Brian Wilson: Start spreading the news, not hype

Tartan Week in New York has run its course, but the First Minister continues to pump it for political gain, writes Brian Wilson
Alex Salmond:Trade mission to America. Picture: GettyAlex Salmond:Trade mission to America. Picture: Getty
Alex Salmond:Trade mission to America. Picture: Getty

This is coming to you from New York where lots of Scottish things will be happening over the next few days. Some of them are best avoided but others will represent a quality showcase for our exports and creative talents.

I am here primarily to wear my Harris Tweed Hebrides hat (or bunnet) at a few promotional events. Until the 1980s, this was the destination for about 90 per cent of all the Harris Tweed produced. Then the industry managed to cut its own throat through price-cutting and never quite got the market back. But we’re working on it.

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Tartan Week has struggled on for more than a decade, scarcely noticed in New York, but generating acres of domestic publicity for Holyrood politicians who have made it a firm fixture in the junket calendar.

This year, unsurprisingly, is no exception and the First Minister will use his own presence as a drum-beating exercise for Scottish independence, aimed entirely at the audience back home. It does seem a pity that everything Scotland has been doing for years now has to be lumped into the independence debate, invariably at taxpayers’ expense.

I see we are also promised announcements about “hundreds of jobs” and booming exports. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. The civil servants deputed to cobble together “good news” for such occasions would soon find themselves working for the Northern Lighthouse Board if they didn’t deliver something, even if it proves to be speculative or even cauld kail rehet.

There are, we are told, 580 US companies with a presence in Scotland representing 98,000 jobs. That does not seem like a bad tribute to what has been achieved as part of the UK. What we are unlikely to be reminded of by the First Minister is that the prerequisites for most of them being in Scotland are that we are part of (a) the United Kingdom market and (b) the EU market.

So be careful to protect all of that. Our place within the UK and the EU represent a far better offer than promoting a Dutch auction on corporation tax, which is the rather unoriginal Nationalist alternative for attracting inward investment. In fact, it is difficult to think of a worse offer to inward investors than secession from the UK and, at best, years of uncertainty on the EU, which is presumably why so little of it is happening.

The United States is our biggest overseas export market and with Scotch whisky accounting for almost a quarter of the total. Again, it is important to keep things in perspective rather than accept glowing statistics without context on how much smoked salmon we sell to Arkansas, welcome though that is.

At present, the United Kingdom is not counted an export market because it is not a foreign state. But Scotland sells twice as much to the rest of the UK as it does to the rest of the world. And if we assume that our sales to the rest of the UK are spread evenly, Yorkshire is worth more to us as an export market than the entire USA. A five-day trip by the First Minister to Leeds may not offer the same je ne sais quoi.

So by all means, try to sell more Scottish products in the United States. That is what I am here for too. But how crazy would it be, at the same time, to create an international border between ourselves and what is by a very long distance our biggest market – the rest of the United Kingdom. And not just turn a thriving domestic market into a destination for “foreign exports” but also make our current partners into competitors.

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Yesterday, I attended an event at the UK Consulate General in New York, an excellent facility with a highly professional trade effort which is fully at the disposal of the Scottish Government and Scottish businesses. That is replicated throughout the world. Two years from now, these people could be our biggest competitors instead of falling over themselves to help Scottish businesses, as they currently are.

That case is supported by all our biggest export sectors – whisky, financial services, oil and gas, engineering – and the possibility that these people know what they are talking about should not be discounted amidst the bluster of the referendum debate. The whole point of exporting to the world is to create and sustain jobs at home. That is the critical test to be applied.

The one Tartan Week set-piece which could be relied on to attract A-list support and obtain huge levels of publicity beyond Scotland was Dressed to Kilt, an eclectic fashion show which is no longer with us. Even it had run its course. There is a limit to the number of recognisable people who can be persuaded to proceed down a catwalk swathed in tartan.

One excellent new piece of Scottish enterprise in New York is the opening of a campus in the über-fashionable SoHo district by Glasgow Caledonian University. It will major on fashion and other creative industries, building on a successful equivalent venture in London. This will be the venue for a celebration of Harris Tweed in which we will be joined by Brooks Brothers, the venerable New York store which has been buying the stuff since the 1930s.

In the early days of Tartan Week, its main political sponsor in the US was Senator Trent Lott who was much fêted in certain circles as a great son of Scotland. It is true that he was associated with a certain strain in our diaspora’s contribution to the world and particularly to the southern states of America. Unfortunately, that strain is called racism.

In 2003, he was forced to stand down as Senate Majority Leader after heaping praise on Strom Thurmond, the hero of the segregationist movement. Lott also regarded homosexuality as “a sin” on a par with “alcoholism and kleptomania”. He is now a lobbyist in Washington and no longer features in dispatches about Scotland’s contribution to American history. For that at least we can be thankful.

Of course, there is Scottish life in New York beyond Tartan Week. By the time you read this, I hope to be ensconced in the Parlour Bar on West 86th Street to watch Celtic playing Dundee United. Lunch-time kick-offs were not introduced with five-hour time differences in mind.