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Senior Scottish business figure says Sunak ‘out of depth’, UK performance ‘dreadful’

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Senior Scottish business figure says Sunak ‘out of depth’, UK performance ‘dreadful’

However, while expressing his hope that Labour would win the 2026 Scottish Parliament election, he said he was “pleased” the SNP had “let go” its formal cooperation with the Scottish Greens, declaring his belief that this partnership had been a “colossal mistake”.

Mr Higgins voiced his opinion that “Brexit is the great tragedy of our times, to be honest” but, backing Labour’s stance on this issue, flagged his view that it would not be “practicable” to rejoin the European single market.

READ MORE: Ian McConnell: Touch of sadness as Scottish stalwart loses independence

He highlighted his belief that gross domestic product per head is the “best measure of our prosperity” and of “economic progression”, and highlighted very weak growth in this since the Conservatives came to power in 2010.

Mr Higgins, who noted he was making his comments in a personal capacity, said: “If you look at [UK] GDP [per head] over the last 14 years, it is up 11% [cumulatively].”

He observed that GDP per head had been up by “between 30% and 40%” in similar 14-year periods prior to that, going back to the 1960s.

Referring to the performance since 2010 in this context, he said: “That is by any measure dreadful.”

Mr Higgins added: “Rising prosperity can no longer be taken for granted. Eleven [per cent] – it is a big step down from where it was.”

He meanwhile took issue with an attempt by Mr Sunak in a recent television debate with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer to “point to a tax rise by a Labour government, whereas the Tory tax rise since 2019 has been colossal”.

READ MORE: Kate Forbes says economic growth crucial, sees Brexit ‘conspiracy of silence’

Asked about Labour’s stance on Brexit, Mr Higgins said he was “hopeful that Labour would make a concerted effort to strengthen relationships with the EU”.

He added: “I wouldn’t expect any attempt to reverse Brexit, sadly, and if it was possible I would do it.”

Asked if he would like to see Labour being more amenable to eventually rejoining the single market, Mr Higgins replied: “I don’t think it is practicable, to be honest. Let’s get our priorities right. Let’s not have big promises that are broken.”

Mr Higgins, a former chief executive of retail banking at Royal Bank of Scotland who also held high-level posts at Standard Life and HBOS and is now executive chairman of the Buccleuch Group, underlined his belief that “Scotland is going to matter disproportionately at this election”.

He added: “I think Scotland needs Labour and Labour needs Scotland. I am slightly anxious that that is fully understood by Scotland and Labour.

“I do think we will be best served by a strong majority in a Labour government. I think that is now looking very likely.”

He noted “Liz Truss’s 49 days” as prime minister “was enough…not to have the Tories back”, while also flagging the “dreadful” economic performance since 2010.

Mr Higgins highlighted a series of blunders from Mr Sunak, including his lack of an umbrella when announcing the General Election as well as a visit to the Titanic Quarter in Belfast which drew a sinking ship analogy, and declared: “He is a clever guy but he is out of his depth.”

The former banker added: “We need people who will get the job done. It is not a personality campaign, it is a competence campaign.”

He expressed his confidence in Sir Keir, who he noted “had a life before politics”, and, flagging his belief about the “importance of people having a hinterland”, added: “That is true of Anas [Sarwar, the Scottish Labour leader] as well.”

Mulling the challenges facing the next UK government, Mr Higgins said: “The elephant in the room is taxation and nobody really wants to talk about it. My view is someone is going to have to tackle the legacy issues. Someone is going to have to tackle the fact we are not in a strong finance, economic position. My view is Labour is best placed to do that.

“During the election campaign, some of these questions are dodged. They can’t be dodged once you are in power. I have more faith in Labour.”

Asked if he believed there had been any difference in the Scottish Government with the departure of the Scottish Greens, with this party’s formal cooperation with the SNP ending with the scrapping of the Bute House Agreement in the spring, Mr Higgins replied: “I think the coalition with the Greens was a colossal mistake.

