Scotland has become a thriving hub for self-employed people to start and grow their businesses. In fact, over the last decade, this sector has grown at a significant rate and there are now 316,000 people working for themselves. This accounts for 12.1 per cent of the workforce.
With unemployment at the lowest levels since the early seventies and a rapidly changing labour market, the UK’s workforce is booming, particularly for the self-employed. But more than 30 years ago, at the height of Thatcherism, it was a very different story.
Growing up in Glasgow, in the heart of the chaos and riots that unfolded as Margaret Thatcher swept through closing the mines, the steel industry, engineering, car factories and shipbuilding industries, it is no surprise that it had some effect on Jamie Hepburn’s politics.
“My mother was a teacher and worked in the public sector,” says the MSP for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth. “There were a lot of kids at school whose parents also worked in the public sector, who worked in the traditional industries.
“And the overwhelming and predominant feeling amongst our parents, which permeated through to us was she wasn’t a woman we particularly liked. When I was a teenager, I guess I became more aware of the world around me, particularly things like the economic disparity that we see and the opportunities that people were provided.
“And some of the big issues of the day such as the gross misuse of public funding and nuclear weapons, they were some of the things that really motivated me politically and contributed to my decision to join the SNP.”
It is well-known that Thatcher is a figure loathed by many for introducing the poll tax in Scotland one year earlier than England. She has been vilified for essentially killing the country’s traders. And while this remain her legacy north of the border, Hepburn believes it has not defined the labour market.
The labour market is changing rapidly and though the growth is slightly lower in Scotland compared to the rest of the UK, it still demonstrates a change in the way people want to work, claims Hepburn.
He says: “I believe the growth has been driven by two things. The first is in response to the economic downturn. We have seen some employers essentially forcing people into a self-employment model, which reduces their rights and creates a disparity of power between someone who is the employer in the legal sense, and someone who should technically be an employee.
“On the flip side, part of the growth has been through people wanting a different type of employment. They have embraced the possibilities of what true self-employment can bring: for example; being your own boss and flexible working.”
With the growth of self-employment showing little signs of to slowing down, the big question is: what is Scotland doing to support this diverse sector?
Hepburn, who recently took up the post as minister for business, fair work and skills, explains: “In order to respond to the changing labour market, we have established two groups – the Fair Work convention, which published the Fair Work Framework, and the Strategic Labour Market Group.
“The groups have been designed to look at what the needs of the labour market are and how we can better structure it. The administration here is also more assertive in advancing the fair work agenda than the one south of the border.
“One of the things the Taylor Review talked about was how to ensure the self-employed are better supported for eventualities that might happen through our social security system. This would include things like becoming ill or certain caring responsibilities suddenly arising. “
One of the key things Hepburn points out on numerous occasions is that while the Scottish government is an advocate for more social security support for the self-employed, changes to the current system must come from Westminster.
But what they do have in place is a skills agenda designed specifically for independent professionals.
He adds: “Training is a key thing we’ve come across when we’ve spoken to self-employed people and, that’s where the skills agenda has come from. Individuals we’ve talked to said they want the opportunity to re-skill. Even if people are not fully aware of the need for it, I think they must have an opportunity do it at some point.
“There is an income threshold on this training programme and it has been suggested that this might restrict its availability. But there have been no commitments so far – we are still talking about it.”
From the days of high unemployment, which many would argue was brought on by Thatcherism, Scotland has come a long way to become a country thriving with new businesses, but for the self-employed, Hepburn claims they still have a little way to go