It is a pleasure to speak here today. The Institute of Directors has demonstrated, over many years, an unswerving commitment to improving the quality of business leadership in Scotland and across the UK.
300 people a year in Scotland currently use your director development courses. You work closely with the Scottish Government to increase the number of women on public and private sector boards. And you will be an important member of Scotland's Post-Referendum Business Network. That's the new forum which we are establishing, so that the Scottish and UK Governments can understand – and act on – the concerns and priorities of business following the EU referendum.
Scotland as the best place in UK to do business
Now, as you might expect, I'm going to focus this morning on the implications of the EU referendum for Scotland. I'm going to make the case that – notwithstanding the outcome of the referendum – remaining a member of the single market, as well as being democratically defensible, will be crucial to businesses and communities in Scotland and across the UK as well.
Now I want to begin by putting that argument in context. Over the last nine years, the Government that I now lead has consistently strived to make Scotland the best place in the UK to do business.
One of the first actions we took in 2007 – in response to concerns from business – was to create the small business bonus scheme. As a result, almost 100,000 small business premises across our country now pay zero or reduced rates. That policy has been such a success that it is being emulated by the UK government next year.
In 2011, we retained our enterprise agencies at a time when regional development agencies in England were being abolished. We've supported key economic sectors such as food and drink, energy, financial services and creative industries. And we are investing in education, expanding childcare, in skills, transport links and expanding broadband provision.
We're also working with businesses to create a change in our culture – we want Scotland to become an entrepreneurial nation. That involves everything from promoting entrepreneurship in schools, to directly encouraging start-ups, to producing the European Union's only framework for women in enterprise.
We still have much more to do – and of course our growth has been hit by difficulties in the oil and gas sector in the last two years. But we have also achieved significant successes. The number of registered businesses in Scotland is at record levels. Unemployment in Scotland is again lower than in the rest of the UK. We are consistently outperforming every part of the UK except London when it comes to attracting inward investment. While there's more work to do to match comparable countries, Scotland's productivity has grown since 2007, while the UK's has stagnated.
So we are determined to work each and every day with business to build an economy based on exports, innovation, high skills, and increased productivity. And so the trade benefits – and the social protections – of single market membership are an integral part of our vision for Scotland's economy.
There's one other aspect of our economic approach which I think is worth highlighting. In everything we do, we put a strong emphasis on inclusive growth. We believe – in line with the World Bank and many other experts – that growth will be stronger and more sustainable if it is broadly based.
We therefore see many of our social policies – for example tackling poverty, improving childcare and boosting educational attainment – as having a strong economic justification.
And we also see business as a partner in delivering social progress.
I know that Simon [Walker, Director General of the IoD] often talks about the Royal Charter of the Institute of Directors. It was granted in 1906, but remains relevant today. It pledges 'to promote, for the public benefit, high levels of skill, knowledge, competence and integrity on the part of directors.' The reference to the public benefit is crucial – it acknowledges that businesses are part of wider society; your fortunes are tied to the wellbeing of your communities, customers and employees.
We are fortunate in Scotland that so many of our leading companies – as well as being innovative, dynamic, ambitious and successful – already recognise this.
There are now almost 600 accredited living wage employers in Scotland. That's up from 70 just two years ago. Next week, we publish a strategy for a fairer Scotland which includes pledges from a number of major employers. We are working with business to create a society where the benefits of economic growth are shared more equally, so that future economic growth is stronger and more sustainable.
I'm emphasising this point because I think the EU referendum shows that it is more important than ever.
I'm very proud of the fact that Scotland voted so strongly to remain in the European Union. But I can't ignore the fact that even in Scotland, a million people voted to leave. They did not think that that the European Union benefited them – they did not see advantages from free trade and free movement.
That feeling was even more prevalent in other parts of the UK. There are many, many causes of the vote to leave the EU. For many people, they will have included entirely reasonable doubts and reservations about the EU. It is, after all, an imperfect organisation facing a number of challenges.
But in part, Brexit was a product of a sense of disenfranchisement and disillusionment. It was borne of inequality, of feelings of powerlessness – of austerity budgets which hurt the public services and social safety nets that so many people rely on.
And so one consequence of the referendum must be a new effort – which needs to be given real substance in the UK Government's autumn statement – to ensure that the benefits of growth, of globalisation, are more fairly distributed. The UK Government has suffered one of its most significant policy reversals in generations – there can be no doubt about that – so it can no longer ignore the social and economic cost of inequality or the impact of its austerity economics on individuals and communities.
