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Ian McConnell: Did business just deliver a big surprise for John Swinney?

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The souring of the attitude over recent months was itself perhaps somewhat puzzling, given Mr Yousaf adopted a positive attitude to the business community, even if he did not grant all its wishes. He also delivered some thoughtful speeches on the economy, which were in stark contrast to the bilge we have tended to be served up by Conservative Cabinet ministers at Westminster in recent years.

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Notably, Mr Yousaf highlighted the enormous hit to public spending in Scotland arising from the damage that Brexit has done to the economy. He also hammered home the importance of free university tuition in Scotland, something which is surely very much to the long-term benefit of the economy in terms of the skills base.

And Mr Yousaf certainly endeavoured to open a greater dialogue with business. He also postponed the introduction of the deposit return scheme, and sent proposals to restrict alcohol advertising and promotion back to the drawing board.

Mr Swinney is now taking up the post of First Minister without having the Scottish Greens as the SNP’s junior partner in government, given the ending of the Bute House Agreement by Mr Yousaf. This termination was, of course, followed swiftly by Mr Yousaf’s resignation as first minister.

The Scottish Greens were not, for understandable reasons, viewed by the business community as champions of the economy.

Lorna Slater, co-leader of the Scottish Greens, said in an interview with The Herald on Sunday in 2022 that economic growth was an area where her party had “a fundamentally different position to the Scottish Government”.

For anyone interested in the uplift to living standards that should be delivered by boosting economic growth and wealth creation, that was surely a worrying comment.

It is obviously absolutely valid to debate how the rewards of economic growth are distributed and of course there are wildly divergent opinions on this – with the ruling Conservatives at Westminster showing exactly how it should not be done. However, that is a different matter altogether to that raised by Ms Slater.

Before Mr Yousaf became first minister last spring, it did seem that the business community as a whole would have preferred to see leadership race rival Kate Forbes win the contest.

Of course, Mr Swinney has now promised Ms Forbes a senior role in his administration.

And even the Confederation of British Industry in Scotland, which has certainly not been known for heaping praise on SNP politicians’ policymaking, was somewhat complimentary about Mr Swinney on Monday.

Its compliments were not exactly lavish, but seemed highly notable nonetheless. The CBI’s comments seemed to go a fair way beyond the usual platitudes of an organisation congratulating a politician on their elevation and saying it looked forward to working with them etcetera.

Of course, compliments might disappear swiftly if the CBI does not like what it sees in the policymaking of Mr Swinney’s administration.

Tracy Black, CBI devolved nations ambassador, said on Monday: “We congratulate John Swinney on becoming the SNP’s new leader. Mr Swinney collaborated positively with business in his previous roles as deputy first minister and interim finance secretary and we look forward to working with him as First Minister.”

It was interesting to hear the CBI make plain its view that Mr Swinney had “collaborated positively with business”.

So far, so good then for Mr Swinney, it seems.

Last week, when having a conversation with a senior executive of a major Scottish company about political developments, he talked about how Mr Swinney had always been happy to engage with business, listen to its problems, and ask what could be done to fix these.

While we should not underestimate the scale of the task for Mr Swinney to win over a business community that has on the whole been somewhat displeased about the SNP in recent times, to say the least, these positive views of business leaders about his approach are surely a good starting point for him.

READ MORE: Ian McConnell: What on earth is the SNP’s big problem with business?

Ms Black went on quickly to spell out what she would like to see from Mr Swinney and his administration.

She said: “With the Scottish economy continuing to tread water, the new First Minister has no time to waste. We need to create a competitive and resilient economy that champions business and delivers opportunity for communities across Scotland.  “We look forward to re-engaging with Mr Swinney on measures to support improved productivity through innovation and technology, ensure our highly educated workforce contributes to sustainable economic growth and to encourage global investment and skilled employees into Scotland.”

These do sound in the main like the kind of things in which Mr Swinney will be interested.

Indeed, he highlighted in his speech on Monday that the economy would be a focus for him.

It is probably worth noting, in the context of Ms Black’s comment about the “Scottish economy continuing to tread water”, that the broader UK economy fell into technical recession last year. Scotland actually avoided this fate, although these things are a matter of fine margins.

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And it is worth observing that Mr Yousaf seemed interested in pursuing much of what is on Ms Black’s wish-list, yet ultimately failed to make significant progress in winning over the business community, with a further increase in the extra income tax burden for higher earners in Scotland among apparently unpopular measures.

The Scottish Tourism Alliance also had some positive things to say about Mr Swinney’s appointment on Monday.

The tourism industry body was pleased about the return to a senior role of Ms Forbes, who came across as a safe pair of hands in her former cabinet secretary for finance and the economy role.

The STA said it welcomed the election of Mr Swinney and his “renewed commitment to economic growth”.

Its chief executive, Marc Crothall, declared: “We also very much welcome Mr Swinney’s commitment to offer Kate Forbes a senior role in his Cabinet…Both have recognised the significant importance of a healthy, prosperous tourism and hospitality sector in Scotland and have consistently engaged openly and constructively with the STA to discuss the many challenges faced by our sector.”

There do, then, certainly look to be plenty of positives on which Mr Swinney can build.

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