Scott Reid: Debate crucial as public tires of Project Fear

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THE results of the Federation of Small Businesses’ survey last week on the Brexit vote had a familiar ring about them. With four months to go until crunch day on 23 June, it appears that the majority of Scottish business folk are clamouring for more information.

Of the 500-odd firms quizzed north of the Border, 11 per cent said they did not feel at all informed ahead of the in-out referendum while 42 per cent said they were not very well informed.

Predictably, the factors weighing on the minds of the SME community – accounting for the lion’s share of Scotland’s private sector – include the economic impact on the UK and the administrative burden on businesses as a result of complying with regulation. The governance of the EU and the free movement of people emerged as the top concerns and are likely to have the greatest bearing on which box business owners eventually decide to tick.

Tellingly, a fifth of those polled said they have made a decision but could change their mind while 23 per cent are undecided.

The survey has clear echoes of the Scottish independence referendum campaign – with businesses eager to know the practical impact that remaining within or quitting the EU would have on them.

Andy Willox, the FSB’s Scottish policy convener, is spot-on when he observes that both sides of the debate “have their work cut out to close the information gap”.

Business organisations and membership groups face a busy spring keeping the faithful up to speed, and just as crucially, presenting a convincing case for the wider public to digest.

The CBI is currently canvassing the views of its vast membership – spanning one-man bands and start-ups to SMEs and plcs – and is promising a statement about the referendum in a couple of weeks.

On a whistle-stop tour last week of some 30 Scottish businesses in the space of 24 hours, CBI director general Carolyn Fairbairn admitted there were “a lot of complex issues that people must take into account” over Europe. Regardless, she is adamant that the lobby group will offer a “positive message”, highlighting the potential impact on “jobs, growth and prosperity”.

In this switched-on, always-connected digital world, borders are simply not an issue for some businesses. As the new CBI boss was keen to point out: “start-ups are born global”.

Business will play a decisive role in this critical referendum process and firms of all shape and size deserve to be heard. Divorcing from the EU could well have serious repercussions for trade, investment and jobs. On the flip side, being an independent sovereign nation within Europe could open up new, global opportunities and have limited, longer-term impact on our relationship with out cousins across the Channel.

Informed, balanced debate is crucial if business hopes to avoid alienating a public growing weary with the Project Fear mantra. «