Scottish Government's response to EU referendum
Now, as all of you know, the outcome of the EU referendum was not one which I sought, and it is not one for which people in Scotland voted.
We believe that EU membership makes it easier to export goods and services, to attract talented migrants and to benefit from inward investment.
And in many ways, EU membership is now part of Scotland's sense of itself. We see ourselves as an open, internationalist country. We value the contribution made by EU citizens across Scotland. We like the fundamental principle behind the European Union – of independent nations co-operating for a common good.
So Scotland is in a situation which is not of our making. But it is a situation which we will seek to deal with as constructively and as positively as possible.
In doing that, my guiding priority is to reflect and protect the interests of the people of Scotland.
As part of this, I have made it clear that a referendum on Scottish independence remains an option. If the approach taken by the Westminster government proves to be seriously damaging to our economy, our competitiveness and our place in the world, and if independence is the only way of protecting our interests, then it stands to reason that it is an option we must have the ability to consider.
But as I said the morning after the referendum, independence is not my starting point in this process. My starting point is to do everything I can to retain the benefits of EU membership, and to preserve as best I can, Scotland's relationship with Europe.
I have established a Standing Committee on Europe. It is investigating distinctive solutions for Scotland, which preserve the benefits of EU membership. We are looking to see if there are ways in which – for example – the benefits of single market membership could be retained by Scotland even if they are discarded by the rest of the UK.
That won't be straightforward. But nothing about Brexit is straightforward, therefore we need to think creatively and negotiate constructively. In these circumstances, no option can be off the table for Scotland.
The other key objective of the Scottish Government is to exert as much influence as possible on the UK Government's eventual negotiating position.
In doing that – and I'm trying to be tactful here – it would be helpful to know more about the UK Government's current thinking. As a first step, I think we would all benefit from some clarity.
However we do know from the Prime Minister that she will not invoke Article 50 until a 'UK approach' to negotiations has been agreed. So that gives the ability to seek to exert some influence.
I have a very clear view of the UK approach that I would like to see. I believe that the UK should seek to retain full membership of the single market.
We know that some parts of that – retaining freedom of movement – would not satisfy everyone. Although immigration brings significant economic benefits, those benefits aren't felt by everyone. So it will become even more important to ensure that the economy works more effectively for people who are currently unemployed, or on low wages.
But I believe there is a strong democratic justification for retaining our single market membership. 48% of the electorate voted to remain in the EU. So did two of the four nations of the UK.
And of course people who voted to leave were repeatedly told that leaving the EU did not necessarily mean leaving the single market. So I don't believe there is a clear mandate for what is generally known as a hard Brexit. Single market membership seems to me to be the obvious consensus position that we shoul try to work towards.
And that in my view would be the least damaging outcome for individuals, communities and businesses across the whole of the UK.
That view, which will be articulated by the Scottish Government, is one that will command the support of a majority of businesses in Scotland, and I'm sure further afield.
Many of us look at the political debate in America now – where one candidate is talking about imposing significant tariffs on imported goods – and we criticise that debate. So it seems almost unbelievable that we're now in a position where barriers and tariffs with our nearest neighbours could become part of daily business life.
We only have to read the quite extraordinary memorandum from the Government of Japan that tells us what the implications would be, to employment, to business and to inward investment, of a hard Brexit that takes us not just out of the EU but out of the single market.
Of course I think those consequences would go further. Just last week the Times Educational Supplement's annual report showed that Scotland has more top class universities per head of population, than any country in the world except for Luxembourg. A hard Brexit would disadvantage our universities and put that competitiveness at risk as well.
I don't believe we should simply accept the inveitablility of a hard brexit. I want to work with those of like mind across the UK to try to esnure we take a course of action that will deliver the least damage to our economy and our interests.
I began this speech by setting out how much the Scottish Government values its partnership with the IoD and with business more generally. For nine years now, we have worked with you to encourage sustainable growth and to boost prosperity in all parts of Scotland. And throughout that time, EU membership has been part, not just of our economic strategy, but of our wider vision of Scottish society.
So I deeply regret the outcome of the EU referendum. But I do not want the UK Government to compound the mistakes of the EU referendum and end in a much harder position that we need to.
So I look forward to making common cause with many businesses and voices across the UK. We will seek to work with others of like mind because in doing so, we will be working in the interests of individuals, businesses and communities – not just in Scotland, but across all the nations of these islands.
Email: SG Communications