want to do.

“The imperative for innovation, it’s absolutely essential for the economy – people need to have the mindset for innovation,” he says. “When I was in the Marines, one guy I knew came up with an idea for a flexible antenna as a signaller – I think he only got 50 quid for the suggestion. But it’s about doing things differently and feeling you can without being pilloried if it doesn’t work.”

He’s speaking to SNP Insight at the Sterling Furniture Warehouse in the heart of his constituency of Clackmannanshire and Dunblane. Set against the overcast yet still stunning backdrop of the Ochil Hills, it’s a fitting meeting place – itself a microcosm of Scottish innovation past and present. Stirling-based furniture retailer George Knowles converted the disused mill in 1974, bringing the groundbreaking US concept of ‘out-of-town’ shopping centres to Scotland.

Over 40 years later, it remains one of the UK’s largest furniture stores and today, a buzzing hub of activity.

As part of Keith’s focus on innovation, the Scotland CAN DO Forum will take forward three pilot projects concerning innovation and manufacturing excellence, digital care systems, and how to scale up digital businesses, as well as launch an annual innovation prize. For Keith, CAN DO is equally about encouraging a change in attitudes. “Say compared with the US where people set up businesses without thinking about the possibility of failure; if someone does fail, it is seen as a learning process. Sometimes in this country in the past if you fail in a business, you get stigmatised for it. Innovation is about that entrepreneurial side.

“Gordon Lindhurst, a Tory MSP, said something to the effect that since the SNP came in, people do feel that things can be achieved – ‘can do things’ was essentially what he said. That’s one of our opponents saying that, we’ve achieved something, but we’ve got more to do.”

In addition to innovation, Keith’s remit encompasses infrastructure investment policy, productivity, trade and inward investment, internationalisation, and employment policy, to name but a few areas. Overall, the newly created position has a strong emphasis on protecting jobs and engaging with industry to encourage economic growth. It assumes many of the responsibilities previously held by the finance minister, while allowing the latter more time to focus on the new tax powers coming to Holyrood.

By all accounts Keith’s portfolio seems far-reaching and varied; was it at all daunting to take on? “Over the past seven years in Government, I’ve had a range of ministerial posts. These have mainly been focussed on transport and capital infrastructure projects, aimed at developing well-connected communities for a thriving economy. Covering energy and business innovation is as new to me as this role, but I am keen to ensure that the potential of these two areas for Scotland are fulfilled. Of course, I am not doing it alone. I have two ministers working with me: Paul Wheelhouse on business, innovation and energy, and Jamie Hepburn on employability. We’re a good team with a really exciting portfolio, particularly assessed alongside Scotland’s untapped potential in these areas”

Originally from Edinburgh, Keith left home in the early 1980s to join the Royal Marines. Following three years of service, he returned to Scotland and studied politics at Dundee University. A councillor for 11 years, Keith was first elected in the 1996 by-election for Alloa. He became an MSP in 2007 and has held a number of ministerial roles, including Minister for Transport and Veterans. Now as Cabinet Secretary, Keith’s overarching aim is to grow the economy in a sustainable, inclusive way: “It’s a virtuous circle. If people are working, they are paying tax. There is a very straightforward correlation between success in the economy and what we can do for education and public services.”

One of Keith’s first tasks is to chair a review group looking at the roles, responsibilities and relationships of the country’s enterprise, development and skills agencies. “We want to try and use the review of different groups to change approaches. For example, the gender specific cultural references we have, such that girls will do beauty therapy and boys will do mechanical engineering in secondary school, as well as the apprenticeships we have. People assume it will always be men that go into building and trades; similarly on the other side, care workers are not always women. It’s about making sure that anyone can take any opportunity they want to, regardless of gender, race or disability.”

More than 200 companies have already signed up to the Scottish Government’s Business Pledge, a voluntary code for companies to commit to policies that increase diversity, boost productivity and recognise fairness. It is a figure Keith hopes to increase. “It’s something that has to grow over time, and we want to ensure we increase the number of companies so it becomes the norm in Scotland for companies to follow the practices,” he explains. “People have talked about a fair trade country in the past. Let’s be a fair work country – I would like Scotland to have a reputation for being a country that promotes fair work above all else.

One of Keith’s main aims as Cabinet Secretary is to develop better practices in terms of employment in Scotland. This includes ending the practice of blacklisting, developing mechanisms for employee consultation, and increasing the uptake of the Living Wage in more businesses. “In the 1930s, Henry Ford paid his employees well above the going rate so that his employees could afford to buy his cars. Paying the Living Wage today develops the same positive economic cycle; it provides companies with more demand for their goods and services.”

Another aim of the Business Pledge and a key concern for Keith is boosting productivity. Historically, both Scotland and the UK have lagged behind their international counterparts, although the Scottish Government has made progress: productivity has increased in the country by around 4 per cent since 2007. “We’ve improved our relative position to the UK but that’s not our goal; we want to improve it in relation to leaders like Germany,” says Keith. “The productive potential of a country is very much dependent on the skills of the people in that country so trying to make sure we have the skills that the markets require is very important.”

Likewise, Keith believes improving infrastructure will further support productivity: “Take the building of the dual carriageway on the A9 or the new crossing over the Forth. At the same time as providing those jobs, you are increasing the productive potential of the country as you are improving the transport links, which are very important to productivity.”}

Keith’s appointment as economy secretary comes as the oil and gas industry faces a myriad of challenges, not least rising production costs. As part of the Energy Jobs Taskforce, which was established by the Scottish Government in early 2015, a Training Transition Fund of £12 million has helped those facing redundancy move into other employment, while the Partnership Action for Continuing Employment (PACE) has held a number of free events offering support to oil and gas workers. “We really want to retain the skills in that area,” he continues. “If we can’t retain them in the area, then we want to retain them in the industry, as it’s a very mobile workforce that moves around the world. As we hope, and the industry suggests, we are looking forward to better times in the future, and we need to have those people ready and available when that upturn comes back.”}

As indicated in the 2016 EY attractiveness survey, Scotland is flourishing in other sectors including software, and the country has attracted a surge in foreign direct investment: “When people and companies come and invest in Scotland through specific projects or enterprises, they often bring innovative ideas with them. There are still great opportunities for further internationalisation of Scotland particularly through encouraging small and medium enterprises to think about exporting and implementing systems to make it easier for them to do so.”

Following the EU referendum result, Keith will be engaging personally with the business community to provide reassurance: “Trade and business should continue as normal and we are determined that Scotland will continue now and in the future to be an attractive and a stable place to do business. There will inevitably be a period of economic uncertainty, but I am clear that we will act to support business wherever we can. That is why maintaining and strengthening our links with our key European markets will be a key priority in the weeks and months to come.”

As Keith leaves for his afternoon surgery in Dollar, he sums up what he hopes to achieve during his tenure: “To see as many people in Scotland employed in a growing economy on the basis of fair rewards for fair work. A country that is at work and being compensated for that is a happier and more prosperous country. The UK Government still holds many of the levers that are required but Scotland will make our contribution to making this happen.”

Interview carried out by Christina McPherson for SNP Insight