By Ivan McKee

A STRONG economy is essential to tackle poverty and fund strong public services, and without business there is no economy.

The Scottish Government’s economic strategy recognises this, with its focus on supporting more Scottish businesses to start, to grow and to be successful.

Yet a narrative has taken hold in recent years that the Scottish Government doesn’t ‘get’ business. How much substance is there to that, and if the charge is legitimate then what can be done about it ?

The business community of course is wide, varied and doesn’t speak with one voice. There are more than 330,000 businesses in Scotland.

The vast majority are micro-businesses with less than 10 employees, while the largest businesses account for the bulk of employment and business turnover in the economy. Both are important, indeed neither could exist without the other.

The perspective, and interests, of a small hotel owner in the Highlands are different from a tech start-up in Edinburgh, a medium-sized manufacturer in Aberdeen or a large international financial services firm in Glasgow.

And even on some of the most contentious issues on the current business agenda there are different views, with many large producers broadly in favour, for example, of the much maligned deposit return scheme while the vast majority of smaller producers and retailers have serious concerns about the proposals.

Objectively there is no shortage of government engagement with business. Ministers meet regularly with the main business organisations and directly with literally hundreds of individual businesses through a variety of other forums – industry leadership groups, roundtables and visits.

Access to ministers is easier in Scotland than in most countries. But while engagement isn’t the same as agreement, it does need to be meaningful, with the ability to impact policy. Businesses need to feel they are being listened to, and not just being used as a prop for a photocall.

This starts at the top. The First Minister rightly carries a lot of weight in this regard. Other ministers can engage and listen, but businesses need to know that the decision maker is on board. And sentiment matters.

While business has a reputation for a hard-headed, numbers-driven approach when it gets right down to it, much business decision making is driven by ‘feel’.

People buy from people. Do you trust that supplier? Do you feel good about that new market opportunity? Do you have confidence that government gets it and will have your back when the going gets tough, as it invariably does as the economy works it way through the ups and downs of business cycles?

Having lived experience helps. The scars of having had to make payroll at the end of the month, or sweating over whether to bet the firm on investing in a new opportunity gives an ability to understand what matters to business at a deeper level, and to communicate in a way that resonates.

Sure, businesses don’t expect politicians to be experts, but being able to have empathy beyond soundbites really helps. A government without any business experience in its ranks starts off at a disadvantage.

Businesses need clarity and consistency in policy, a strong skills pipeline and government help to unlock opportunities and where possible to mitigate cost spikes. Not doing things that make life unnecessarily difficult also helps.

Much of the regulation that impacts businesses starts life with good intentions elsewhere in government - in health, housing or environment.

Too often proposals come rolling downhill to the business brief, written in language that doesn’t talk to business and containing proposals that don’t chime with reality, setting the conversation off on the wrong foot. Getting business into the loop early is critical.

The cumulative impact of multiple new regulations matters. Making changes – to physical process or IT systems – to comply with regulation changes can be time-consuming and expensive. A cohesive and coordinated approach within government itself goes a long way to building trust with businesses.

Despite the hard work of many the perception persists that government needs to reset its relationship with business. I know the First Minister understands that. The problem is that once that narrative takes root it is difficult to shake it off.

Ivan McKee is an MSP and former Minister for Business, Trade, Tourism and Enterprise