THE SNP IS DISTRACTED. Not in the usual way, bumbling along in a minority government, losing the odd vote here and there in Holyrood. This time it is real distraction. Fever pitched, shrill-filled, freedom-shouting, flag-waving distraction. Its plans for an unwanted second independence referendum could not have been more poorly timed. There is neither the appetite for it in Scotland, nor the will to return to a lengthy debate on the constitution.
In the meantime, my Conservative colleagues and I in Holyrood remain vigilant in the job mandated to us by the Scottish people; that of trying to improve Scotland through good ideas and good governance. Holding the government to account. The Strong Opposition. This wasn’t just a campaign mantra. This is living, breathing accountability, there on a plate – being served up daily in the Chamber of the Scottish Parliament.
In addition to my role as an MSP for the West Scotland region, I also have the great privilege of being the Shadow Minister for the Digital Economy. Last week, I spoke at our 2017 Scottish Conservative Conference about my ambitions for the Scottish digital economy and the role it will play in creating future prosperity for Scotland.
Whilst the SNP talks about independence, I talk about innovation. Whilst they talk about Oil and Gas, I talk about an economy which will never run out of resource.
My background in the digital economy and tech sectors has shown me the many innovative ways that technology transforms the world. I fundamentally believe that the digital economy is of the utmost importance to Scotland. The digital economy is destined for stable long-term growth and its stability is reinforced by an abundance of competition and innovation. My ambition is to develop that infrastructure across Scotland. I’d like to lay out why this is important and how this we will make this possible.
For a long time, we’ve been saying that there is a real need to move away from the mentality that North Sea oil reserves can be the stable basis for a strong Scottish economy. Whilst profitable, it’s unstable returns cannot guarantee the foundations of a strong economy. This view is starting to become mainstream, even within the SNP. Last week, the SNP finally recognised that oil revenues were baked into the economic figures they had used to justify independence. Despite John Swinney’s cries of “it’s a bonus, it’s a bonus!” at FMQ’s – his theatrical performance answered no questions and gave no apology. Finally, they’ve accepted that they oil revenues can only ever be a bonus, not a basis, to Scotland’s economy. It’s about time this was called out for what it is.
Unlike North Sea oil, the digital economy is here to stay. Globally, the digital economy could add USD1.36 trillion to total global economic output by 2020. In the UK, there has been positive growth in the digital economy since 2010 and it is projected to continue for the coming years.
Within Scotland, 68 per cent of Scottish tech companies reported sales growth and 81 per cent were optimistic that they would see sales growth this coming year. The alignment of worldwide, UK-wide, and Scotland-wide trends seem to be decent indicators of opportunity in the digital economy.
The proof for the digital economy’s potential is right in front of your eyes… literally. The rapid accessibility of content like this very article on our computers, mobile phones, or tablets is a distinct change from how we used to experience the world. In a few years from now, who knows how it will have changed? I’m no psychic, but I’m willing to bet that technology will innovate upon itself and it will be through digital means that we continue to engage with the modern world.
But what’s most exciting to me is the broad scope of opportunity in the digital economy. Barriers to entry for developing new ideas are very low. A computer, an internet connection, and the will to innovate are the basic ingredients for cooking up the next Facebook or Amazon.
From those ingredients, the application of digital innovation is extremely broad. Very few markets are impervious to innovations in digital technology. Industries are constantly disrupted digitally and those original disruptors are then improved upon by new innovators. In the digital economy, the cycle of competition powered by innovation keeps it a robust and vibrant space.
But competition does not mean losers are out of the game when things don’t work out. Digital skills are relevant in the operations of businesses across the world. Digitally-skilled workers are far less vulnerable to redundancy in the modern world. I fundamentally believe that every business can make improvements through digital means. Digital skills, technologies, and businesses are relevant in all digitally connected markets; this opens Scottish business and employees up to opportunities around the world. Better yet, digital opportunity isn’t just reserved to the private sector. We are seeing major issues in education, healthcare, job training, and governance that can be met with digital solutions.
But it requires vision, and leadership. And I see none of that coming out of the SNP right now.
With all of these opportunities abound, is The Scottish Government doing enough? The facts indicate that the level of commitment to the digital economy has been sub-par. Deliberations on an update to the 2011 Scottish Government digital strategy occurred in November 2016, and a new report has been promised for early this year. I am hoping the report comes soon, but as of today no report has been released. Then again, we have a Scottish government which only ever talks about Brexit and Indyrefs. Not the digital economy, education standards, or attracting start-ups. It’s not surprising we haven’t heard anything yet, and it’s not surprising that the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland wrote to Derek Mackay in December 2016, outlining the many problems that still exist in Scotland’s digital sector.
To paraphrase what I said at the Scottish Conservative Conference in Glasgow, “I am the Shadow Minister for Digital Economy, but I shadow nobody.” The Digital Economy is an afterthought for SNP Ministers who in their roles are forced to prioritise other matters. The digital economy agenda is spread out amongst the portfolios of the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity, the Cabinet Secretary for the Economy, Jobs, and Fair Work, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, and the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Constitution.
There is no guarantee that digital education will be a top priority for the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills at the same time digital connectivity is a top priority for the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity. This uncertain commitment from its leadership makes it difficult to believe the SNP can commit to accomplishing real change.
There is a lot to be done to make Scotland a vibrant participant in the global digital economy. The Scottish Conservatives will lead the effort to make Scotland one if the SNP is unable to meet the task at hand.
I told the packed Tory conference in Glasgow (yes, Glasgow – you read me right) that it won’t be long before we are no longer a strong opposition, but a government in waiting. The sooner we get the Scottish Conservatives in government in Holyrood and Ruth Davidson as First Minister of Scotland – the sooner we can get on with creating a world leading digital economy which fits the needs of tomorrow’s world – not yesterday’s grievances.
Jamie Greene is a Scottish Conservative MSP for West Scotland and party spokesman for technology, connectivity, the digital economy and broadcasting.