Maurice Smith: What exactly is Scottish Enterprise spending so much money on?

Former BBC Scotland business editor turned documentary producer Maurice Smith explores why Scotland's coverage of industry and economics is below par

THE chief executive of Scottish Enterprise stands down from her role this summer, with the usual fine words of ministerial gratitude and precious little explanation for the move.

We know Lena Wilson best for occasional interviews about her high flying public sector career, and the fact that she is Scotland’s highest paid public servant. After eight years in the job, the remarkable thing is that we know so little about her.

It was not always so. Scottish Enterprise was created in 1991 as the Tory-inspired merger of the Scottish Development Agency with what was then the Training Agency’s operations in Scotland. The idea – formulated by CBI chairman Bill Hughes – was to create a one-stop shop for training and economic development. 

In two decades of devolution we have had no real debate about the Scottish economy.

It also just happened to kill off the interventionist SDA, a Labour creation which had been in the sights of many Tories throughout the Thatcher years.

Scottish Enterprise during the 1990s was an imperfect organisation which nevertheless did good things. It engaged the business sector more effectively. Its chief executive, Crawford Beveridge, initiated open inquiries into Scotland’s weak business birth-rate and the commercialisation of academic research; two very worthy subjects which were propelled up the business agenda as a result.

I was reminded of all this when I read Ben Wray’s thought provoking piece about Scottish economic policy. One line jumped out: "The Scottish media and political commentary circuit contains little dynamism on economics, and thus rarely probe further or ask deeper questions of our politicians."

Wray has a point, and I find its implications depressing. In two decades of devolution we have had no real debate about the Scottish economy. Beveridge’s return to Silicon Valley coincided with devolution, and also a time when Scottish journalism came to be dominated by political coverage rather than business and economics.

During the 1990s, I was BBC Scotland’s business editor. Every major media organisation included specialists covering economics and industry. This ranged from the Daily Record and STV to The Herald, Scotsman and elsewhere.

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Scottish Enterprise was under regular scrutiny from senior journalists like Alf Young and several others. The Scottish Office was only too well aware of that scrutiny and Secretaries of State including Malcolm Rifkind, Ian Lang and Michael Forsyth were sensitive to criticism. There was even an ill-fated attempt at a daily paper, Business AM, covering Scottish business, between 2000 and 2002.

So what happened? One obvious explanation is the decline of specialised journalism in Scotland. With the exception of individual journalists covering business news, few media organisations have dedicated industrial desks.

Coverage in some outlets – not all – relies far too heavily on PR handouts and specious 'surveys' that really shouldn’t enjoy the light of day.

So why have we stopped scrutinising bodies like Scottish Enterprise? It spends hundreds of millions of pounds on a range of programmes aimed at, well, what exactly? If it is successful, why is the government now planning a separate agency for the Borders? Why did it first propose a unitary board for all the enterprise quangos, and then back down? 

Beyond spending annual budgets – and this year those budgets were cut – and implementing "priorities", what does it do, and is it what we want it to do?

This could be the perfect time for a public debate about what we actually expect Scottish Enterprise to do over a range of issues such as business start-ups, export development, Brexit, and business infrastructure.

Politicians are far more comfortable debating health, education and other public services. Few of them are comfortable with economics or business. The constitutional axis pivots debate along a narrow political narrative. Beyond the prism of trench warfare politics we rarely discuss rationally the performance and purpose of organisations over whom the Scottish Parliament has direct control.

The last attempt at a real debate about the Scottish economy was during 2003-4 when then-MSP Wendy Alexander organised The Allander Series, commissioning senior economists to examine aspects of the economy. Labour was uncomfortable with it because Alexander wasn’t flavour of the month with the leadership, and the SNP virtually ignored it because she was a Labour politician.

It has surprised me that the SNP has barely intervened in the direction of the enterprise quangos since taking power a decade ago.

The Scottish Parliament and Government may have limited influence over the economy, but they are not insignificant. Bodies like Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Skills Development Scotland and the Scottish Funding Council spend hundreds of millions a year from the Scottish budget.

As a replacement is found for Lena Wilson, this could be the perfect time for a public debate about what we actually expect Scottish Enterprise to do over a range of issues such as business start-ups, export development, Brexit, and business infrastructure.

And yes, it would be good for the media to start taking a closer look at what goes on there, too.

Maurice Smith is a TV documentary producer and freelance journalist. He was business editor of BBC Scotland from 1989-99.

Picture courtesy of Tuncay

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