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New FM offers truce with business

Nicola’s softly-softly approach to woo big beasts of the economy

Nicola SturgeonOnly weeks ago they were at each other’s throats as businesses large and small threatened to flee Scotland if the Yes campaign won its campaign for independence.

Today, the new First Minister who had hoped to be part of Scotland’s first government to break free of the United Kingdom, was making her peace with those who had opposed her and played their part in ensuring she was defeated.

The battles ahead include the familiar tussles that have scarred relations between businesses and her party, but Nicola Sturgeon may have brought a potent weapon to the negotiating table: a woman’s touch.

In her maiden public speech as First Minister, Ms Sturgeon chose as her target audience the big beasts of the Scottish business community, some of whom had made plans to leave the country if her fellow campaigners had been triumphant.

She could have faced a mauling, but with a deftness that may come to characterise her ability to win over her detractors she had them eating out of her hands. The message was simple: let’s work together.

“In the months ahead, I want us to focus less on what we disagree on and much more on finding the common ground between us,” she told the gathering of 70 senior figures. “All of us want to ensure that we have an economic engine able to succeed in the ever more competitive UK, European and global markets that we live in. Just like you, I want us to shoot up the league table of competitiveness.”

It was a message shorn of the pre-referendum fighting talk and instead laced with compromise, collaboration and mutual respect. It provided a starting point for a new partnership between business and a government that over the years has scared it almost to death and certainly to the point of packing its bags and leaving.

The cynical may claim that Ms Sturgeon had been forced into an embarrassing climbdown because she knows the government has to work with those in business if she is to achieve her economic goals. Others might point to a welcome dose of political humility. For once, here is a senior politician prepared to accept defeat and move on.

They may also be overlooking one other key ingredient: the part that feminine intuition and natural instincts may have played. This is not meant to sound patronising. Indeed, it commends the attributes that a woman can bring to negotiations that perhaps elude a man. Her language was gentle and reassuring, and her agenda is clearly that of a sensitive individual who wants a fair deal for everyone.

There have always been those who believe the world would be a calmer, less hostile place if women were in control with fewer wars and battles and less aggression generally, replaced by a more supportive and conciliatory environment in which a woman’s innate priority to care takes preference over a man’s false sense of pride and pursuit of victory.

It is not that women lack the will to win. Ms Sturgeon most definitely wants to succeed and will almost certainly show she is tough and determined whenever such qualities are required.

But there is a world of difference between winning and conquering. A man may want to trounce and humiliate his victim, a woman achieving the same goal would feel more sympathy and a desire to comfort the loser.

These qualities are evident in how Ms Sturgeon’s first key point yesterday not only urged business to share in the government’s quest for prosperity, it extended this to the “wellbeing of the community”. This was not trading room talk riddled with percentages and margins. Rather than market share and boosting the bottom line she spoke of “a shared national endeavour”, equality and cohesion.

Her first appointment outside the government was to the Council of Economic Advisers, part of the Cabinet’s inner circle. Yet it was not a senior figure from business, or even the economy. Sir Harry Burns was the Scottish Government’s Chief Medical Officer, and is now Professor of Global Public Health at Strathclyde University.

It gave another glimpse into Ms Sturgeon’s focus on the softer, social side of her economic slide rule. Burns will contribute to finding out how the nation’s workforce can be made fit for the tasks ahead in her belief that a healthier and more positive workforce is one that can be more productive.

Her list of to-do items includes the big serious stuff, such as boosting exports and launching a Scottish Business Development Bank to help get finance to growth firms, but it treads more deeply into the socio-economic agenda. The Living Wage is a big priority, followed by gender balance across the workplace; more help for female entrepreneurs and a significant focus on childcare.

She has urged companies to sign a Scottish Business pledge that will ‘invite’ – in other words incentivise – them to commit to social obligations which will earn them targeted assistance from the government and its agencies.

Ms Sturgeon has committed her government to backing business as long as it plays its part in this new entente cordiale. She has promised to promote Scottish products across the globe and to listen to their concerns.

“We will work with you to create a society where the benefits of economic growth are shared more equally; so that future economic growth is stronger as a result,” she said.

It is a clear pledge by government to play its own part in the New Deal, although it will be tested when business is presented with policies that it does not believe are either workable or in their real interests, whatever the First Minister may say.

She has also set herself a number of new challenges that extend beyond creating a happier workforce and getting more women in top jobs. She may have a sharp mind but she also needs to placate those among her otherwise faithful supporters who fear that she has sold their souls to the devil.

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