AMID the miserable economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, the revelation that Scotland managed to buck broader UK and European trends by winning an increased number of foreign direct investment projects last year is undoubtedly a cause for celebration.

However, from observing the reactions of some people to Scotland’s fine showing in EY’s latest annual inward investment survey, it appeared the response was far from one of universal delight. The discontent over the figures seemed to come from the political rather than economic sphere.

It seems that so much these days in Scotland is viewed through a constitutional lens.

In the context of the EY survey, the findings certainly did not fit with dire warnings of immediate doom for the nation’s economy arising from uncertainty fuelled by reignition of the debate in Scotland over independence.

But anyone passionate about Scotland’s prosperity, whether they love or favour independence or the Union or indeed are less interested in constitutional matters, should welcome the EY survey findings. It is important to note that many on both sides and no side of the independence debate will have been encouraged by the figures, and hopefully those unable to welcome them seemingly because of entrenched political opinions are just a noisy minority.

It is crucial, if we are to have a reasoned debate over Scotland’s economic future, that there is a focus on the cold numbers, facts and realities, positive and negative, and that people can see things for what they are, however passionate their political beliefs.

In this context, it is worth lamenting briefly that for years now people have not been able to make rational, fact-backed observations on the impact of Brexit without a torrent of “whataboutery” over independence. This is frustrating, especially given the huge impact of Brexit not just on Scotland but on the whole of the UK and the need for the Johnson Government to take action to mitigate the widespread damage.

Amid the political clamour, it seems in the context of the EY survey that some doomsayers refuse to welcome strong foreign direct investment (FDI) figures for Scotland because they cannot extricate themselves long enough from the constitutional debate to even consider it is good for the economy, employment and living standards that the nation has done well on this front.

It is even more perplexing that they seemingly find themselves unable to do so given any good news on the economic front is particularly important right now, amid this awful pandemic and the very difficult fallout from it.

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Of course, from the perspective of overseas companies, while the Scottish independence debate will be on their radar, it will be one of many factors on their scorecard of pluses, minuses and neutrals for potential destinations for investment worldwide.

Furthermore, the weight they will give to the independence question, in whatever way they judge it, might not be as great as some believe, given the importance of other key factors such as a skilled workforce with expertise in key areas, a strong legal system, costs of setting up and operating, and so forth. The benefit to the talent pool from free university tuition for people in Scotland would seem likely to be an important factor now and in years to come.

Many overseas companies will likely also be well aware that there remains at this stage an impasse between Holyrood and Westminster over the question of whether there will be another independence referendum.

In any case, the EY survey is a heavyweight piece of work which is worthy of objective consideration, removed from the fierce political debate.

And its findings should put a spring in the step of anyone interested in Scotland’s place on the world stage, its economy, and living standards, regardless of whether they are for or against independence, or have no firm view.

This is because both the headline numbers and the detail behind them are highly encouraging, especially in the current climate. Some of the findings are also very good news in terms of the outlook for overseas investment in Scotland.

It is, for example, extremely heartening to see EY’s latest annual survey reveal Scotland’s attractiveness as a destination for overseas investment within the UK has risen to its highest-ever level.

Around 15 per cent of investors surveyed by EY said Scotland was the most attractive part of the UK in which to invest – up from 7% in 2019. In a UK context, this was behind only London, rated by 25% as most attractive.

This greatly enhanced view of Scotland’s attractiveness is hopefully good news for the nation’s inward investment prospects in coming years and decades.

EY’s 2021 attractiveness survey shows Scotland secured 107 FDI projects last year, up 6% from 101 in 2019.

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In contrast, the number of FDI projects won by the UK as a whole fell by 12%, from 1,109 to 975. And the number of FDI projects won across Europe declined by 13%, from 6,412 to 5,578.

EY noted the rise in FDI projects into Scotland “within a shrinking UK marketplace” saw the nation’s share of all UK projects increase from 9.1% in 2019 to 11% in 2020. The firm said this proportion had been exceeded only once in the past decade, in 2015. And Scotland in a UK context has secured the second-highest number of overseas-backed projects – after London – in every year since 2014. This is an impressive track record indeed.

EY flagged issues with “less consistent” data on employment for each FDI project. So it has focused on the number of projects.

However, the employment figures that it did publish for Scottish FDI projects are solid enough in the context of the last decade. It should also be borne in mind that, in the 1990s, there was rightly criticism of an excessive focus on job volumes and of too little attention being paid to the quality of employment from inward investment. That is not to say the number of jobs is not important, but it is crucial to bear in mind that high-value-added employment is vital in the building of a prosperous, knowledge-based economy.

And, in this regard, the sectors in which Scotland won FDI projects last year would appear to provide much room for encouragement.

EY, while emphasising the caveats around the employment numbers, said available figures indicate Scottish jobs generated by FDI projects in 2020 was 4,499, “slightly below a decade-long average of 4,650 jobs a year”. Scotland’s total share of employment generated by FDI in the UK was16.1% in 2020 – its third-highest over the last 10 years.

Other points of detail in the EY survey added to the strong overall FDI picture for Scotland.

Amid the constitutional debate, it seems like a long time ago that the deliberations over the strength or otherwise of inward investment revolved around the performance of the taxpayer-backed agency with responsibility for helping win projects, known in decades gone by as Locate in Scotland and now Scottish Development International. However, the EY findings would suggest SDI has continued to put in a very solid performance on the foreign direct investment front.

The number of new projects in Scotland, as opposed to reinvestments, bounced back in 2020 to its highest in five years, totalling 61, after three straight years of decline.

EY noted this performance had ensured Scotland increased its share of all new projects coming into the UK from 5.9% in 2019 to 8.4% in 2020.

Digital technology and agri-food were the main sources of FDI projects won by Scotland in 2020, followed by business services, oil and gas, and utility supply. This looks like a good mix.

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The US remained the single-biggest originator of FDI projects into Scotland, accounting for 35.5% of projects or 38 in total. Ireland was the second-top source of FDI into Scotland last year, with 10 projects. It was followed by the Netherlands, with eight, highlighting the importance of European Union-based investors to the Scottish economy and the necessity of trying to ensure to the maximum extent possible that the flow of projects from this powerful bloc is not damaged by Brexit.

Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen were all ranked in the UK’s top 10 cities for FDI projects outside London, with the Scottish capital placed first.

In these gloomiest of times, the EY survey shines a most encouraging spotlight on Scotland’s advantages on the global stage. And this should be a cause for applause, not jeering.