“I have to say I am pleased the Scottish Government have let that go. They are going to have more degrees of freedom in what they do. I have a lot of respect for [First Minister] John Swinney and I think [Deputy First Minister] Kate Forbes is very able.”

READ MORE: Scottish income tax burden for higher earners ‘under review’

However, laying out his concerns over the Scottish Government, Mr Higgins added: “You have just got to watch ideology doesn’t trump substance at every turn and that is my fear.”

He voiced worries over Scotland’s greater tax burden for higher earners, relative to that in the rest of the UK.

Mr Higgins said: “I hear a lot of people who are higher-rate taxpayers saying they are going to relocate…I think it is very misguided on the higher taxation rate.”

Ms Forbes told The Herald in an exclusive interview this week that the greater income tax burden for higher earners in Scotland relative to the rest of the UK would be kept “under review”, taking into account “how easy it is for taxpayers to shift”.

However, Ms Forbes flagged figures from HM Revenue & Customs showing more people had come to Scotland from the rest of the UK than had moved in the opposite direction, against the backdrop of devolved income tax. And she highlighted the part “progressive” taxation played in funding the £26.70-a-week Scottish child payment for lower-income households north of the Border amid UK austerity.

Ms Forbes said: “I was…public finance minister when income tax was first devolved and I recall at the time us making it clear that we would follow the Adam Smith principles of taxation and one of the commitments that we made was to always keep the divergence under review to understand the behavioural impact because I want to be independent but we are devolved and that has implications for how easy it is for taxpayers to shift.”

Referring to Scotland, Mr Higgins claimed: “Across the board, on the broad issues of economy, education, health, we are either stalled or going backwards, and that is not good enough. I do hope that a Labour Westminster government would allow us to start turning the corner. I do hope Scotland comes out strongly in favour of Labour.”

Mr Higgins dismissed the suggestion that he was an SNP supporter because he had done work for the Scottish Government, noting he had undertaken this “for the country, not for the party and not for the cause”.

He was the architect of the Scottish National Investment Bank and chairman of the Scottish Government’s Advisory Group on Economic Recovery post Covid-19.

He said: “I have never supported the notion of independence. That ultimately refutes any notion I am SNP because I tried to help them [do] something.”

Mr Higgins, who was captain of Celtic’s youth team and noted he had grown up in the Prospecthill Circus tower blocks at Toryglen, added: “I have never been political in my life. I have always avoided tribalism with the one exception of my football team, which I was born into and I have stuck with it.”

He noted, however, that his maternal grandfather, Tommy Mulheron, stood for the Socialist Party of Great Britain in a general election. Mr Mulheron was known to his Socialist Party colleagues as “big Tony”.

Mr Higgins said: “He was a man of his time. A working-class, self-educated intellectual. That man gave me the greatest gift I ever received – an interest in literature and poetry.”

He declared that this interest, which led to an interest in the “broader cultural spectrum”, had been more important than his education at university, or his training as an actuary, or his life as a banker.

And Mr Higgins recalled “big Tony” wrote down for him a list of authors and books to read as his grandfather neared the end of his life.

Mr Higgins, who is chairman of the National Galleries of Scotland, said: “He died when I was 21. He was such a massive influence on me.”

He noted that it was “big Tony” who had introduced him to the poems of American Maya Angelou, with whom Mr Higgins had lunch in 2004.

While noting he had never been political, the former banker said: “I have always been a social democrat. I just don’t think unconstrained markets serve the broader community well. I do believe governments have to intervene to ensure we live in a fair society with social justice.”

Mr Higgins argued that “we have had a [Scotland] Office which has been political rather than good for the country”, under the Conservatives.

He said: “I think the country needs a strong [Scotland] Office.”

Asked if he had expected Labour to be so far ahead in the polls as it is at the moment, Mr Higgins replied: “I am actually surprised it is so commanding. I think, from the kick-off, I expected a Labour victory. I am surprised the gap is so big as it is. I don’t think three months ago I would have predicted this.”

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