Sturgeon lacks empathy for small business owners

I can recall my first trip to the cinema as though I was holding the ticket stub in front of me: My Girl 2. Summer 1994. The Odeon at the Parkhead Forge. It wasn’t a great movie – really a weak retread of the original designed to rake in more box office cash – but the experience sparked a lifelong affection for the flicks.

A cinema is more than an auditorium and overpriced popcorn. Each is a dream factory where young (and not-so-young) minds are exposed to the thrilling possibilities of art and life in 90 minutes of suspended disbelief.

Whether you first toddled along, jam jar tucked under your arm, to marvel at Roy Rogers riding Trigger into battle, or queued amid a fog of hairspray and hormones to trill along to Grease, or were taken to the multiplex by your parents to ogle in wonder at the magic of Harry Potter, you too may have been hooked by the fantasy that life could be as bright and bold as those images on screen.

For true cinephiles, the habit is hard to break. The cinema-goer is caught, in the words of French critic Roland Barthes, in a ‘twilight reverie’ which ‘leads him from street to street, from poster to poster, finally burying himself in a dim, anonymous, indifferent cube where that festival of affects known as a film will be presented’.

That reverie has been rudely awakened by coronavirus and the measures taken to slow its spread.

Last week, Boris Johnson urged us to visit our local cinema but not before Cineworld, which employs 5,500 Britons, announced the temporary closure of its 127 UK branches, or before Odeon announced it would be opening weekends-only at some locations.

Movie theatres have been left with less product than usual thanks to Covid-19’s impact on filming, and the decision to postpone the next Bond film, No Time To Die, until 2021 has not helped.

But Cineworld and Odeon are experiencing the same uncertainty affecting much smaller firms across the economy. While it’s welcome to hear the Prime Minister encourage support for cinemas, it does sound like the person who unlocked the gate in the first place trying to refasten it after the departure of the horse.

The frequency with which rules and guidance have changed, and the general alarm that restrictions and rhetoric have fostered, have meant all the expensive refits to make cinemas safe have been a waste of money.

Other firms don’t have such deep pockets, and the haphazard execution of lockdown on either side of the border has left some questioning whether their shop or restaurant or supply business can survive much longer.

Yes, there has been help. Chancellor Rishi Sunak stepped up with the job retention scheme, job support subsidies and Eat Out to Help Out. The Scottish Government has offered assistance such as the Covid-19 restrictions fund.

Just as this pandemic has shown the good that government can do, it has also reminded us of its tendency towards bureaucracy, arrogance and incompetence. Nicola Sturgeon has been a particular offender in this regard, demonstrating her unfamiliarity with small businesses and hospitality outlets and the complexities involved in running them. Restrictions continue to be imposed in a seemingly ad hoc manner and with scant notice, if any.

The cafe debacle is a case in point. A 16-day shutdown of licensed premises is a policy choice with far-reaching consequences and one that ought to be rolled out smoothly, not towed in behind a clown car rushing to get the First Minister in front of the nearest TV camera.

Proprietors were bewildered by ministers’ definition of a ‘cafe’ and it quickly became obvious ministers themselves didn’t have the first clue. ‘If a premises is in doubt, they should close until an environmental health officer tells them that they think they fall within the definition,’ Sturgeon abruptly told the sector, with the breezy attitude of a woman who has never had to do their job.

Hospitality venues can’t simply turn their operations around at a click of the First Minister’s fingers. Sturgeon’s aloof response to cafe owners has confirmed her position as the Marie Antoinette of Scottish politics. Let them serve cake.

There is a disconnect at work here between the First Minister’s life and that of those she rules over. Going to the cinema or for a bite to eat and then onto the pub may not be the Sturgeon-Murrells’ idea of a good time but it is how normal people spend their weekends. That has been taken away from them, again, and with it the hope that this horror of a year was getting better.

The disregard for punters is mild compared to the indifference towards hospitality and other small business. The First Minister has deployed an empathy strategy during lockdown, repeating how exacting her job is for fear of being seen as a remote imposer of rules rather than a co-victim of coronavirus.

What is absent from her repertoire of affected chuckles and practised grimaces is any understanding of how frightening these times are for the private sector.

There is a distinct lack of entrepreneur empathy, an ignorance of what is involved in running a business and a failure to appreciate how heartbreaking it is to see the effort of a lifetime torn down with a single ministerial fiat. One of the reasons for this is the distance between those who make the wealth and those who make the decisions.

The decision-makers are, generally speaking, drawn from a narrower pool of talent, most of whom attended the same universities, pursued similar careers and hold barely distinguishable views. Vanishingly few have ever run a business. Fair enough, small enterprise isn’t for everyone but that makes it all the more imperative to listen to business owners and try to understand the market in which they operate.

Lockdowns mean something entirely different to state employees than to staff and proprietors in the productive sectors of the economy. Public health officials don’t spend their days fretting about where their next shift is coming from, while government ministers are in a job that comes with its own back-up job if you get sacked.

When advisers advise and ministers impose another round of business restrictions, they tell themselves they are harming profits to help people but in truth both are harmed. Firms are not an abstract of pounds and pennies on a balance sheet; they are people, owners and workers alike, trying to get by.

We are not talking about corporate leviathans such as Google and Coca-Cola. More than 99 per cent of businesses in Scotland are small or medium- sized enterprises and they account for 55 per cent of private sector jobs. Around 1.2million livelihoods are made here. That’s food put on tables and roofs kept over heads.

That’s not counting the knock- on effects for other sectors. Last week, a taxi driver in his fifties told me from behind a wall of polyethylene about his time in the industry. He had worked hard for more than 30 years, he recounted with no little pride, so that at this point in his life he could be more selective about which shifts he worked – daytime was better and meant avoiding the sometimes rowdy Saturday night runs. Now he was back to going out every night and barely scraping £40 a day before tax or licence fees.

Whether in hospitality or entertainment or elsewhere, entrepreneurs are not demanding clarity because they are greedy or unconcerned with their workers’ safety or eager to exploit their labour. They know how close to the wall they are. They open up that same spreadsheet every night before bed and see the assets column nosediving while the bottom line for creditors stays the same. They are the ones who will have to do the laying off, not Nicola Sturgeon or Jason Leitch.

Sooner or later, we will have to move beyond the failed strategy of lockdowns, but until then some measures will be unavoidable and some industries doomed to suffer. That is why it is vital small businesses be given clear guidance and ample warning ahead of fresh restrictions.

Every family firm, built by sweat and sacrifice, is a dream factory in its own right and every shutter pulled down for good a ‘closed’ sign hung on someone’s hopes for a better life. Nicola Sturgeon doesn’t have to care about these people, but she ought at least to listen to them.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Image by Tobias Heine from Pixabay.

%d bloggers like this: