02 June 2020

Subject Debate: Economic Recovery

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani): The next item of business is a debate on Covid-19 and next steps for the economy.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

Welcome back, Presiding Officer. I would like to join you soon.

I start with saying a single word on projects to all members on the Conservative Party’s benches: HS2.

The next steps required to rebuild our economy after the shutdown caused by the pandemic cannot all be known. Indeed, some of what will turn out to be the most important steps may only be identifiable some years after they are taken. The Government’s immediate concern is to minimise harm to existing businesses; that is proper, because businesses that are already established will be the source of employment for the overwhelming majority of those who will be in work in six months, a year or a couple of years.

I will concentrate on where the real building of a new economy will take place. It will start with small businesses—just as almost all new businesses start as small businesses. Ten years ago, Brewdog was a small brewery in my constituency with a handful of employees. Today, it is an international company that is worth in excess of £1 billion. New ideas, new money and risk-taking and risk-managing owners, coupled with very good marketing, helped it to get there. Even with all that, the outcome, and certainly the scale of the outcome, was very far from predictable. The new businesses that will be the new Brewdogs in 10 years’ time simply cannot be known today. It is about removing barriers and about those of us in the public realm being prepared to be brave. Adversity creates difficulty, but it also spurs innovation.

On 27 April 2007, a dispute over the moving of a Soviet-era memorial in Tallinn was the trigger for an electronic attack on every public institution in Estonia—a country of about 1.3 million residents. Today, Estonia has a hardened electronic infrastructure that converted the country into one of robust online commerce. One may become an e-resident of Estonia for a modest sum—currently 120 euros. The country has created infrastructure that allows people around the world to establish companies and open and operate bank accounts, and it has created secure and trusted electronic identities for its e-residents. A large cohort of foreign companies are now resident in Estonia, without the country having become a tax haven—its attraction as a place of residence is much more than that.

There are plenty of other opportunities that we might look to. I say to Government: let us crank up our support for our micro-businesses, small businesses and even medium businesses—the next big winner might be in there.

I will give some specifics suggestions for what we might do—they are deliberately a bit off the wall because I like to provoke thinking. Let us direct our help to new ideas, or to reinventions of old ones, with the expectation that, in doing so, 80 per cent of our interventions will fail. If we get it right, the 20 per cent will do far more than pay for the 80 per cent.

We should not analyse projects to death. If I could spot the winning projects, I would be a very rich man. Instead, we should look at the people who are trying to take something forward. There are those who have the knowledge, energy and self-belief that will take them somewhere useful for themselves and for our country. We should ignore their proposals—we should not pretend we can spot winners.

We should back small teams. It is amazing what one man can do leading a team of 12—that team can succeed even if one of them is a duffer or a Judas. Those who are failing are spotted very quickly in a small team. No management structure is needed to make a small team work.

Hundreds of years ago, Europe’s main centre for medical training was in Edinburgh. Why? Because the old town was desperately unsanitary and had a correspondingly high degree of morbidity, so it was an excellent place to study disease. What could we be doing today in the Covid world? Are there genetic differences that drive differences in outcomes? We know that that is the case for many other conditions. Covid is a virus about which we are still learning, but we have no broad-spectrum attacker of viruses in general, equivalent to what antibiotics once were in relation to bacteria.

Scotland has a particular advantage, in that the data in our national birth, marriage and death records is more comprehensive than is the case almost anywhere else. Thus, it is easier to identify connections of paternity, maternity and consanguinity than in many other countries. Could we use that information? It is worth trying.

In 1973, I fell out with my boss over a software development. I spent the weekend in the computer centre pursuing my idea, which I showed him on Monday. I met someone a couple of years ago who was still maintaining that software, which I had developed 45 years earlier. We might need a few more angry youngsters. Let us find them and support them—and I am not volunteering.


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