THE prescriptions for recovery suggested by the Hunter Foundation, and described by Sir Tom Hunter in today’s Herald, can be seen as reiterating the frustration that many in the commercial sector have expressed at the Scottish Government’s lack of understanding of, and engagement with, business.

It is, however, a less critical, more constructive and – perhaps surprisingly – a more optimistic set of priorities for action than that bald description might suggest. It is typical of entrepreneurs that they should see opportunities even when faced with constraints and unfavourable circumstances; it is considerably bolder to argue that the right measures to tackle the current crisis could potentially spark a second Scottish Enlightenment.

Politicians may regard ambition, or vision, as their preserve, and Sir Tom readily concedes that there are areas of government expertise and freedom to act of which business people are mostly ignorant. A plan for partnership that involves the public and private sectors each allowing the other to get on with what it can do best is not now a vaguely desirable aspiration, but an absolute necessity if we are to weather the damaging effects of the coronavirus and its economic impact.

The Higgins report, as Sir Tom argues, is long on recommendations and scant on the minutiae of how to implement them. The fact that essentially all job creation in the medium term will have to come from small to medium enterprises (SMEs) is a good argument for support of the sort public sector can offer, and that the Scottish Government is calling for from the UK Treasury.

Grants, loans, deferrals, development schemes and infrastructure investment are potentially useful government contributions; all but the most vocal advocates of “rolling back the state” would argue that the public sector is, with the current challenges, an essential component of recovery.

It is not, though, just a matter of money and support – which government may be best placed to provide, but will ultimately be paid for by the taxpayer. Just as much, and perhaps more, can be done by getting out of the way of business, by reducing regulations, easing planning and employment restrictions, and cutting the bureaucracy that hampers SMEs and leads to delays and overspends on so many public sector projects.

No one would fault the Scottish Government for having had other priorities until now, nor underestimate the challenges it has faced. But finding a way out may require a shift in thinking and priorities every bit as radical as those that had to be adopted to deal with the disease and to repurpose and restructure public institutions.

In economic spheres, the Government’s primary task is provide clarity in outlining its aims, to listen to business expertise and provide firms with material support and – at least as important – freedom to manoeuvre, and to accept that new approaches and greater partnership will be essential in rebuilding.

On several issues, including Prestwick, the commissioning of ferries, and large-scale infrastructure works, the Scottish Government would clearly have benefited from a closer engagement with business.

While that may have been an understandable omission in recent months, the coming challenges – averting huge job losses, reconstructing the tourism, hospitality and arts sectors, finding new education and training solutions, and encouraging firms to innovate – will demand a more flexible and supportive position. The First Minister’s acknowledgement that “we have to recognise [failure to engage with business] as real and address it” is a welcome step in that direction.

Our current travails will not be overcome by politicians, civil servants, government institutions, civic bodies or private businesses acting on their own, or continuing to operate as they have done in the past. If we want to see Scotland not just prevail over the coming challenges, but prosper and build a stronger economy, a civil society and a better country, we need new partnerships and priorities.