Q&A with Jack McConnell

One of Scotland's First Ministers talks about strengthening the economic and cultural ties between Canada and Scotland.

Given the historical ties between Canada and Scotland, it's a bit surprising that a top-ranking Scottish politician hadn't visited this country for six years — until Jack McConnell came trolling for Canadian investment and immigrants in late October. After all, the Scots are one of the four founding peoples of Canada, and there are some 4.5 million Canadians today who can claim Scottish ancestry. But Scotland has only had its own parliament since 1998, and even then it's a government with limited powers — notably in the areas of health, education and transportation. Given McConnell's recent trip to Canada and the U.S. to drum up support, he seems bent on flexing his Labour Party's muscle in foreign trade and relations, areas that are still controlled by No. 10 Downing Street. Senior Writer Andy Holloway of Canadian Business sat down with McConnell to find out what he's up to.

Canadian Business: What are you doing in Canada?

Jack McConnell: We're here primarily for two reasons. One is to establish political contact. We hadn't had a First Minister's visit from Scotland since devolution. We had a good day in Ottawa; my main interest there was to discuss Canadian immigration policy. We've got an aggressive and very proactive policy in Scotland of attracting fresh talent, partly because of traditional population decline, but also because of a philosophy of diversity, dynamism and enterprise, and we want Scotland to be that kind of country. We're doing it for values, as well as numbers.

Secondly, we're here to begin an engagement with the Scottish Diaspora, obviously welcoming any of them who would like to live in Scotland, but also to engage them as ambassadors for Scotland, modern Scotland. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of St. Andrews and Caledonia societies and other groupings around the world that celebrate Scots ancestry. We want all of those people and others to celebrate modern Scotland.

CB: What are you hoping to achieve?

JM: Our international activities have four main objectives: one is to increase business; the second is to increase the number of people who live and work in Scotland; and we also want to increase tourism and the number of people who study in Scotland.

CB: What specific industries are you targeting, if any?

JM: The key growth sectors are life sciences, financial services and energy, particularly renewable energy, with other sectors less obvious for inward investment such as tourism, food and drink, and our technology sector, which reinforces those other priorities. We already have a lot of North American, particularly U.S., companies that are active in Scotland, investing in Scotland and succeeding in Scotland. Sectors that are strong in Ontario, like life sciences, financial services and banking, are very strong in Scotland, so we believe there must be scope for increased collaboration.

CB: Given there are similar strengths, why wouldn't Canadians just reinvest here?

JM: The range of points that would be important factors for any Canadian company looking to invest in Scotland would be access to the European Union, access to our academic base and research capabilities in our universities, and the stability and strength of the U.K. economy as a base from which to grow employment. The key asset we have in Scotland is the knowledge, skills and talent of our people. We graduate more financial services graduates per head of population than any other OECD country. Half of our young people go into higher education, which is higher than anywhere else in the UK. We have [built up expertise in important sectors] to be passed onto younger people coming into those industries. And we're attracting fresh talent, which means we're bringing in among the best and brightest from elsewhere in the world into our universities, [who then] stay on in Scotland.

CB: What kind of investment or jobs are you looking for?

JM: We would welcome jobs at any level, but we are particularly interested in securing jobs higher up the value chain. If we're going to compete solely on the basis of cost, we're always going to be at a disadvantage to lower-wage, poorer-condition economies elsewhere. The place where we can succeed is when we're competing for jobs that involve a higher level of skills, graduate employment, a close association at the local level with a university or college, bringing in those employees, retraining them as well, and also where people are directly interested in research and development.

CB: What are you doing to change the image of Scotland?

JM: There are two features of Scotland from the past that we are determined to move on from. One is the reputation and reality of Scotland as an emigrant nation, probably seen most acutely here in Canada with the way the Scots have helped build this great country. But in the last two years we've seen the population of Scotland increase. The Fresh Talent initiative is designed to reverse that trend.

The other part of Scotland [we want to change] is the traditional image of Scotland from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, that I'm sure features heavily in Canadian promotions at the moment. As well as building on that traditional image, we're determined to promote contemporary modern Scotland, where there is an arts and cultural scene that is vibrant, modern and young, and our cities where there is a quality of life, and a quality in our education systems that is highly attractive to people. The same reasons people would want to live in Toronto are the same reasons people would want to live in Scottish cities.

CB: A lot of Scotland's strengths are Canada's strengths, too, so why would anyone pick up and move?

JM: That's true. This is a great country with a great quality of life and I wouldn't want to diminish that in any way. The Scots who have come here have made great lives for themselves. But some people will want to choose a more European location, or because of their affinity to Scotland or because of some aspect of Scottish life, that particularly attracts them.

CB: If you're successful, how are you going to pay for all these new people?

JM: We want people who come to make a contribution. It's the same challenge as here. People coming to Scotland, we hope, will be coming to make their own contribution and make us stronger.