Why I left the backbenches to join John Swinney’s cabinet

If you’re wondering why I left the comfort of the backbenches and returned to government this week, I’ve got an answer: it’s the economy, stupid.

The economic choices we make now, this year, will determine whether Scotland reaps the benefits for decades to come or forever laments the missed opportunities.

As the newly sworn in Deputy First Minister, with responsibility for the economy, I want to get stuff done. Everything is an economic policy — tackling poverty, reaching net zero, raising the revenue to invest in our public services. The plan is simple. Get the economy firing on all cylinders, and it will power a better future.

The potential is enormous. Here are just three ways forward:

Firstly, as the world decarbonises, Scotland’s abundant natural resources, talent base and reputation in the energy industry mean we are well placed to attract new jobs and investment. Only a few miles from my home in the Highlands, the Japanese energy company Sumitomo has agreed an investment package of £350 million to establish an industrial base to supply high voltage cables to the offshore wind sector.

That is one of the biggest ever inward investment projects for Scotland, never mind the Highlands, creating hundreds of good jobs. It wasn’t an inevitable investment, it happened because we worked carefully to nurture relationships, remove barriers to investment and make Scotland a really attractive place to do business. These international companies can go anywhere — we need to make Scotland the obvious and only location for manufacturing and industry.

Secondly, every business started with innovation. Scotland’s has a centuries-old reputation for entrepreneurship. Starting and growing small businesses is the backbone of the Scottish economy. Today, every business is a tech business. With a small population, technology drives up our productivity, attracts businesses and creates solutions in healthcare, financial services and across society.

Working with Mark Logan, our chief entrepreneurial advisor, we’ve established a network of start-up incubators called “Techscaler” and are well on our way to delivering one of the finest state-funded systems in Europe dedicated to the creation of high growth businesses. The programme already has more than 500 member companies and has opened its first hub in Silicon Valley to help promising start-ups from Scotland build contacts with international investors and customers. There are some quick wins — but this is also laying the groundwork for the next decades in Scotland.

Thirdly, Scottish products continue to be the UK’s top exports. Our most prized food exports — salmon and whisky — continue to be highly in demand across the world. There has been a 200 per cent increase in food exports over the last ten years, and the industry is worth £15 billion. These are huge figures. And they will keep growing, despite rocky trading conditions entirely due to the Tories’ decision to leave not just the EU but the huge single market and customs union.

This is also a truly national industry, sustaining livelihoods in regions currently facing depopulation. Our demographic challenges are extremely pressing. Rural and coastal areas are forecast to see double-digit declines in population over the coming decades. Growth in the heart of our cities masks the fact our working-age population is not growing at a rate that our public services and economy will require.

The stagnation of the UK economy has been accompanied by a lively debate, particularly south of the border, on the causes and potential solutions to what at times can seem hard-wired economic decline. The last few years of inflation, rising costs and poor living standards have been challenging, but the UK economy has been characterised by low growth, low productivity, low levels of investment and high levels of inequality for much longer. Many of the macro economic levers lie with the UK Government, but I have never allowed that to constrain our ambition to do better in Scotland.

You need only consider comparable independent countries to see the opportunities for Scotland. They enjoy higher productivity and living standards, higher levels of investment and lower inequality than the UK. That is perhaps because countries of our size are well-suited to the kind of agility and collaboration that is necessary in this fast-changing technology-driven economic world. And also because Scotland doesn’t concentrate economic activity in only one region — as is the case with London and the southeast in England.

Scotland may not at present have the powers those countries enjoy but we have the determination to make the Scottish economy as fair and competitive as it can possibly be.

My message is simple: Scotland is open for business. My plan is to prove that, to reduce the hurdles to investment, to market the opportunities and to prioritise jobs and wages, not bureaucracy.

This article was originally published in the Sunday Times, 12th May.