Q&A: Keith Brown, Cabinet Secretary for the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work
"I think the most important skill, either as an MSP or as a cabinet secretary, is the ability to listen"
How does it feel going in to see the FM amid a reshuffle?
Keith Brown: It’s exciting! Inevitably, there is some media speculation in the build-up to the appointment of a new cabinet or reshuffle. If you are fortunate enough to get the call to see the FM then you still have no idea of what, if anything, you will be asked to do. It is a great honour to be asked, not least as you have usually just been through an exciting and successful election.
How different is this role from your last one?
KB: In some ways there are quite a few similarities between my last role and this job. For example, I am still overseeing the massive infrastructure investment going on across Scotland. That is the huge programme we have for building our schools, hospitals, roads and bridges. But my new job also includes the much wider economy portfolio. So I am devoting a very substantial part of my time to this government’s efforts to make Scotland as competitive as it can be, and a really great place to do business. I have also retained responsibility for veterans’ policy – something which is personally important for me and, as it turns out, very enjoyable.
You have held a number of different ministerial and cabinet roles, how do you get up to speed on a new area?
KB: In the same way as anyone taking up a new job, with a lot of hard work. I also read a great deal and look for advice and support from officials at the Scottish Government. I also think it is equally, if not more important, to get out there and meet people. In my role that’s the business people who are the engine room of our economy. Without them, and without listening to them, we wouldn’t have much chance of reaching our goal of supporting growth and protecting and creating jobs.
What portfolio would you have least liked?
KB: They all come with their own individual challenges, and I am just happy to be part of a cabinet working hard to make a difference for the people of Scotland.
Do you think you have made a difference to Scotland in your time in government?
KB: I certainly hope so. While there is always more to do, I think we have taken really substantial strides forward. I think our national infrastructure is substantially improving – whether that is the transport system or the many new schools and hospitals that have been built. You only need to look at the new Southern Glasgow Hospital – which is a superb building, or the progress we have made on the Queensferry Crossing to get an idea of the difference that makes. We also should not forget that the first passenger trains in almost half a century are now operating between Edinburgh and the Scottish Borders. The Borders Railway is the longest domestic line to be built in the UK in over 100 years and was delivered on time and on budget. There are now so many more possibilities for people in the Borders and Midlothian – access to new work, learning and social opportunities, as well as new business and industry links.
Not only are these great projects in themselves, but they also create and support jobs, which helps stimulate growth across our economy. I also hope that as veterans’ minister, our polices are helping to make lives better for those people who have served Scotland with distinction and courage.
What skills do you think you bring to this brief?
KB: I think the most important skill, either as an MSP or as a cabinet secretary, is the ability to listen. Being able to empathise is very important. Coming up with solutions, resolving different issues is key. That is, really, the stuff of governing. It can be difficult at times as it tends to be those things that cannot readily be resolved without ministerial intervention that you will be involved in and it happens every day.
What are the major challenges you face?
KB: Obviously, it is hard to look beyond the impact the EU referendum may have on Scotland’s economy. That is why, since the vote, I have engaged extensively with the business community, to emphasise that we are still firmly in the EU, and as the First Minister has made clear, we are absolutely committed to Scotland maintaining its place in Europe, in line with the referendum result here, which saw a vote to remain by a clear 24-point margin. And it is also why we have announced a £100 million stimulus package and new support and advice for business.
But even without the vote, my main challenge was to maintain the Scottish Government’s absolute focus on making Scotland as competitive a place to do business as we possibly can, in particular, creating and supporting jobs.
There are a lot of jobs being lost in the oil industry, how do you intend to help fill that gap?
KB: I have been clear that our oil and gas industry can have a bright future, despite the current challenges. Our first focus is absolutely on supporting the industry and doing all we can to help companies continue to invest in the North Sea. That is why, over this year, £12.5m will be made available for oil and gas innovation and further business support, including £10m of Scottish Enterprise funding to help firms reduce risks associated with carrying out research and development and improve access to specialist experts to help kick-start innovation.
But we are also investing £12m in a Transition Training Fund, which is helping to maintain our highly skilled energy workforce by offering grants to individuals to support their redeployment through retraining or further education.
Do you think it is right to link economic growth to plugging the inequalities gap and does your portfolio encompass that?
KB: There is no doubt that it is right to link economic growth with tackling inequalities. In fact, I would argue that the two can and must be mutually supportive. By tackling inequality, we can ensure more people actively contribute to our economy and reach their full potential. On this basis, tackling inequality is something that will be at the heart of what we do on the economy. But of course, we’ll need to keep working across government on this agenda, and we are determined to do all we can throughout our policies to narrow inequality in Scottish society.
How did you feel about the Brexit vote and what will it mean for your portfolio?
KB: Like many Scots, I passionately believed staying in the EU was best for our country, our future and our economy. That is why we are acting as I set out in an earlier answer, and why we are determined to explore all avenues to maintain our EU status.
What’s the worst/best job you have ever had?
KB: I’ve never really had a job I hated. The best job has been as the MSP for my local area. When I graduated, and before going to work in an office environment, I worked in a warehouse and lugged boxes all over the country. It was tiring in a different way but relatively stress free and enjoyable.
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